Law & Law Enforcement

Speaker 1  0:02 

Would you state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you graduated from college?

Speaker 2  0:11 

I’m currently legal counsel with the Ministry of the Attorney General of the province of Ontario, provincial governments, here in Canada. It has been since 2000. It’s been 10 years since I graduated from college. Actually 11 years since I graduated from college.

Speaker 1  0:29 

Okay. And how long have you worked in your current field?

Speaker 2  0:33 

In my current field, I’ve worked for two years at my current job six months.

Speaker 1  0:37 

Great. Okay. And can you provide just a very brief description of your primary job functions?

Speaker 2  0:44 

I’m a lawyer.

Speaker 1  0:45 

Great, very brief. And can you tell us just a little bit about the law that you practice?

Speaker 2  0:50 

I do commercial law. So I focused specifically on loans to small businesses, and also the the insolvency side of those loans, if the loan recipient doesn’t pay back their loan.

Speaker 1  1:02 

Okay, great.

Speaker 2  1:04 

Mostly contracts and general commercial legal advice

Speaker 1  1:08 

I see. Okay. And could you estimate in an average week, what percentage of your job requires writing?

Speaker 2  1:18 

What lawyers sells is words, whether it’s whether it’s their legal advice, or the contracts they draft. Most of my legal advice is given via email or via memos. So I would say that 80% of my job has to do with writing.

Speaker 1  1:34 

80% interesting. Okay, great. And could you tell me a little bit, the bit about the forms or types of writing or the kinds of documents that you most often draft,

Speaker 2  1:46 

Most often would be contracts, I also draft court filings like notices of application and notices of motion and factums and court orders. But on a, on a day to day basis,  most of my advice comes in the form of fairly detailed professional email memorandums.

Speaker 1  2:09 

I see, and who are the primary audiences and what are the primary purposes of say, those those email memorandums?

Speaker 2  2:17 

The primary purpose is to take a fairly technical legal point and translate it into business advice that the business people with my clients can use.

Speaker 1  2:26 

Perfect. Okay. That’s really interesting. And are there specific strategies or ways of thinking that you use as you’re trying to distill that information and sort of uncomplicate it for a different audience?

Speaker 2  2:40 

One of my favorite ones, is actually a lesson that they taught us in my college writing class, which is when you look at a sentence you wrote or a paragraph you wrote, ask yourself, Is this how you would explain it to a child; if I explained something to a 10 year old, you can explain it to anybody. And that means that an executive who’s been reviewing briefing notes for 10 hours and really wants to go home, can look at whatever you wrote for them and think, okay, I get that. It’s so easy, especially when you get to be a specialist in a particular discipline to just use the same jargon that people in the industry use or use lots of abbreviations or take shortcuts to get the point across. But the information is only as good as what the reader walks away with, right? You can write the smartest analysis in the world. But if the reader doesn’t understand what you’re trying to say, it might as well be bad analysis, because the the reader hasn’t left with an understanding of what the reader needs to

Speaker 1  3:54 

 Right, right.

Speaker 2  3:57 

If you sacrifice some of the technical details for the sake of clarity, that’s usually a good trade.

Speaker 1  4:03 

Huh, right. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And, and how did you know how to perform these types of writing when you when you first started doing them?

Speaker 2  4:13 

Practice and negative feedback take you a long way <laughter>. You’re not born with the ability to write clearly. You, especially as a junior lawyer are placed under immense time pressures to deliver work product in an area you’re just barely beginning to get to know. And because of that the work product can be rushed or sloppy or just not as clear and precise as it could be. And when when you see how the end users of your written information react to that. It teaches you a lot about how you can do your work better and how you can present things in a way that practically useable whoever’s reading it, know, if if I, if I slaved away all night over a memo, and it was too long and complicated, and it didn’t begin with an executive summary, and I put it on the desk of a senior partner who only has 30 seconds to look at it, they’re going to be pissed off because they can’t get the message in 30 seconds, and they’re gonna tell me about it. So the more the more you go through those types of interactions, the more you focus your own practice.

Speaker 1  5:28 

That’s really interesting. Yeah. And you’re actually sort of speaking to my next question, which is, can you describe a time in your career, that you felt unprepared as a writer at work?

