How to Choose a Legal Writing Sample When Applying for a Legal Job |

How to Choose a Legal Writing Sample When Applying for a Legal Job


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Summary: Learn the importance of your writing sample selection for your legal job application.
Writing samples demonstrate your ability to organize and express your thoughts clearly. Analytical skills are also demonstrated. The demand for experienced attorneys varies depending on their field of practice. A writing sample is not something to be taken lightly. As a candidate or interviewer for a legal job, you may be asked to provide writing samples - so you should be prepared for that possibility.

You probably take pains with your resume. You may even take pains with your cover letters. But chances are you do not take pains with your writing sample. The vast majority of law students I know act as if samples do not matter. That is a common mistake.

Writing samples matter a great deal when recruiters rank their candidates. After completing call-back interviews, I winnow down my finalists by reading their samples. I assign letter grades, using pluses and minuses, and drop those with the lowest marks.

We have lawyers working at my law firm who would not have ranked high enough to receive an offer without the boost they received from an outstanding sample. Because they turned out to be some of the best all-around lawyers we have, I know we make better hiring decisions by evaluating writing samples.

Most recruiters treat your sample as an example of your best work and research, so you should make it flawless. No rule says you have to give it to recruiters with the same errors or problems it had when you turned it into your professor or supervising lawyer.

Ask someone to review your work. If you have established some rapport with a legal writing instructor, they may be a good person to ask to look over your writing sample. If you have been fortunate enough to clerk for a skilled and friendly practitioner, you might also ask that person to review it.

Just because your legal writing samples should be your work does not mean you should not ask for help. Having someone review your work does not mean they should rewrite it. The purpose is to point out where your sample could be better. You should make the improvements.

When refining your writing sample, you need to consider several factors. First, your sample should be in plain English. Second, it should have a sound, economical, and well-organized analysis. Third, there should be no misspellings, typos, or grammatical errors.

Certain kinds of samples serve the purpose much better than others. In discussing the best possible writing sample with most employers, I find consensus on the following guidelines: 

Provide Legal Writing

This may seem obvious, but I have had applicants give me written work before law school. That is not legal writing. Any non-legal writing you want to give can only supplement a simple writing sample.

Provide Persuasive Writing


A persuasive writing document allows a hiring manager to evaluate your advocacy skills. Good choices include a memorandum of points and authorities or a brief. Some kinds of analytical (as opposed to persuasive) writing are fine. For example, a bench memorandum for a judge puts a premium on practical research and writing skills. Writing that does not involve research or is scholarly but not practical is less satisfactory.

Provide Something From An Actual Or Simulated Legal Position


Except for positions in academia, most employers want something you wrote as a law clerk or extern or a law school assignment that simulates such a product. Law review and other scholarly writings done during legal writing competitions do not serve the need. Because law review articles are polished to the nth degree, the amount of time spent on them is out of all proportion to the time available in practice. And law review articles raise the question of whether editors blended in their work.

Provide Writing Samples Employers Can Readily Understand 


The type of work product and the subject should be familiar. As a job applicant, your task is to convince employers you can do the kind of work their lawyers do. Pick samples with that in mind. The best writing samples match the work products written by their lawyers. If you have a sample that deals with an arcane subject, give it only to employers who understand it. If you cut your sample to a reasonable length, make sure you do not delete the necessary context. Annotate shortened legal documents by including language such as, "I have omitted Arguments III and IV." Put such annotations on a cover page, including your name and an explanation of when and for whom you wrote the product.

Provide Something Recent

Your legal skills should improve with experience. When you give hiring managers a 2-year-old sample, you might as well tell them your skills have not improved in two years. I treat the samples as measures of applicants’ current skill levels.

Provide At Least 10 Double-Spaced (or five single-spaced) Pages


Err on the side of providing something too long rather than too short. Recruiters who find your legal writing samples too long can stop reading. But when recruiters find your sample too short, it is a problem. I have had applicants give me page-and-a-half client letters. That is long enough for me to discern weak writing but not long enough to rank it among strong writing samples reliably. Short samples do not get the benefit of any doubt.

