Help me be a better law clerk!
May 9, 2006 2:58 PM   Subscribe

Help me be a better law clerk!

I got my dream law clerk job at a well-known and respected smallish firm doing the type of work I want to do when I graduate. It’s everything I could have wanted - lots of interesting research and writing.

Here’s my problem - I’m not very good at it. This is tough for me because I’ve never NOT been good at a job before. My law school grades are great so I know I’m not stupid, but I just can’t seem to perform the assigned research and writing tasks to the standard of the firm. I’m not worried about getting fired, but I want to do well for personal reasons (see unfamiliarity with not being good at things) and because I’d like a stellar recommendation from the firm when I graduate and move on (they don’t hire their law clerks).

My biggest problems are turnaround time and research skills (Westlaw). They go hand in hand - I am slow because I’m afraid I am not finding what I need to find. Then I zip through the memo-writing and make a lot of mistakes in my attempt to complete tasks on time. The end result is that I don’t find what I need to find and turn in crappy memos that poorly detail my research failures.

How can I do better? Tips, tricks, tutorials, anecdotes, sympathy, criticism, all are welcome. Thanks!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (22 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Take your time. I know it sounds like bullshit, but it makes a huge difference. The major thing that separates my crap work from my good work is that my crap work is done to a deadline while my good work is done to a goal.

What's the point of turning something in on time if it's shit? Speed comes with practice.
posted by 517 at 3:07 PM on May 9, 2006

as far as westlaw goes, I've dramatically improved the speed at which I research by restricting my searches to particular keycite subject headings. It allows you to use broad search terms without getting back hundreds of totally irrelevant cases. Of course, occassionally you'll miss a borderline case this way because Westlaw didn't categorize it exactly right, but I think its often more foolproof way to go than trying to divine the magic search terms that will separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff. (apologies if this is Westlaw 101, I didn't learn about it until a year out of law school)

also, the value of good multi-volume treatises on whatever area of law you're focusing on (e.g. Wright & Miller for Federal Procedure, Larson for Worker's Comp etc.) cannot be overestimated. Even if it doesn't give you the answer to your question (and of course you generally shouldn't rely on a treatise by itself for a proposition of law), a good treatise will almost always point you to the most important cases on an issue, and then its often just a matter of shepardizing.
posted by boltman at 3:31 PM on May 9, 2006

Is your job near your law school? If so, see if your school offers Westlaw tutoring or Westlaw courses. My law school did (even in the summer!), and I credit those exclusively for my aptitude in Westlaw and Lexis.
posted by MeetMegan at 3:40 PM on May 9, 2006

If the turnaround time is not negotiable - if you have a hard-and-fast deadline, then you might want to reconsider how you divide your time between research and memo writing. If you have 6 hours of time to do a project and you need 2 hours to write the memo, then set a deadline of 4 hours for research; whatever you've found by then, STOP.

You don't mention whether you are putting in long hours, or longer hours than expected. It may well be that you're going to have to work 12 hour days and weekends for the first month or so until you get the hang of things. You WILL get better (faster).

Also, consider the matter of perfectionism: you want to do a really good job, but if the firm only gives you a limited amount of time, then they're really saying "Do the best you can within this time budget." You can stretch the budget a bit (see above), but at the end of the day, if they set an immovable deadline, then THEY have chosen to get a less-than-perfect product from you.

You might also consider that you may have little reliable information as to whether the firm's expectations are totally unrealistic or not. You think that what they're asking you to do is in fact doable within the time they give you, but it doesn't follow that this is in fact true. If you're reasonably smart (as you appear to be), then you might want to consider other options: that they're pushing you to see how you react; that they had someone incredible last year and have raised their expectations; that they want you to work a lot more hours than you think you should, and this is their way of pushing you to do so; that they're trying to teach you to do the best you can within a limited number of hours; or something else. Are there other law clerks at the firm to whom you can compare yourself? Someone from a prior year that you might contact?

Finally, there isn't anything wrong with talking to whoever is supervising you about your desire to do a better job, and your frustrations. You want to be positive about this - I know I'll get better at this, and I expect it not to be a problem in [whatever timeframe seems reasonable - say, three or four weeks], but I'm trying to figure out how to cope with this now. Perhaps they'll tell you to do less research; perhaps they'll decide to give you more time; perhaps they'll be sympathetic and not be helpful.
posted by WestCoaster at 3:43 PM on May 9, 2006

I heartily second boltman's suggestion to look to treatises. Why reinvent the wheel if someone has already written on the subject and pointed out the relevant cases?