Speaker 2  5:39 

I mean, I would say that I feel unprepared as a writer every day, the practice of law is very fast paced. And you don’t always have the time to research the latest cases on the topic or understand all of the facts of the background matter, or take the hours and hours that it sometimes needs to be able to polish a piece of analytical writing. I think… I can’t remember there’s a famous quote, and I can’t remember the source of the quote, the quote, it I feel like it’s Oscar Wilde, or one of those white writers that everybody quotes. But he said at the start of a letter, I’m sorry, this letter is so long, it would have been shorter, but I didn’t have enough time. It takes longer to edit and polish a piece of technical writing than it does to produce a lengthy pieces. Usually shorter pieces better and more helpful for people. So I guess that’s a long way of saying I feel I feel unprepared to give my best quality of work every day, because it takes a long time to write a short and clear email. At best I get 90% of the effectiveness that I should have when I’m in a rush.

Unknown Speaker  6:53 

Yeah, absolutely. When you talked about sort of getting negative feedback from your higher ups, are there other things other than paying really close attention to that feedback? Are there other things that you did to overcome those early challenges when this was all new to you?

Speaker 2  7:14 

I found other people in my firm whose writing style really spoke to me or inspired me and tried to mimic some of their habits. Reading, reading other people and picking up tips from them can be really helpful. In the college setting, you can ask your professors for any essays from previous years and see how they, they are structured and they are worded or you can see what your peers are doing. In the law firm setting, that say you’re asked to write a legal opinion on a statute of limitations issue, you can go into the firm’s document database and read all sorts of legal opinions by all sorts of different people. And they all have their preference for how they’re structured, and what kind of writing style they use, and whether they lead with a summary, how they cite their sources, etc. And if you read enough, you can take part away from any of them. So for me, it was about getting advice from people who had done it before some of that advice was asking them what they think about certain concepts or certain approaches. But some of that advice came without them even knowing, just from me reading their work and taking stuff away.

Unknown Speaker  8:32 

That’s really interesting. Yeah. And who oversees your writing? I imagine that and it varies clients versus other lawyers in the firm. But is there is there one person who you would say, most directly oversees your writing or not really?

Speaker 2  8:53 

As a beginning lawyer, you were usually doing assignments for other lawyers, who would pass those assignments on to their clients; there wouldn’t be supervision as a, once you get more senior, you’re reporting directly to the client. So nobody’s overseeing your writing. It’s just whether the client can make sense of it or not. But as a junior, you’d be, you’d be creating content for the senior partner on the file, who would take that content and put his or her own spin on it and put it out to the client. So that was a good opportunity for feedback. But it was assignment based, and it was a big firm with 150 lawyers, so the person I would report to would be different for any given assignment.

Unknown Speaker  9:46 

How long do you typically have to complete a writing project?

Speaker 2  12:28 

Depends on the magnitude of it. Usually, the urgent questions are pretty simple. Not always, sometimes, urgent questions are really complicated. And you have to limit the scope of what you were asked to advise on. But usually a simpler thing will require a same-day response, or next-morning response, and something a little more complex will be a longer term project for you can get back to them by the end of the week or the beginning of the next week. Part of being a lawyer is about managing your clients expectations. Your clients have a business problem, and they don’t know what the law is, and they don’t know whether it’s a simple question or a hard question. Unlike an assignment, you can go back to the lawyer and say, I can’t deliver this as fast as you want me to, what would you like to do?

Unknown Speaker  13:23 

Right, okay. Um, and what kinds of writing do you remember being asked to create as a student? And in what ways do you think College Writing experiences prepared you or not for you to work in the right in the workplace?

Speaker 2  13:39 

I was an English major. I did my minor in Canadian Studies, which is a very, very interdisciplinary program that brought in political science, history, economics, public policy. In both of those disciplines, my primary type of written product was a research essay. As I went on in college, I realized that an essay succeeded or failed, not necessarily on the quality of ideas or the quality of research, but the structure by which that information was conveyed to the reader. And again, like, like the example of the minister reading 10 hours of briefing notes in a day, these professors or research assistants will read 200 essays in three days. And they’ll all have interesting ideas. But some essays just sort of throw those ideas at the reader completely, regardless of any structure or sense of organization. And those ideas just bounce off the reader. The successful essays make it very clear from the first couple of sentences, what the reader is going to walk away with and why the reader should care. And once I figured that out, my performance improved in school dramatically. And, that lesson, which is to, to put a structure and put a frame around your information has been incredibly useful for professional writing.

Unknown Speaker  15:11 

That’s really, really interesting. Are there things that it would have been in addition to this, this really useful thing that you did learn as a student…Are there other things that would have been useful for you to do or learn as a student to prepare you for the specific kind of writing that you do now at work?

