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You will feel stupid (part 1): Work on your work product!

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Work Product

Looking out my office window toward the courthouse door, I am conflicted by the view of the gentleman entering. On one hand, I agree with his obvious belief that John Elway is the greatest quarterback in history (well, retired – Tom Brady may take his place), and I truly appreciate his eagerness to display this belief prominently by wearing a classic throwback Elway jersey.

On the other hand, I cannot understand what motivated him to wear it to whatever court proceeding he is headed to.

As a law student, I would not have imagined this sight. I assumed that everyone would know that NFL apparel is not court room appropriate attire. But, it turns out that the insulated world of law school hides a number of real life lessons that lawyers need to learn.

It is said throughout law school, that law school only teaches people how to think like lawyers; that it is only through practice that true skills are acquired. Law students hear this warning, yet rarely understand it; and all law students leave school thinking they are seasoned professionals.

You will feel stupid: Advice for new lawyers (from a slightly less new lawyer)

In my several years of practice since law school, I have benefited from working in multiple contexts and learning environments. I worked as a clerk to a federal judge and currently practice in a city attorney’s office, where I work both in the context of a municipality and as an in house counsel to a billion dollar per year entity. Through these experiences I collected lessons and knowledge about life as a lawyer, items that can help new lawyers ease into practice – and at times laugh at the oddities of a profession we tend to take too seriously.

This is the first in a series of articles that provide lessons that are not the subject of any class in law school. The lessons vary between useful and practical, surprising and surprisingly obvious, and the ridiculous.

First topic: Work product

Law school focuses on learning the law, yet a significant portion of your legal life is based, not around digesting legal concepts, but by putting together tangible work product. Work product is the everyday output that you create in your legal practice. While we are trained to think of briefs and motions as work product, lawyers should consider every type of document, e-mail, or opinion they produce as overall work product.

Every piece of work product you put into the world reflects on your abilities. Your work product is the aspect of you as a lawyer that most often provides insight for others as to your skills and capabilities. While most of us can B.S. with the best of them, at the end of the day, the work you put out is what will define you and your career. Charismatic-but-sloppy lawyers are quickly passed by the meticulous and precise.

The following tips are practices that will not win you cases or make you stand out if you follow them. They are the kind of practices that will make you look competent, but can taint other professionals’ view of you if you fail. Many of these are concepts you have heard or may come to on your own at some point, but when they are collected together, they emphasize the importance of meticulous work product and the need to treat every piece of work product you create with care.

Proofread
Always proofread. No matter what the type of writing you are dealing with, mistakes stand out, regardless of whether they are in e-mails, briefs, or court decisions.

Proper citation
Use proper citation and then double check it. While dealing with citation is often annoying and overly complicated, the use of proper citation makes your readers’ lives easier and shows you are a complete and conscientious writer. Moreover, proper citation relates to both the number of citations and form. Use pin cites to guide the reader to specific locations. Do not cite to Wikipedia. Wikipedia can be a good tool to teach yourself context, but it is not a reputable citation. Lastly, if you are writing for a judge and you are citing to a court document that judge wrote, remind the judge of his or her authorship in the citation.

Anticipate Follow-Up Questions
When answering questions, think about follow-up questions you are likely to receive. Then, answer the original question and the follow-up questions. Doing so is efficient, will make you fully evaluate the issue at hand, and will endear you to your clients.

Organization
Take the time to plan and organize your work product, not only within a single document, but across all related work products. Ease of use for a reader is the simplest way to make sure your points are understood. Do not assume that the reader will know where any particular item or piece of information is or that they will intuitively sense your approach. At worst, clear organization will be viewed as being a bit anal retentive.

Write persuasively, but reasonably
As a zealous advocate, you have an obligation to write persuasively for your client; however, that obligation should not lead to writing while forgetting reason. Do not push the bounds of the laugh test in your writing, if you twist things too much it will give the appearance of hubris, ridiculousness, or even being a liar. Just because you says something does not make it true. Likewise, do not twist the court’s words, it enrages judges.

Define terms
Define terms within your work product that you view as important or ambiguous. Doing so makes your writing clearer for your reader and allows you to set definitions, as opposed to allowing your opponent, the court, or the reader to do so in a manner that may not be consistent with your perspective.

Edit yourself
Most lawyers have a tendency to over explain and drone on and on. Balance the need to fully support your position with the need to be direct and straight forward. Do not use ten words to say what you can in five. Efficiency of language is a way to respect the reader’s time. If you cannot explain yourself in a clear, concise manner, reevaluate the value and logic of what you are trying to say. Similarly, never make the reader guess what you mean, be direct and even blunt. My preferred method of self-editing is to write a first draft where I include every possible thought and then walk away from the document, only to return with a red pen and a heavy hand.

Don’t be cute
Always remember that your work product is a professional document. While attempts to be cute are often slipped into documents, they do not help a party’s chances of winning and can easily be misinterpreted. The worst example of this that I have seen came from a pro se submission. In that document, the party included a number of hypothetical questions such as:

“Am I guilty? Who knows? What is truth?”

Treat e-mail professionally
E-mail is a tool ingrained across modern legal practice. Because of that, it is easy to forget that you are creating a record by which your competence can be judged every time you click send. Draft and proofread e-mails as if they are any other type of professional document. Treat e-mail as if it is a public document – because it can easily become one. My personal technique is to never enter the e-mail address of the recipient until I have completed and reviewed the body and subject (and checked to make sure attachments are actually attached). Doing so prevents the unintentionally early or careless send.

Physical presentation
Make your work product easy to read and use with clear and consistent formatting. Take the time to refine your documents. Spending two minutes with paragraph, font, and spacing makes your work product professional and functional. Add charts and graphs, as appropriate, to clearly illustrate your arguments through visual mediums. This is a step that is often ignored by many. Additionally, while many, if not most of the documents you will submit or send are provided electronically, physical submission is used in some circumstances. When physically submitting documents, take the time to make the reader’s life easy, whether it is adding labels and tabs, or adding binding for large documents.

Follow court rules
While court rules may seems unnecessary and arbitrary, follow and stay on top of them. Do not give the judge or the clerk an unnecessary reason to dislike you and your client. While judges and court personnel are almost always excellent professionals, annoyances can taint their perspective of you.

Be consistent across arguments
When composing a single or related documents, use consistent arguments. Using contrasting lines of argument in a single discussion is at best confusing and at worst dishonest.

Chris Bidlack Chris Bidlack is a Senior Attorney with the Colorado Springs City Attorney’s Office – Utilities Division. He previously clerked for Judge Farnan (Ret.) of the U.S. District Court of Delaware. He graduated from the Michigan State University College of Law and the University of Michigan. He can be reached at chris.bidlack@gmail.com.