Also, shameless plug for librarians- hopefully your firm has a librarian (if not, I'm sure your law school librarians would also be glad to help). It makes my day to be able to sit down and show someone how to get the most out of West & Lexis, and any law librarian you can find would probably feel the same.

Your firm librarian, should s/he exist, can also take the burden of the Westlaw search off your shoulders, saving your time for things like memo writing. Finding cases/articles/treatises on topics is the bread and butter of what we do.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 3:47 PM on May 9, 2006

Banjo_and_the_pork's advice is excellent: if your firm has a librarian, he/she can be an astonishingly helpful resource.
posted by ambrosia at 4:33 PM on May 9, 2006

I second MeetMegan - take as many Westlaw classes at school as possible, and become pals with your Westlaw rep and the student reps. At least in my school, they were always happy to help. And bonus - you'll earn lots of extra Westlaw points for attending classes.

The times I've been stuck at work researching and felt like I was missing something, I either chatted online with a Westlaw rep, or called their 800 number and talked live. I think calling them is always free, so if you feel like you're wasting your firm's money on dead end searches, try giving a Westlaw attorney a call - it's their job to know how to research on Westlaw. (By the way, all of this advice goes for Lexis, too.)
posted by amro at 4:38 PM on May 9, 2006

On the subject of treatises, keep ALR in mind. Every question that any lawyer has asked has most likely been raised and researched, often more than once. It is very often the best first stop for any given issue.
posted by megatherium at 4:42 PM on May 9, 2006

I have to say, be extremely careful about using headnotes for any purpose whatsoever. Particularly recently their accuracy has been crap. Often points of law are misidentified and, much worse, the actual holding is sometimes misstated. Headnotes will claim a case stands for a proposition when in fact it says no such thing. If you do use them, make absolutely sure the case says what they say it does.
posted by The Bellman at 5:01 PM on May 9, 2006

The Bellman makes an excellent point about headnotes; however, it's not a problem when using them to narrow your research because you will read the whole case and not simply the headnotes before relying upon it in your analysis.

I teach LRW, so I suggest going to your legal writing instructor, legal writing fellow, or writing assistance center and asking for a critique of something you've written for the firm. I also suggest approaching one of the associates or partners you're working for with some work in hand and a list of specific things about it which you weren't happy with. Say, "hey, when you've got a minute, I'd like to ask you some questions about how this memo could have been better.

Finally, learn to recognize when there is no case on point and stop looking. One problem with LRW assignments is that they are often written around exemplar cases. So your facts match; your cases line up perfectly on point. This rarely happens in practice and young attorneys waste so much time looking for perfectly matched precedent.
posted by crush-onastick at 5:20 PM on May 9, 2006

Read this article (24 No. 1 LITIG. 3) and learn how to use "Most Cited Cases" on Westlaw. This feature will give you great comfort that you have found the right case(s).

Finally, you might be surprised how flexible your deadlines are. It is much better for you to take extra time and turn in good work product than to turn in shoddy work product quickly.
posted by ajr at 6:22 PM on May 9, 2006

If you can, always start at the books -- whatever books you know how to use, preferably the ALR or treatises or even AmJur. It helps get an idea of what your search terms should be searching in the first place.

Ask lots of questions (assuming whoever you're working for is amenable; if they aren't find someone else to ask). Go back during your research to make certain you're on the right track if you aren't sure.

If you're really stuck, try the librarians - the ones on Westlaw's help lines; the firm's; your law school's; the law school nearest you, if possible.

Under promise, over deliver - deadlines are not negotiable the day before they happen. They may be negotiable earlier.

PROOFREAD. I had a terrible time with this - you have to get good at it. If you aren't, you need to finish things early enough that you can put them down and walk away for a while, and then come back.

And -- you probably aren't as bad at it as you think you are. I've discussed many times with my friends and colleagues that being a lawyer can be very hard - not so much because the job is so hard, but because people who go to law school tend to have had most things pretty easy - I bet high school and undergraduate were easy for you. Law school is a lot of work, but it isn't really that hard. Being a lawyer at a firm, because it means you need to learn about a lot of people and how they work and write, and what they expect, and because there is just SO MUCH INFORMATION out there is hard. Hang in there, you'll get used to it.
posted by dpx.mfx at 6:44 PM on May 9, 2006

On Westlaw "/p" is your friend. Whatever the major keywords of what you're researching are, just plug them in the search field with "/p"'s between them. Then you can skim the list of results, reading just the paragraphs that are relevant.

