Wanted: Law Students Who Can Write

By: Professor Abigail Perdue

It’s that time again – the part of the semester when nervous students anxiously buzz around the hallways decked out in black, pinstripe suits and power ties. They carry fancy leather-bound portfolios and practice “firm handshakes” to make a good first impression during on-campus interviews. But too often when I speak to potential employers, I hear the same refrain: Law schools need to do a better job of teaching strong writing and editing skills.

I agree. Legal writing, analysis, editing, and research are fundamental skills at the heart of effective lawyering. No person can be a competent attorney without them. And even when we do our best to prepare students for the practice, we should always strive to do better. But as budgets tighten and the number of core faculty shrink at law schools across America, law professors in general, and legal writing professors in particular, often find themselves between a rock and a hard place expected to do much more for students with far fewer resources at their disposal.

This begs the question: What can legal employers do to identify and attract the best writers? Perhaps they should change the way that they hire.

Self-assess: The first step is for legal employers to thoughtfully self-assess. Reflect upon why you are recruiting. What are your short-term and long-term needs? Which qualities do you require in applicants? Why are these particular qualities necessary to achieve success in this specific role and environment? Legal roles, work environments, and employer expectations differ, and accordingly, so do the attributes necessary to succeed therein. Thus, you will not find a custom fit if you use generic hiring criteria. Take the time to decide what you need and want.

Next, reconsider whom you are recruiting. Do practicing attorneys actively participate in the applicant screening process, or is it primarily handled by Human Resources personnel who have not practiced law? Do you currently use generic criteria like the law school’s rank, the applicant’s class rank, law review membership, or grade point average to automatically “filter” applicants, or is your vetting process more holistic and thoughtful? Consider hiring applicants based on more than academic achievement (or proxies thereof). Instead, weigh recommendations, experience, character, and personal qualities like resilience, work ethic, and positivity more heavily.

Finally, rethink where you are recruiting. Do you recruit at the same schools each year using the same criteria? Have you investigated each school’s writing and clinical programs, experiential offerings, hiring processes, and bar preparation programs before agreeing to recruit there, or did you base your decision primarily on the law school’s geographical location or latest ranking in U.S. News and World Report? Do seasoned, experienced core faculty teach the experiential and other writing-intensive courses that are perhaps most relevant to preparing students for the practice?

Request a writing sample or incorporate a writing exercise. Ask applicants to provide an edited or original writing sample. Peruse it carefully. Alternatively, require applicants in the final phase of the interview process to participate in a timed writing exercise where they craft a short legal analysis of a discrete legal issue or revise a legal document. These measures will help you distinguish between applicants who are genuinely capable of independently producing high-quality work from those whose written materials were heavily vetted by others.

Hire from law schools that adequately value and invest in  Legal Writing and Research. If you seek applicants with strong writing, research, analytical, and editing skills, then actively (or only) recruit at law schools that place a premium on legal writing and research. Assess the rank, reputation, and quality of the law school’s LAWR Program, rather than relying exclusively on the law school’s latest overall ranking. Select schools that award at least two credit hours per term or more to LAWR. Schools that afford the same weight to experiential courses like LAWR as to other exam-based courses send a clear message to students that writing and skills-based courses are just as important as courses that focus primarily on learning black-letter law. As a result, students are likelier to invest more time and effort into honing their research and writing skills. If they know that their LAWR grade will impact their G.P.A. and class rank as much as their other courses, they will likely take LAWR more seriously and probably become stronger writers, analysts, researchers, and editors as a result.

Require at least one reference or recommendation. If you want to identify the best writers, require applicants to provide at least one reference or recommendation from a professor, supervisor, or prior employer for whom the applicant has researched and written extensively. Given the extensive interaction that LAWR professors have with their students, they are uniquely well suited to comment on each student’s writing, analytical, and research abilities as well as other important aspects of professionalism, such as time management, work ethic, attitude, and resilience. They can also opine as to the applicant’s ability to handle constructive criticism effectively, to meet deadlines, to work collaboratively on writing projects, and to carefully edit their work and that of others.

Check the transcript: Too often, employers automatically filter out applicants based generally on their G.P.A. or class rank. To attract the best writers, instead only hire, or give preference to, applicants who have completed a legal writing or practical skills course, externship, or clinic during each semester of law school. Give greater weight to performance in writing-intensive courses that better simulate real-world conditions. Communicate this preference to applicants, the Office of Career and Professional Development (OCPD), and/or relevant law school administrators to encourage greater investment in and development of writing-intensive and skills-based courses.

Build Relationships with Law Schools: Encourage your employees to get involved with their alma maters as well as local law schools by awarding them non-billable hours or a reasonable stipend for coaching a moot court team, judging a moot court competition, serving as an adjunct instructor or guest speaker, or otherwise mentoring law students. This is a great way to attract applicants about whom your employees will have inside knowledge and could create a pipeline that consistently yields productive hires. These activities facilitate talent acquisition, which is as crucial to business development as attending ABA and bar association meetings. However, given that attorneys have such heavy workloads and daunting billable hour requirements, they may need to be meaningfully incentivized to get involved.

Start a Conversation: When you recruit applicants, provide helpful feedback to the law school’s OCPD or to the applicants themselves explaining the basis for your hiring decision. For example, if you selected an applicant primarily because she had received an A in each of her three writing courses, communicate this to the applicant, the OCPD, and as appropriate, to law school administrators. This may not only incentivize the applicant to continue taking courses that will hone her writing skills but may also encourage the school to further invest in its writing program.

For more easy ways to identify strong writers, read my article Mind the Gap: Nine Easy Ways for Legal Employers to Identify Strong Applicants, which appeared in The Practical Lawyer (June 2017). Excerpts of this article have been reprinted herein with the publication’s permission.

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