Monday, April 25, 2005

More on memos

Yes, lawyers still write memos. I have been told that memos are still used in these ways:
  • As assessments of the writing ability of law students working at a law office for the summer.
  • As precursors to advice letters to clients: "Now convert that memo into a letter to our client, advising on the X matter."
  • As precursors to persuasive motions, trial memos, or briefs: "Now convert that memo into a motion for summary judgment in the X case."
  • As due-diligence evidence of legal research.
I wrote all of these kinds of memos when I was a young lawyer working at a law firm. This was a big law firm, with wealthy clients, so I also wrote traditional legal memos that senior lawyers relied on to make decisions.

But often I was told--for the traditional decision-making use--to simply "give me an answer." Despite that request, I eventually got into the habit of writing a full and traditional memo even when asked just for the answer; I realized that I produced a better answer when I had worked through the analysis and authorities in the way that writing a traditional memo required me to.

Besides, I was often asked follow-up questions that were easier to answer if I had a thorough memo in the file.

I found that often the "just the answer" approach led to the "just read the authorities" approach. When you don't have to write down a thorough analysis, you tend to read the authorities once and spit out a less-than-ideal answer. But when you must write the analysis down, you must do more than read the authorities once. You must think about them, read them again, reconcile them, synthesize them, and you must do so in a coherent and readable way. So you get much more comfortable with the authorities and analysis, and you become more confident that your analysis is right.

I recommend to young lawyers that when time and clients allow it, you should prepare a thorough memo even if you aren't asked for one. Pare it down when you turn it in, but go through the process of preparing it. And I tell senior lawyers that when you ask for "just the answer," you are indirectly asking for a second-best product.

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