Washington Lawyer

Teach Them to Fish

From Washington Lawyer, February 2015

By Alyssa Dragnich

“Taking the Stand” appears periodically in Washington Lawyer as a forum for D.C. Bar members to address issues of importance to them and that would be of interest to others. The opinions expressed are the authors’ own.

Giving Junior Attorneys Feedback on Their Writing 

InkwellAlmost every attorney has found herself in the following situation: You ask a junior attorney to write the first draft of a document. Upon reviewing that draft, you realize it would be faster to just rewrite the document yourself, instead of explaining the mistakes and needed corrections to the author. While it’s true that writing it yourself might be faster in the short term, it’s not a long-term strategy for training new lawyers and retaining top talent. To butcher an old adage, teaching a junior attorney to write today will mean he can write for a lifetime.

Without constructive feedback, the junior attorney will continue to make the same mistakes on future assignments, and you’ll be faced with the same issue over and over again. Or you will decide not to use this person for future work and will ask another junior attorney to handle your next project. That’s fine for you, but not for your office as a whole.

If no one teaches this attorney how to write, he’ll become less and less productive, and will eventually leave the office. You might think, “Good! We don’t need bad writers here.” But the reality is that attorney attrition costs your office money. It may be that this attorney will not work out for other reasons. But if he’s like most, he just needs a little instruction. And just think: Once you’ve taught him to write well, he can become your go-to associate because he’ll know exactly what you expect.

There is a myth that junior attorneys, particularly those from the millennial generation, are accustomed to only positive feedback (growing up they have received trophies just for participating!) and will be upset by constructive criticism. The truth is that motivated attorneys from any generation are interested in self-improvement. The key is to provide feedback in a form that they can use and apply in the future. If you simply rewrite a document and show the final product to the junior, he might learn a little from reviewing the final version. But if you explain to him what you changed and why, he will learn much more. Then, he will be able to apply what he learned to write an improved version on his own the next time. Below are some suggestions for providing effective feedback on written work product.

Triage: First Analysis, Then Macro Issues, Then Micro Issues
Sometimes a document is just so terrible you barely know where to begin. The key to fixing these disasters is triage. Recognize that a single round of revisions isn’t going to turn this into a usable document. If time permits (and if we really want to, we can find the time in most cases), go through several revisions with the writer.

In your first review of the document, focus on the substance, particularly on the major issues. If the analysis or the law is wrong, there is no point in critiquing the writing style yet. Did the writer address the wrong issue? Is the writer missing essential cases or statutes? Did the writer misunderstand a key point of law? Address foundational problems first, and then direct the writer to submit a revised version to you. Do not spend your time correcting grammar and small-scale mistakes at this time.

If the document has a good foundation, either because you have already commented on it or because the writer’s first draft was fairly good, you can move onto more narrow comments, beginning with macro issues. Is the overall organization of the document easy to follow? Is the tone appropriate? Are the paragraphs of reasonable length? Are the headings helpful?

Once the document has the proper substance, organization, and structure, you can move on to the micro issues—the ones that have probably been bugging you since your first reading of the piece. Are any sentences difficult to follow or unwieldy? Does each paragraph have a strong thesis sentence? Are citations appropriately placed and formatted correctly? Do you have preferences for certain word choice (e.g., using “alleged” instead of “claimed” or vice versa)?

Specific Techniques
Face-to-Face Meetings
With the wonderful ease of e-mail and the “track changes” function in Microsoft Word, it’s very tempting to give all of your feedback electronically. In some cases, this works well, but in many cases, a brief face-to-face meeting can yield significantly better results than a dozen e-mails back and forth.

Read the document in advance and make note of your major comments. When you meet with the writer, be sure you both have a copy of the document in front of you, preferably a hard copy. You don’t need to discuss every stray comma with the writer, but go over every macro comment verbally to be sure the author understands what you want. These conversations save you time because your written comments can be less detailed if you have the opportunity to explain them in person.

If you anticipate working with this attorney again, be sure to explain or even provide a list of your frequently marked changes and common abbreviations. This is particularly important if you edit hard copies by hand—most millennial attorneys will be unfamiliar with proofreading marks, such as # to indicate a needed space. But this is also helpful if you comment on documents electronically. Providing a list to the writer in advance means you won’t have to spend time explaining your comments later.

Your list should include your pet peeves: those things that aren’t wrong per se, but that are stylistic choices that you insist upon. For example, you might want every internal memorandum to include an executive summary, or you may want all case citations underlined instead of italicized.

Microsoft Word Features
The “track changes” function in Word can be extremely helpful, but take care not to just rewrite the paper. Make use of the comment bubbles in Word to explain what you are changing—or even better, tell the author what changes to make but direct the author to actually input the changes herself. If you prefer to mark up documents by hand, have the author input the changes rather than having a word processor or assistant do it, to be sure she understands the corrections.

Compliment Sandwich
The standard advice about sandwiching a criticism between two compliments has value. While it’s your job to give valid criticism, you don’t want to leave your junior attorney completely demoralized. Include some positive comments among your critiques to help alleviate this. It is also helpful to tell the junior why a particular sentence or section is well written. The author may have written something instinctively, without thinking about it, and won’t necessarily repeat it in the next document. If your positive comments are substantive, the author will know what precisely he did well and should continue doing in the future. For example, instead of writing “good” next to a paragraph, comment on what is good about it. Is it well organized? Does it make effective use of the case law? Does it demonstrate a skilled use of persuasive language?

Show, Don’t Tell
One common frustration among junior attorneys is a supervisor who criticizes something in a document without explaining how to fix it or what a good version looks like. While it is not productive for you to rewrite every sentence in the document, you should try to provide one example of a rewrite for each type of error. For example, if the junior attorney continually discusses opinions in a cursory way, comment “this is too conclusory” and add a few sentences showing how you would rewrite the section with more depth of analysis. Then, when the author is conclusory at a later point in the paper, you can simply write “too conclusory again.” It’s the author’s job at this point to apply the lesson from the first mistake and correct all other instances of that type of mistake.

At this point, you might be thinking, “This kind of critique will take me forever!” You may need to reframe your vision of the purpose of feedback. Instead of thinking that you are working with this attorney to produce a particular motion or memo, realize that your larger purpose is to develop talent, period. You want to help the attorney to acquire skills that she can transfer to future assignments.

It is true that providing this level of feedback will require an investment of your time. But it’s truly an investment: If you spend the time to teach the author on the first document, the next document will be better, and the next after that. If your goal is to train excellent attorneys for your office, this time expenditure early on will pay significant dividends later—and “later” can be quite soon.

Alyssa Dragnich is a professor of legal writing at the University of Miami School of Law.