A writing sample can make or break your chances of getting an offer. A candidate otherwise doing well in the interviewing process can be shot down by a poor writing sample; conversely, an excellent sample submitted by a candidate “on the fence” can tip the balance in favor of an offer. Writing samples most often are requested of candidates applying for associate level litigation positions, but transactional associates can be asked for examples of their work, as well, and most of the same rules apply.
Double check it!
Just as with resumes and cover letters, meticulous care must be taken with writing samples. Even though you carefully proofread your document before using it on behalf of your client, look at it again with fresh eyes. Sometimes, when under pressure of a filing deadline, mistakes slip through. Do not merely rely upon Spell-Check. Edit for typos and grammatical errors, but do not make substantive changes. Then, make sure that you submit your final draft and that your name is on the cover page.
Choose a piece of legal writing that demonstrates your ability to handle complex fact situations, research the law, apply the law to the facts, and make a cogent, persuasive, well-written argument. Briefs or motions are commonly used by litigators, and a dispositive motion, such as summary judgment, or an appellate or Supreme Court brief are good choices. Research memos to partners or letters to clients outlining legal options, if properly redacted, can be used by either litigation or transactional associates. Deal memos, contracts (if not boilerplate), and related documents all are possible writing samples for transactional attorneys. If your sample produced positive results for your client, indicate that fact in a cover memo, being mindful of any confidentiality issues.
The most effective writing sample would be a recent document of the type and subject matter that you would be required to produce if you land the job with the prospective employer. For example, if you are applying for a position that involves significant securities litigation, choose something from a securities case, if possible. Attempt to select something that is interesting to read, but not too shocking or esoteric (unless it is the employer’s practice area). Vivid language and humor, if appropriate to the subject matter, are a plus.
The sample must be essentially your own work, not substantially edited by someone else. A law review article or published piece is not a good writing sample as it is usually edited and polished by others and takes much more time to prepare than would be typical under normal working conditions.
Writing samples should be reasonably short. Most busy attorneys do not wish to read lengthy treatises, but need enough to get a sense of your ability and style. If you believe a longer piece is the best example of your work, go ahead and send it. You might want to submit just part of the document in that case, with a cover memo explaining the context. Generally speaking, you do not need to include attachments.
If you have written only a portion of the document you choose to submit, provide a cover memo clearly stating which portions you wrote. You might want to neatly line through the sections written by others, or send only the portions that are your work, if they are long enough, with an explanation of the context. It is best if your name is actually listed on the sample as one of the authors, but employers understand that a junior associate’s name will most often be accompanied by the names of at least one partner or more senior attorney.
Take care regarding the protection of attorney-client privilege and work product when providing writing samples. If you choose a brief or motion that has been filed with the court, unless it is under seal, it is a public document and redaction is not required. In fact, if you do redact in those instances, it may give the impression that you do not understand the rules or are overly cautious.
If you are using an internal memo or document from a deal, it is important to redact. It is acceptable to neatly block out the parties’ names and any other confidential information with a black pen. It is preferable, however, to replace the names with fictitious parties such at ABC Company and XYZ Corporation. This makes the argument easier to follow. Not redacting appropriately demonstrates poor legal judgment and can be the basis for rejecting your candidacy even if your writing sample is otherwise excellent.
In the course of your practice, it is a good idea keep a file of your best work. One benefit is to have a selection of recent and appropriate writing samples on hand. Saving the documents electronically allows you to edit and redact, as necessary, and to either e-mail or print out a clean hard copy as your potential employer prefers. If you are submitting a hard copy, make sure that it is legible, and not copied so many times that it is blurry. Staple or clip the pages together; do not bind them or put them in a notebook, as it makes them difficult to keep on file. If you are using a brief that has been bound for filing with the court, however, it is fine to submit it in that form.
Writing samples usually are requested after a first interview, once it is established that you are a viable candidate. Take a copy of your writing sample along with you to offer at the close of that interview, and you will impress the potential employer as being a candidate who is ahead of the game. Otherwise, you can send your sample along with the follow-up thank you note after the interview. Some employers ask for writing samples before offering the initial interview, as a way of narrowing down prospects. Others ask for more than one sample, so you should have several prepared. Being asked to submit an example of your work usually is a good sign that you are being actively considered for the position.