This is part 2 of a series on skills future law students may be able to learn and practice during undergraduate summer internships. This series comes from our consultant Joe Pollak, a former admissions officer for the University of Michigan Law School. At Michigan, Joe negotiated scholarships, counseled students on their law school aspirations, ran the waitlist, supervised application processing, and managed applicants’ campus visits, among other responsibilities. Joe received his B.A. and J.D., both with honors, from the George Washington University. During law school, he worked as a fellow in the writing center and was a member of the George Washington International Law Review where he evaluated articles for publication. At other points in his career, he was an associate attorney with a large law firm in Washington, DC, nonprofit executive director, summer camp director, and editor for job seekers’ cover letters and résumés. In his free time, he is a fair-weather hiker, so-so bread baker, and novice bike-camper. Joe lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with his wife and two sons.
Law school teaches you how to write a formal legal memorandum. If you look for the opportunity, you can also learn the mechanics of drafting a contract and practice advanced advocacy skills in crafting an appellate brief. In your internship, if you find yourself with a chance to learn more about the specifics of legal writing, then, by all means, take advantage of that opportunity! Still, while you may come to appreciate familiarity with legal writing later on, your law school expects to teach you everything you need to know about legal writing, beginning with mandatory first-year legal writing courses. So, the mechanics of legal writing may be easier learned once you get to law school.
However, employers and clients value a lawyer who can succinctly and informally explain a legal issue or communicate effectively by email, and those are skills that (probably) will not be covered in your first year of law school. So, how can you take advantage of your summer internship now to improve your informal and email communication skills?
1. Ask for feedback.
Arguably, the essential thing you can get from your internship is feedback for improvement. I have heard a few stories of people fired from internships for inappropriate workplace behavior, but never because an intern asked for feedback. Besides, asking for feedback is a form of taking control of your professional development, and that is the kind of thing that your employer should want to encourage.
- Be specific. “What did you think of that email/memo?” “What is one thing that I can focus on for next time?” “How did you learn to write in the way you do?”
- Look for positive and negative. Both positive feedback and negative feedback are helpful, but it is easier to give (and receive) negative feedback when there is also ample opportunity for positive feedback, so make sure that you are seeking input both when you think that you have completed something well and when you have done something that could be improved.
2. Articulate goals.
What do you want to get out of your internship? Do you want to produce a writing sample? Observe senior colleagues at work? Learn the language and jargon of an industry? It may be tempting to leave these questions unanswered to just see what happens, but you will be rewarded by setting specific goals. Once you have done so, share your goals with your supervisor at the beginning or middle of your internship so that you have enough time to work towards achieving them.
- Lots of people like Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound (SMART) goals. If you have not used that system before, then search for it and try it out.
3. Make your writing more conversational.
You will have to determine whether your office or industry has norms for more formal communication. If so, then ask for advice from your mentor or supervisor. Still, while lawyers do write formal motions, briefs, and contracts, developing an informal, conversational tone to your writing now will benefit you later.
- Structure. Conversational does not mean lacking in structure. While you are working on this skill, it may help to create a quick outline before you start writing, even if you are just writing an email, to help to see the structure of your writing. You can also try writing your document, creating an outline based on what you actually wrote, and then comparing that to an ideal outline.
- Be mindful of context. One way to keep your writing brief is to evaluate how much background information you need. If you have several preamble lines before getting to the point, consider rewriting to put your main idea in the first line. At the same time, be careful with vague references that would require the reader to have prior knowledge to understand what you are saying.
You can find part 1 of this series, on networking, here.