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Writing Samples During Your Job Search: The Basics

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Should I Send a Writing Sample?
 
You should only send one with your application if it is specifically required–or if you think it is an absolutely fabulous piece. When we did a small survey of various types of legal employers, we learned that most law firms do not ask for writing samples; if they do, it is usually acceptable to bring it with you to the interview (check with the recruiting coordinator). Public interest/government employers often ask for writing samples, and nearly all judges want them. Even if a writing sample is not specifically required, however, you should realize that your cover letter, résumé, and every piece of paper you submit will be viewed as a writing sample. Everything should be technically perfect–no spelling or grammatical errors–and as well-written as you can make it.

 
What Should I Send?
 
We saw pretty uniform responses to this question. Legal employers would rather see legal analysis; something like a memo or brief is preferred over a research paper, and something on a legal topic is preferable to a nonlegal paper. The ultimate criterion, however, is the quality of the writing; if you are convinced that no legal memorandum or brief comes close to the quality of one of your research papers, choose your best writing. In addition, less outside editing is better, which is why previously published pieces are not automatically at the top of the list. Remember, if you are using document prepared for a prior employer, you must get the employer's permission and make sure you have made all necessary modifications and redactions to preserve client confidentiality. The topic of the writing sample is not much of a concern for law firms. Public interest organizations naturally would be more interested in something written about the area of their work. It offers an additional indication of the applicant's interest in the subject; however, a writing sample on a different topic is not disqualifying (and legal employers recognize that first year law students have limited choices for writing samples). Judges also generally say the topic does not matter.  The following guidelines will help you as you develop a portfolio of writing samples.
 
  1. Select the most appropriate examples of professional writing you have done at your job or as part of your course work at school.
  2. Clearly identify the type or purpose of the writing sample (such as its intended audience or reason it was assigned).
  3. Type all samples (laser printout is acceptable.) Handwritten writing samples should be typed for your portfolio.
  4. Proofread each sample carefully to avoid spelling, grammatical, or typing errors.
  5. Choose works that are brief, focused, and achieve the purpose for which they were written. It is better to have shorter samples that are one or two pages long and include more of them.
  6. Avoid personal topics or controversial issues in selecting content areas.
  7. Have a former professor or respected colleague evaluate materials be-fore including them in your portfolio.
  8. Do not violate confidentiality. If real names and events are referred to, delete the specifics or change the details or request permission to use such information.
  9. Make certain all materials have a professional appearance. Submit only clean copies of class papers, reports, memos (or any other materials that have been circulated).
 
The following types of writing could serve as samples in your portfolio:
 
  • A legal research memo or report
  • A motion
  • A set of interrogatories
  • Answers to a set of interrogatories
  • An index to discovery documents
  • An appellate brief
  • An intake memorandum of law
  • An answer to a problem in the textbook
  • A digest of one or more discovery documents
  • Sample reports or studies

How long should the writing sample be?
 
Law firms did not indicate any preferences about writing sample length, although that may have more to do with their disinclination to request writing samples than their enjoyment of long papers. Most public interest/government employers prefer short, concise samples (5-10 pages), though some have no preference about length. Most judges who indicated a preference wanted shorter samples (around 10 pages), but you have a little more leeway on length (over 20 pages would be pushing the edge of tolerance). If all of your potential writing samples are much longer, consider using an excerpt (e.g., one argument from a longer brief).
 
How should I present it?
 
Create a cover sheet for your writing sample. It can have a simple heading–just your name centered at the top of the page and “Writing Sample” centered underneath it. You can use your cover sheet to give any necessary background information about your writing sample. For class assignments, give the name of the class and a brief description of the assignment. If you were assigned to a specific side or you had specific restrictions placed on your research (e.g., not permitted to use Lexis or Westlaw, or confined to designated cases), you should explain them. If you are excerpting from a longer document, add whatever background is necessary to make the excerpt understandable. If you are using a document prepared for a former employer, explain that you have obtained the employer's permission and made all necessary modifications. The typical cover sheet explanation is two paragraphs; do not exceed one page. You do not need to use “résumé-grade” paper for your writing sample or cover sheet.


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