Nearly every employer wants a writing sample, but how do you choose the right one?
How long should it be, and what are some common pitfalls to avoid?
What about recent grads? What sample should they use? Read on for a full explanation of how to select and format a writing sample in law school.
Selecting a Law School Writing Sample
Your writing sample should be something legal. There are two primary sources from which law students (and recent grads) obtain a writing sample:
- Legal Research and Writing or another law school course or co-curricular; and
- From a legal job.
The first is the most common because most students do not have the opportunity to write something sample-worthy while working as a law clerk or intern.
For example, most students applying to OCI, use their 1L LRW Memorandum or Brief.
There are rare cases where students obtain writing samples from work, like interning for a judge. However, most students use something from class, and you will not be disadvantaged by using your LRW Brief or something similar.
Note that if you do elect to use something you drafted at work, you should seek your employer’s permission, especially if it is a memorandum because it could be confidential or privileged. You should also ask your employer if you need to redact anything from the sample.
Also note, if you are a recent grad, meaning you graduated within the last year, it is fine to use something from LRW. 3Ls can also use their LRW Brief. Employers recognize that most students do not have the opportunity to obtain a real-life writing sample until their first year of practice.
What not to use as a Legal Writing Sample
In most cases, you should not use a Law Review or Journal article or something written in a similar, scholarly style.
This is because scholarly writing almost never translates to practical legal writing. Instead, you should use a brief or memorandum or something in that vein.
There may be instances where a scholarly article would be preferable, for example, applying to a position that involves such writing. But this is rare, and most law students apply to law firms, government agencies, public interest organizations, and the like.
Law School Writing Sample Length
Wondering what the best length is for a writing sample? Good news: there is no one right anwser, but I’ll tell you the safest length!
First, though, check the application to ensure it does not impose a page limit. This is pretty rare. And thankfully, once you create your writing sample, you won’t need to do many revisions going forward.
As a general rule, your sample should be at least five pages but no longer than 10. The length on the front end is more important. I would caution against submitting a sample that is less than five pages.
If your sample is a little over 10 pages, however, don’t sweat it!
How to Shorten a Legal Writing Sample
You will most likely select your 1L LRW Brief as one of your first samples, but that brief is probably about twenty pages long, right?
So how do you go about shortening it?
One thing not to do: don’t just cut off your brief at ten pages.
Instead, select excerpts from your brief to include in your sample. There are two benefits to this:
- You get to select the best parts of your brief!
- Shorter length means less opportunities to make typographical or grammatical errors and less content to review!
You’ll most likely use your Statement of Facts or Background section because you’ll want to give the reader enough background to understand your legal analysis.
And, you’ll also want to select at least one section that contains legal analysis and your application of relevant case law.
But won’t that appear disjointed? No. Because you are going to create a cover page.
Creating a Cover Page for your Law School Legal Writing Sample
A cover page is a very brief document that includes your contact information and tells the reader what she is about to read.
The cover page should include the heading from your resume; just copy and paste it. And it should be clearly labeled “Writing Sample.”
Then you’ll write one to two concise paragraphs that tell the reader the following:
- What the sample is (i.e., brief, memo, etc.);
- The capacity in which it was written (at work, in LRW, etc.);
- The issue; and
- If you have room and can describe it concisely (bonus points for this!): your conclusion and reasons for reaching that conclusion.
If you received a high score on the assignment, you can also include your grade.
And if you’ve shortened the sample (as described above), your cover page should include language explaining how you shortened it and that it is an excerpt from a larger project that is available upon request.
Here is a perfect example of a writing sample cover page from Stanford that you can use as a template to create your cover page. Be sure to use your own words!
Final Steps in Preparing the Sample
Once you’ve assembled the sample and created the cover page, you’ll want to give it one more review to ensure there are no errors.
Your LRW professor likely flagged errors and made recommendations when she returned your work to you. Be sure to incorporate her edits, but also be mindful that LRW profs read a lot of student work in a very short time frame. So give it one more read before you finalize it.
A couple of things to look out for:
- Be sure you’ve included page numbers and that your page numbers are in the same font as the body of your text. Likely everything will be in Times New Roman.
- Ensure that your tabs are even, meaning check that some paragraphs are not indented farther than others.
- Get rid of extra spaces between paragraphs of the same style. Here is a brief article with visuals that explains how to quickly do this.
- Check to make sure you don’t have an extra blank page at the end of your sample. (You should do this for your resume too!)
And that’s it! Your sample should be ready to go.
A Final Note on Redacting Writing Samples
Should you elect to use a writing sample from work, you’ll need to obtain your employer’s permission. And you should also ask whether you need to redact anything. Generally, you should redact names, addresses, and any other personal or confidential information. But to be on the safe side, ask your employer what you should redact from the writing sample.
So how do you redact a legal writing sample? Some sources counsel to change the names or other personal identifying information instead of redacting. It’s not a huge deal either way, but I favor redacting because that is what you would do in practice.
Again, this isn’t a huge deal, so please don’t stress about it. If the idea of redacting is causing you unnecessary work or anxiety or if you don’t have access to Adobe Pro, just change the names. Please don’t purchase Adobe Pro solely for the purposes of redacting your writing sample.
If the employer wants to offer you the job, whether you redacted or changed the names won’t matter to her.
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