As for missing things, skim the ALR's and practice manuals that come up on the search (but don't cite them as authority in your memo) for a basic understanding of the subject, and don't worry about missing things. If a case is important, it will have been cited in the cases that you bring up on your search.

Being a law clerk/lawyer really isn't that hard. It, like anything, takes practice. I sucked hard at first, now I suck progressively less every day. Aim for sucking a little less today than you sucked yesterday, and you'll be fine.
posted by ND¢ at 6:51 PM on May 9, 2006

/p can lead you astray if there are funny paragraph breaks in the opinion, which can happen with block quotes or other formating issues. I use w/250 instead of /p.
posted by Mid at 7:37 PM on May 9, 2006

Also, if you get 300 or 400 results from your search, sometimes you need to spend 2hrs or so actually clicking through each one and skimming. People sometimes make the mistake of junking the search if "too many" results turn up, with "too many" meaning 100+. If you're defining your searches narrowly so that you only get <100 results, you may be missing something important.
posted by Mid at 7:40 PM on May 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

If your firm is like any other I've encountered, all the attorneys think you are a complete waste of time, but you are a means to an end (someone with very low per hour billing needs to do preliminary research, plus they need to publicize the firm to local law schools). They assume you are learning, they assume you will make many mistakes. Everything you turn in to the attorneys will be redone. Everything.

You need to use this as YOUR opportunity to actually learn how to practice law. By clerking now you will be far ahead of other first years. Learn to write. Very, very, very few lawyers can write worth a damn. If you can learn to write at this firm, you have a respectable chance at a decent appellate practice somewhere in the future (assuming you can get a good judicial clerkship). Use this as YOUR means to an end. Get all the feedback you can, tell them you want feedback specifically on your writing.

I assume your firm only hires laterals. Guess why? 'Cause first and second years are just as bad as you are. They are a total loss to every firm that hires them. Only when they have a few years training are they finally worth their salary. So don't worry so much about making mistakes and concentrate on getting some training now and you will be ahead of the pack when you graduate.
posted by johngumbo at 10:00 PM on May 9, 2006

Westlaw searching is a science and an art rolled into one. If I wasn't a database hacker before going to law school I'd be lost.

/p, /s, and w/xxx searches are infinitely more valuable than keywords, headnotes, or any of that other value-added crap.

Second treatises and ALRs, depending on whether you are researching federal or state law. State law compilations are often referred to as "practice" databases (i.e. Mass. Practice).

If your firm provides a halfway decent revenue stream to WL or Lexis, their reps will be falling over themselves to come to your office and give you free one-on-one training. Never hurts to ask.

And if your firm is too small to employ a librarian, do your research at the local law school library.

johngumbo's advice above is too cynical, imho. Most attorneys don't redo the work that the clerks do for them. They might mark it up and send it back for a rewrite, but they won't redo it themselves - what would be the point of assigning it to you in the first place? You'd be better off assuming that what you write gets forwarded to the client, and taking pride in that, rather than being defeatist about your work product. If it didn't make economic sense for them to hire you, they wouldn't have.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 11:18 PM on May 9, 2006

I think johngumbo's advice is a little cynical, too. FWIW, I was a law clerk at a smallish firm that didn't hire law clerks, too. At the end of my time there, I was approached to consider coming on as an attorney after graduation. If you stand out, your firm may consider you more than a means to an end.
posted by amro at 6:14 AM on May 10, 2006

You should talk to your Westlaw rep and see if you can get some one on one tutoring. Most of the reps I work with are only too happy to spend time going over your issues, and you are usually rewarded for your ignorance with a nice supply of pens or gift cards.

You should also consider talking to your secretary about ways to be more efficient. New attorneys and clerks generally have no idea how useful a competent legal secretary can be, and what a wealth of knowledge they are. Your support staff can make or break you, and you would do well to keep this in mind.

Good luck!
posted by Sheppagus at 10:22 AM on May 10, 2006

This is what works for me.

FIRST WRITE UP THE FACTS. You learn law in law school, in a more or less coherent order. However, law school gives you almost no training on organizing facts, which are by far the most important part of a persuasive brief. The statement of facts cues the legal rules you studied in law school, which guides your research. Only then can you know where to start and steer your research.