Provide Your Own Work


Recruiters want to rate you. When your legal writing samples appear on its face to be someone else’s work—for example, a memorandum of points and authorities or an appellate brief signed by a supervising lawyer—explain in your legal cover letter your part and the lawyer’s part in drafting it. If you started with a boilerplate shell, indicate what the boilerplate is and your original work. I have received samples with whole sections in common from students who clerked in the same law office. Cross out parts you did not write. Unless you excise the portions, you did not write, it is too easy to mistake someone else’s work for yours. If you have ever handed over a sample during an interview process and had to point out what you did and did not write, you wasted time and appeared unprepared. If you need to explain anything about your writing sample, do it on a cover page.

Blackout Confidential Or Sensitive Information 


Some applicants thoughtlessly breach confidentiality. If you fail to excise confidential information, you taint your application. When you delete confidential information, insert fictitious material to maintain the flow of the text. When your text has gaps in it, you frustrate the reader. That can hurt your evaluation.

Avoid Lurid Subject Matter 

Some applicants try to be memorable by choosing the lurid subject matter. They are remembered for the wrong quality. If your sample discusses matters that shock most people's sensibilities, find another writing sample instead of relying on shock value, depending on merit.

Do Not Put Your Writing Samples And Other Application Materials In Binders 


You do not gain an edge with fluff. Legal documents like appellate briefs that are customarily bound are fine, but when you stick your samples in binders to dress them up, you create problems for recruiters who do not want to keep binders in their files.

What Do Law Firms Look For In A Writing Sample?


Depending on the industry, position, and law firm, law firms analyze samples for a legal job differently. Generally, every legal employer will be looking for tone, style, and legal writing skills, including grammatical errors, spelling, and punctuation. Even though it is often possible to learn the specific writing style of a law firm on the job, law firms may be looking to hire someone with a high level of legal writing and analyzing legal skills from the beginning.

Provide your sample when the employer asks for it. If you have not submitted a sample beforehand, take one to your interviews if you are asked for it. Although employers will accept whatever you have, you will be a stronger applicant if you prepared your best possible writing sample.

What Is A Good Legal Writing Sample?


For clear and engaging legal writing, consider using the following strategies:
  • Legal Reasoning: You must demonstrate your ability to apply the law to facts and differentiate cases according to their facts through a sample. It is not best to use a case law study or a note summarizing a recently published decision because they lack legal analysis. Examples of possible writing include:
  • A memorandum from your legal writing class.
  • Your portion of your moot court brief. The best way to present an excerpt is to keep the statement of facts, the table of contents, and your argument, or a section thereof. You should indicate that sections have been redacted for length.
  • A memorandum of law or brief that you created during an internship. Redact any information such as the client’s name or identifying information to protect privilege. You should always ask for permission from your employer first before using your work product as a sample.
  • A memorandum or draft opinion you wrote for a judge during an internship. Again, you must ask for permission. Your sample should always be what you provided the judge and not the opinion itself.
  • Length: Samples should range from seven to ten pages unless employers specify otherwise (some may request up to 12, in rare cases five pages). In your cover page, you may excerpt if necessary, but be sure to describe the nature of the larger document and the context of the analysis. Review it again to make sure the short version is grammatically and logically sound.
  • Recent:  Your sample should be recent, and reflect your best efforts.
  • Practical: Recruiters are more interested in work products from internships or law clerk positions.
  • Proofread: Triple-check for any typographical errors, incorrect grammar, or inappropriate citations. Otherwise, it will result in ruining your legal profession.
  • Blue Book: Cite legal authorities accurately and according to the Blue Book.
  • Confidentiality: It is highly recommended that you secure permission for any non-public documents if you plan to use them as examples for an essay. Also, remove any confidential or privileged information. To avoid using fictitious names, blackout the cover page's information and indicate that you did so. The judge must expressly approve your legal opinion before you submit it.
  • The Employer: When choosing a sample, keep in mind your audience and whether or not the employer has specific guidelines. Pick an example that relates to your employer's industry.
  • Your Work: Be sure to use a sample that you wrote yourself. Include an explanation on your cover page if it is a collaborative sample. The cover page should indicate if a professor or employer has lightly edited the sample.
  • Cover Page: Include a cover page with your sample explaining what the document is about, such as whether confidential information has been changed, whether the sample is part of a larger document, and who it was written for.

