Did your Summer Job Fall Through? Become a Better Writer Anyway

Did your Summer Job fall through? Become a Better Writer AnywayThis week we welcome back guest writer and tutor Elizabeth Knox to talk about working on your legal writing skills this summer, whether or not you have a legal job.

Some lawyers find that the value of law school isn’t found in the coursework, but rather in the summer work most students do. Summer jobs allow students to practice tailoring their legal writing and then get real feedback from practitioners. There’s nothing like going through a brutal feedback process to help new attorneys become stellar legal writers.

COVID-19 has changed the summer landscape for most law students. Jobs have been canceled or postponed because of stay at home orders, leaving many students in the lurch. This would normally be a red flag for future employers, but because this is happening on an unprecedented scale, you don’t need to worry about that right now

This does not mean you should do nothing this summer. Employers are still going to wonder how you spent the summer, and you’ll want a good answer. If you don’t have to work or care for family, this summer holds a fantastic opportunity to improve your legal writing. It can be daunting to do this without the promise of feedback, but it’s worth doing anyway.

Getting started

Before you start writing, take some time to reflect on any writing you have done in the past. If you just wrapped up your 1L year, pull out your legal writing memo and brief, even if those are the last things you want to see right now. Scrutinize the feedback your professor gave you. Think back to your oral argument – what did the judges say about your argument? Was it well structured? Did you listen to your classmates’ arguments? How were theirs better than yours?

If you just completed your 2L year, think back to your 1L summer and any term clinics you worked through. What kind of writing did you do then? What did your feedback look like? More importantly, what did you enjoy about the writing process? What did you find most challenging?

Legal writing can feel monotonous and devoid of creativity, but don’t let that stop you from trying to get better. Actually writing is important, but I believe that studying writing is more important early on.

Find examples of excellent writing

At the training for my federal clerkship, one of the attorneys told us that there is no plagiarism in the law (tongue in cheek). Because our system relies on precedent, it is rare (though not impossible!) to make a novel argument, so as clerks, we should anticipate reusing arguments time and time again. This also applies to most of the writing you will do as a new attorney. The art, then, comes with knowing how to apply facts to the law in the most precise way possible.

You will not be a successful legal writer if you don’t take the time to read successful legal writing. Brilliant writers have a set of tools and they use them all the time in their briefs and memos. It is imperative that you spend as much time as possible seeking out excellent writing. This advice also applies to academic writing. Here’s a brief list of places to find good writing.

  • If you haven’t already, read each of the landmark Supreme Court Read the dissents too. Try to understand the elements of construction that each judge used to make their legal argument.
  • Dig through the archives of your favorite law journals. Read some of the cited cases
  • Ask your professors if you can read their most recent pieces. Follow up with questions. Ask them why they chose the topics they did, how they did their research, and what they wish they had known going in.
  • Pick an advocacy organization and do a deep dive of their briefs – many post these on their websites. If an organization you’re interested in doesn’t link to their briefs, email an attorney there and let them know you’re a student looking to improve your writing. They’ll generally be happy send you publically filed briefs.
  • You have full access to Westlaw and Lexis. Go deep. You can learn a lot by starting with recent major cases. Read all the briefs and motions connected with a case to see how the attorneys on both sides assemble their arguments in response to each other. See which arguments persuaded the judges and why. Then go on to the appellate documents.
Seeking feedback

Now that you’ve spent time reading, try your hand at writing. Start small. If you’re interested in academic writing, try drafting a brief note. If you want to practice writing for litigation, try responding to a few of the arguments from one of the briefs you read. Maybe draft a memo to the general counsel of an organization proposing a new policy. Comfort, not perfection is your aim at the beginning. The more you write, the more comfortable you will be with using legal terms of art and creating cogent arguments that serve your clients well.

Ask different people to give you feedback, but don’t be shocked if they turn you down. Start with a friend or family member outside of the profession. If they can understand what you’re saying, you’re off to a good start. Ask a professor to take a quick look at something you’ve been working through. When you ask them to look at your writing, tell them you want real criticism so that you can improve. When they give it, accept it with grace and apply it to the next draft.

And, since you would have been working this summer, consider asking the person who extended your summer job offer if an attorney at that organization would be willing to do some writing mentorship. Even if they decline, showing this initiative is a positive thing and will reflect well on you. Just make sure that your drafts are as clean as possible so that the feedback you get focuses on your legal skills, not lousy grammar and the like.


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About Elizabeth Knox

Elizabeth Knox is a graduate of Southwestern University and Harvard Law School. Elizabeth has built her career around civil and disability rights. She has spent time working and interning for the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas. While at Harvard, she was a research assistant for two professors and researched different topics related to international human and disability rights and the civil rights era. She earned the Justice John Paul Stevens Public Interest Fellowship and the James Vorenberg Equal Justice Summer Fellowship to support her summer work in civil rights. She was also a Harvard Law School Presidential Scholar.

After law school, Elizabeth clerked for the Honorable Robert Brack of the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico. She then worked in special education law before founding Access the Dream, a disability consulting practice. She continues to research and write about education and disability rights issues. Elizabeth is driven to help students of all backgrounds succeed in academic environments.


  1. […] This week we welcome back guest writer and tutor Elizabeth Knox to talk about working on your legal writing skills this summer, whether or not you have a legal job. Some lawyers find that the value of law school isn’t found in the coursework, but rather in the summer work most students do. Summer jobs allow { Continue Reading } […]

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