Most firms keep briefs and research memos on line. Ask your law librarian and mentor, if any, to teach you the access software and process. Even if the "brief bank" doesn't have anything that helps with your current problem, it will show you how the firm likes its memos and briefs to look and read.

If the topic has been the subject of a Supreme Court opinion, access the briefs, which are available online. Libraries at appellate courts, and many lower courts, usually have the briefs on microfilm. Be sure to read both sides to get a full picture.

If a statute is involved, go to the annotated statute books and Shepard's Statute Cites. The same goes for regulations.

If you find a case on point, or close, go to the cases it cites and Shepardize them forward.

You know when your finished when everything you come to is something you've already read.

Take notes on each case you read on a legal pad (Pad A). Don't worry about organization. Just keep going. Separate the notes on each case by a couple of blank lines. Keep reading until, as I said, everything you read points to what you already know. Number the case notes.

Take a second legal pad (Pad B). Look at your first case note (no. 1), extract a principle or point you will make in your memo, write it on Pad B and put the number 1 after it.

If case 1 contains a second principle or point, write that one next (on Pad B) and also put the number 1 after it.

Go to case 2. If it has a new point, write it on Pad B and put the number 2 after it. If it repeats a previous Pad B point, write the number 2 on the previous Pad B entry.

Continue until you have all your points on Pad B.

Cut the pages on Pad B into horizontal strips, one point per strip. Shuffle them into a logical outline for your memo and tape them to a third Pad C. Do only 6 per page, with space in between.

At this point, you will almost certainly find holes in your research -- logical steps that are missing from your argument. Go back to Westlaw or the library, fill in the holes with notes on Pad A, number these, write the points and case numbers on a new page from Pad B and cut and tape them into Pad C.

Continue until you have a coherent and complete memo structure.

Type the outline into your word processor in Pad C order. For each point, go back to the number references on Pad A and type your notes for that point, combining the various cases.

When you finish, you will once again find holes in logic and research. Go back and complete the research on the missing material.

Now go back to the facts. Compare them to the elements of each legal rule. Make sure there's a fact for each element. If not, revise your statement of facts, so that "all the ducks are in a row." Then "shoot them down" with the legal rules. For the third time, you will find gaps -- facts you haven't taken care of, and legal issues you hadn't recognized before. Go back and finish the research.

Your statement of facts should tell a story, with your client in the right and the other side in the wrong. If it doesn't, reorganize it so it does. Then reorganize the legal argument to be convincing. It doesn't have to follow the order of the factual story, but it should cover every legal issue and blaze a coherent trail to judgment for your client.

Good luck.
posted by KRS at 12:05 PM on May 10, 2006 [2 favorites]

New attorneys and clerks generally have no idea how useful a competent legal secretary can be, and what a wealth of knowledge they are. Your support staff can make or break you, and you would do well to keep this in mind.

Seconded. I'm a legal secretary myself. There have been attorneys with whom I have just performed the duties of my job professionally and adequately. There have, alternatively, been attorneys to whom I gave 125% and with whom I loved working for so much that I assisted with their electoral campaigns. Guess which of the two treated me like crap, and which of the two treated me like a truly valuable asset to their practice?
posted by WCityMike at 1:29 PM on May 10, 2006

I think everyone here has provided excellent practical advice on how to better your research and writing skills. In addition to all that, it may be helpful for you to keep some perspective about your current job -- specifically, it could very well be that the respected status of the law firm has resulted in a certain arrogance in the office culture there, results in members of the firm treating the clerks poorly if they do not meet a preconceived (not to mention arbitrary) notion of "quality work." In other words, it might just be that it's not a very good place to work.

I'm a 3L (will be graduating in, gosh, nine days now), and my personal experience with law school and clerkships have been the reverse of yours. For my first two years in school, I got pretty good grades and had to fight like crazy to get respectable grades in my legal writing courses. But when I actually got into the clerkship environment after my second year I took off. I found this was mostly because I really liked the people I was working for -- we thought alike, had common values and priorities, and they were just nice, supportive attorneys who realized that I wasn't a legal expert. They were willing to teach me the things that I hadn't yet learned when it came not only to research and writing, but substantive law as well.

Ultimately, it won't be the end of the world if this clerkship doesn't turn out to be the amazing experience you were hoping for. There will be other jobs available to you, especially if you've done well in school and have shown some level of competence. the real issue in the future is finding a place to work where you feel comfortable and your bosses appreciate the work you do.

Best of luck!
posted by ipsedixit at 5:21 AM on May 11, 2006

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