Cheat sheet for summer clerks (and supervisors)

Karin Ciano
BridgeTower Media Newswires

 It’s my favorite time of year, when lawyers welcome law students to their offices for a summer of real-world experience. Naturally, that includes real-world writing experience, supervised by more experienced lawyers. Today, I address myself to those law students and their supervisors.

A few first principles. Clear communication is an essential (some might say the essential) legal skill. Because writing gives us the opportunity to reflect and refine how we communicate, it’s one of the best ways to learn how to communicate clearly. Writing together is a special opportunity not only to practice skills but to learn the nature and culture of legal writing.

Junior lawyers (and summer law clerks) benefit from the structure and feedback provided by their supervisors. Their supervisors benefit from reading the perspective of someone fresh to the material, from getting assistance with their work, and from the satisfaction of mentoring someone new to the profession.

What makes for a good summer writing experience? For those being supervised, deliberate practice: setting specific goals, making thoughtful efforts to meet them, accepting feedback gracefully, and staying motivated. And for those supervising, careful feedback: delivering useful information in a timely, compassionate way to facilitate change and improvement.

So, summer law clerks, give these a try.

Find a writing buddy.

Somewhere, someone in your office is probably willing to look at your work before you give it to your supervisor. Find that person, and together, take the writing-buddy oath: “I pledge to read your writing carefully, to evaluate it professionally, and to offer feedback honestly and gently, from now until the end of the summer.” Yes, even old farts like me have writing buddies to watch our backs. It’s never too soon to start.

Edit and proofread.

Typos, spelling errors, sentence fragments, and formatting glitches distract the reader from what you’re trying to say. Try to catch your own, then ask your writing buddy for help. Find a dictionary and usage guide to help you check if you’re ever not sure. Elected officials may be able to “covfefe” their writing mistakes; you won’t.

Choose the right word.

Speaking of dictionaries: ignore spell check and get in the habit of looking things up, ideally in an actual book made of paper. The mistakes that go viral tend to be hilarious word mix ups, such as “abusive discretion” instead of “abuse of discretion.”

Avoid the comma splice.

It is natural to talk with pauses, we want to write sentences the same way, the rules of grammar and punctuation demand more of us. If something about that sentence seemed wrong to you, look up “comma splice.” Bryan Garner’s “Modern American Usage” and Ben Yagoda’s “How To Not Write Bad” deal extensively with proper punctuation.

Ask questions.

Everyone expects summer law clerks to be the office 4-year-olds—always asking “why”—so make the most of it by asking about good writing. Which writers does your supervisor like? Why? Can you see examples? If you’re wrestling with a writing problem, can you see examples of how that problem has been addressed successfully? Why do those examples work? What writing mistakes drive your supervisor crazy? Do you put one space or two spaces after a period? What about a colon? Why do people care so much about things like that? Which writing resources does your supervisor like: are they of the AP Style Manual tribe or the Chicago Manual persuasion? And what does that even mean? You get the idea. Writing nerds love to talk about this stuff and will thank you for the opportunity.

Bonus track: Read the IAALS “Foundations for Practice” report.

The Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver has published a report, based on robust data, discussing the skills (including the writing and communication skills) that legal employers expect of new hires. Worth a read, don’t you think?

Your turn, supervisors!

Be mindful of implicit bias.

Implicit bias is real, and most likely will affect your perception of a summer law clerk’s writing unless you take steps to recognize it. Don’t fall into that trap. Wherever you can, evaluate work blind. Consider removing the name from the piece and ask someone who doesn’t know the summer associate to read it and give feedback on writing. For more tips, consult the Dr. Arin Reeves’s study “Written in Black and White.”

Assign well: Give clear deadlines, goal and audience, and provide examples.

Ask your friends to reflect on their summer experiences long ago, and you may hear a horrifying tale of many hours spent on a project that turned out to be a long slog down a blind alley. Sometimes that’s because a summer law clerk didn’t ask a question (see below). But sometimes it’s because the supervisor forgot to tell them something important about the assignment. Remember, they’re the newbies; if they knew what to ask, they’d be on your side of the desk. Help them out by offering direction.

Provide examples of good writing (and good authors).

“I know it when I see it” gets a great laugh, but is not especially helpful in figuring out what features nudge a piece of writing along the continuum from poor to average to good to great. If you’ve got an example of great writing, share it. Better still, if you know someone who’s an especially gifted writer, consider connecting them with the summer law clerks you supervise. Great writers are our role models; meeting one can be an inspiration.

Encourage summer law clerks to ask questions.

A simple suggestion: shush. Pretend you’re at a deposition. Listen carefully to the whole question, pause to think before your respond, and resist the impulse to offer your opinion on whether it’s a good question.
Need a refresher on listening? Revisit Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk” ... the scenarios may be different but the skills are the same.
Balance positive and negative feedback to optimize motivation.

We’re wired to learn from feedback, and giving feedback is your job. Studies have shown that the optimal ratio for learning and making change is 6 bits of positive feedback for every 1 piece of negative feedback. A line-edit is a poor training device to improve writing because it’s almost exclusively negative feedback. So consider how to add specific positive feedback in your written comments, or during an in-person meeting, to help your people stay motivated and build on their existing skills.