What Kind Of Legal Writing Samples Should I Submit For A Paralegal Job?


When offering legal jobs, legal employers typically want to see an example of your research and writing abilities.

Those applying to be enter-level paralegals in the firm's litigation department should attach a brief, motion, or memo. You should submit an escrow trust agreement or related documents along with you in your application for a position as a corporate paralegal.

How Do You Write Like A Paralegal?


Communication is a key aspect of the paralegal profession. Writing proficiency is essential for anyone entering the field. The paralegal gathers information and prepares a wide range of legal documents to support, verify, and complete various legal transactions. They must tailor everything they draft - every correspondence they send - comprehensively and accurately that leaves no room for misrepresentation.

Law firms typically request a written test from paralegal candidates during the interview process. The value of paralegal writing skills is high among law firms. A writing test usually measures candidate writing abilities:
  • Format sentences and paragraphs clearly and concisely.
  • Follow grammar and punctuation rules.
  • In a set time frame, convert thoughts into sentences.

Listed below are the five most important tips for paralegals when it comes to legal writing:

Present Your Position in Active Voice

There are a lot of great tutorials on the web that can help you learn how to write in an active voice. Try to avoid using these "be" verbs in your writing:
  • Have
  • Has
  • Had
  • Is
  • Are
  • Be
  • Been
  • Was
  • Will
  • Were

You may find it difficult to do so. If you wish to eliminate these words (and their counterparts, such as "having"), you will have to spend some time thinking about it. The process does help you write, though.
Minimize the Opposition with Passive Writing

It may be your role as a paralegal to draft firm-wide responses. The response must be reviewed, approved, and submitted by the attorney who oversees you. It is rare for a client to be held in good hands. This does not mean that your firm will fail to represent the client. The only necessary thing is to admit sometimes that your client has less than pleasing characteristics. Responses to the opposition must also address their claims. To achieve success, you must rely on those very verbs I instructed you to avoid using. This is because you want to minimize the power of a claim asserted by the opposition and minimize the impact of less-than-flattering information. When information is presented passively, we do not remember it as well. Unless the argument is strong, passive writing is easier to gloss over.
Use Short Sentences and Paragraphs

A paralegal (or an attorney, for that matter) usually prides themselves on their ability to research and write a convincing argument. It is not uncommon to find long, paragraphed pleadings, responses, and opinions on Lexis, Westlaw, or other legal research sites. The length of your paragraphs and sentences makes it difficult for the reader. Your reader will find it easier to stop reading when you use short sentences and paragraphs.
Legal Research is Circular

Legal writing is frequently questioned as to "where does the research end, and the writing begin?" There is never an end to research, but you must learn how to do it. Many of us want our briefs back the second we hand them in. We immediately think of twelve other things we could have done as we drive home. We suffer from the "add more syndrome."
Take Your Audience into Account

Can you explain the same complicated concept to an adult and a child alike? It is impossible. A 50-year-old should not be patronized, and talking over the head of a child would not be wise. To ensure that the intended recipient will read the sample, you must consider the intended purpose and the recipient's professional experience in legal concepts. Although Clients may not understand Latin terms, they can make you look smart because it is the correct term. Generally, the client does not benefit from it. It is important to explain everything so that the reader understands it.

About Harrison Barnes

Harrison Barnes is a prominent figure in the legal placement industry, known for his expertise in attorney placements and his extensive knowledge of the legal profession.

With over 25 years of experience, he has established himself as a leading voice in the field and has helped thousands of lawyers and law students find their ideal career paths.

Barnes is a former federal law clerk and associate at Quinn Emanuel and a graduate of the University of Chicago College and the University of Virginia Law School. He was a Rhodes Scholar Finalist at the University of Chicago and a member of the University of Virginia Law Review. Early in his legal career, he enrolled in Stanford Business School but dropped out because he missed legal recruiting too much.

