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Writing Sample Blues

Many clients tell me they’re overwhelmed by the never-ending flood of candidate writing samples.

Here are three ways to get more value out of those samples while making things easier for both you and your firm:

1. Apples to apples.

As you know, many samples have been “edited” by professors, friends, family, and others.

It’s also hard to compare an intra-office memo with, say, the second draft of a law-review article.

Solution: In the spring, every first-year law student in the country drafts an appellate brief. Ask all your candidates to submit this brief—and ask them to submit the same version they submitted to their professor.

2. Less is more.

Make your reviewers’ task easier: Give them the introduction and the first major section from the argument section of each candidate’s brief. The excerpt will run about five pages—enough to evaluate the candidate’s skill, but not so much that reviewers will be tempted to procrastinate.

3. Is “good” good enough?

Avoid asking reviewers to classify the candidates in generic categories such as “excellent,” “good,” or “poor.”

Such categories are not always fair to candidates; some reviewers grade much “higher” than others. These terms can also be hard for reviewers to apply.

Instead, try either of these two approaches:

A. Ask your reviewers to compare the sample with the work product they get from junior associates:

  1. Much worse than what I get from junior associates.
  2. Somewhat worse than what I get from junior associates.
  3. About the same as what I get from junior associates.
  4. Somewhat better than what I get from junior associates.
  5. Much better than what I get from junior associates.

B. Give your reviewers several specific categories with specific benchmarks. If you had a “style” category, for example, you could ask reviewers to choose one of the following:

  1. Sentences are hard to understand and are riddled with errors, ambiguities, or both.
  2. Mostly clean sentences but choppy transitions and some ambiguities.
  3. Smooth prose that reflects rigorous self-editing.

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