Barnes' approach to the legal industry is rooted in his commitment to helping lawyers achieve their full potential. He believes that the key to success in the legal profession is to be proactive, persistent, and disciplined in one's approach to work and life. He encourages lawyers to take ownership of their careers and to focus on developing their skills and expertise in a way that aligns with their passions and interests.

One of how Barnes provides support to lawyers is through his writing. On his blog,, and, he regularly shares his insights and advice on a range of topics related to the legal profession. Through his writing, he aims to empower lawyers to control their careers and make informed decisions about their professional development.

One of Barnes's fundamental philosophies in his writing is the importance of networking. He believes that networking is a critical component of career success and that it is essential for lawyers to establish relationships with others in their field. He encourages lawyers to attend events, join organizations, and connect with others in the legal community to build their professional networks.

Another central theme in Barnes' writing is the importance of personal and professional development. He believes that lawyers should continuously strive to improve themselves and develop their skills to succeed in their careers. He encourages lawyers to pursue ongoing education and training actively, read widely, and seek new opportunities for growth and development.

In addition to his work in the legal industry, Barnes is also a fitness and lifestyle enthusiast. He sees fitness and wellness as integral to his personal and professional development and encourages others to adopt a similar mindset. He starts his day at 4:00 am and dedicates several daily hours to running, weightlifting, and pursuing spiritual disciplines.

Finally, Barnes is a strong advocate for community service and giving back. He volunteers for the University of Chicago, where he is the former area chair of Los Angeles for the University of Chicago Admissions Office. He also serves as the President of the Young Presidents Organization's Century City Los Angeles Chapter, where he works to support and connect young business leaders.

In conclusion, Harrison Barnes is a visionary legal industry leader committed to helping lawyers achieve their full potential. Through his work at BCG Attorney Search, writing, and community involvement, he empowers lawyers to take control of their careers, develop their skills continuously, and lead fulfilling and successful lives. His philosophy of being proactive, persistent, and disciplined, combined with his focus on personal and professional development, makes him a valuable resource for anyone looking to succeed in the legal profession.

About BCG Attorney Search

BCG Attorney Search matches attorneys and law firms with unparalleled expertise and drive, while achieving results. Known globally for its success in locating and placing attorneys in law firms of all sizes, BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys in law firms in thousands of different law firms around the country. Unlike other legal placement firms, BCG Attorney Search brings massive resources of over 150 employees to its placement efforts locating positions and opportunities its competitors simply cannot. Every legal recruiter at BCG Attorney Search is a former successful attorney who attended a top law school, worked in top law firms and brought massive drive and commitment to their work. BCG Attorney Search legal recruiters take your legal career seriously and understand attorneys. For more information, please visit

Harrison Barnes does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for attorneys and law students each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can attend anonymously and ask questions about your career, this article, or any other legal career-related topics. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

Harrison also does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for law firms, companies, and others who hire attorneys each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

You can browse a list of past webinars here: Webinar Replays

You can also listen to Harrison Barnes Podcasts here: Attorney Career Advice Podcasts

You can also read Harrison Barnes' articles and books here: Harrison's Perspectives

Harrison Barnes is the legal profession's mentor and may be the only person in your legal career who will tell you why you are not reaching your full potential and what you really need to do to grow as an attorney--regardless of how much it hurts. If you prefer truth to stagnation, growth to comfort, and actionable ideas instead of fluffy concepts, you and Harrison will get along just fine. If, however, you want to stay where you are, talk about your past successes, and feel comfortable, Harrison is not for you.

Truly great mentors are like parents, doctors, therapists, spiritual figures, and others because in order to help you they need to expose you to pain and expose your weaknesses. But suppose you act on the advice and pain created by a mentor. In that case, you will become better: a better attorney, better employees, a better boss, know where you are going, and appreciate where you have been--you will hopefully also become a happier and better person. As you learn from Harrison, he hopes he will become your mentor.

To read more career and life advice articles visit Harrison's personal blog.

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