Speaker 2  15:33 

That’s a good question. So law is a very collaborative discipline. Lawyers deal with novel problems all the time, and are asked to answer new types of questions all the time. And they usually practice in not always, there’s a small town full of practitioners that a lot of the time law is practiced in a law firm setting with lots of really smart colleagues around you. People describe law as a very collegial field, which means that everybody is willing to give their time to help each other out. So one of the things that I’ve loved about working as a lawyer is when I’m struggling with something, either a concept or the way I articulate that concept and write it, I can just go a couple of doors down and ask people, hey, what do you think about this? Or do you have five minutes to talk about this, I have an idea in my mind, but I’m not sure how I can phrase it in a way that the client will understand. Or can you take a look at my notice of application, I have to send it into court tomorrow and I need a second set of eyes. So those …  it’s tough to write well, by yourself, all the writers have editors or assistants or second readers or peer reviewed journals, taking a look at what they do. And as a lawyer, I learned that there’s no shame, or it’s not a failure, if you have to go ask your peers for help. It’s part of the process, it’s part of what makes your work better. It’s part of taking an idea from something that’s just hanging around in the back of your mind to something that’s out on paper that everybody can understand. So I didn’t I didn’t do that in college at all, I never, I never took a first draft and sent it to a friend for their edits or commentary. I never sat down in the dorm common room with a friend and talked about the paper I was working on. But since becoming a professional, that type of collaboration has been indispensable, and it’s gotten me through some of my toughest assignments.

Speaker 1  17:42 

That’s so interesting. That’s really, really useful. Yeah. And could you this is a big question, but could you describe what’s at stake in your writing

Speaker 2  17:52 

<Something> could shut down their company, you’re the person they call. They’re not all of my legal advice is big, quote, unquote, bet the company kind of stuff. But sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s facing a $10 million lawsuit that could literally end the company and getting asked how do we respond to that? What, how strong is this claim? What can we do? Should we settle it? Should we fight it? The questions, we also get asked a question, so if the if the client if our if the person who received this loan, needs to make a change to the payment deadline, did they do we need an original copy of the document they signed to change the deadline? Or can they send us a scan? Sometimes it’s very small administrative questions. But at the top end of the scale, they can be massive. So it really just depends on the day. And one of the things I like about being a lawyer is the type of writing you do and the type of challenge you’re asked to respond to is so diverse from day to day.

Speaker 1  19:03 

That’s really interesting. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense to me. And what is the most difficult thing about writing in your field or in your specific position?

Speaker 2  19:14 

The fact that most of the people who read my writing, have no interest in what lawyers do. And so nobody calls their lawyer, because they’re having a great day, and they just want to chat. They call when there is a problem. And it’s usually a type of problem that they don’t understand, because law is very technical and specialized. So people have a huge headache in their business life that’s been percolating for a month, and it gets bad to the point where they realize they have to call legal and pay the exorbitant fees that lawyers charge just to get rid of the fee. So nobody, nobody wants to make the call in the first place. And they don’t know what the lawyer does, and they don’t want to have to deal with it. But at the end of the day, they’ve asked for legal advice. So they might get an email or a memo or a draft contract that tries to solve their problem. But they’re not legal specialists, they don’t even want to think about the problem in the first place. And you have to make it very clear to them, what you as the lawyer are trying to accomplish and why it matters to the client. So the biggest challenge is taking your technical knowledge and the technical way to solve the problem, and totally reframing it. So it becomes option A or Option B in business language, not in legal language. So it’s become a set of options that the decision maker with the client can choose. And in order to choose them, they have to understand them, you have to, you have to turn a legal problem into a business solution.

Speaker 1  20:53 

That’s interesting. And yeah, very, very well said, that makes a lot of sense. Um, has anyone helped you directly with your right as with your development as a writer, either formally or informally in the organization, and you talked about asking for advice and going to look at old files, looking at the work that other lawyers have done, but has anyone sort of given you direct formal or informal development assistance.

Speaker 2  21:20 

So as a junior lawyer, when you’re working for a partner, they, like I said before, lawyers work in words, words of medium that we use, so everybody’s a nerd about writing style. And they are not shy about sharing how they feel about your particular writing style. So you’ll get back first drafts with tons of red ink on them. And sometimes that will turn into a conversation about how we approach the challenge as writers. But an interesting thing about that is I realized after enough of those interactions, that a lot of what people had to say about my work, were just style choices, individual opinions, or preferences. It wasn’t necessarily any objective advice about what good writing is, or what good writing is, it’s it’s advice about what the person giving it thinks good writing is. So you take pieces of that away, and you accept some of that advice and reject some of that advice. And at the end of the day, you come up with your own style. So lots of people express their opinions about my work. Nobody sat down and mentored me for a month about sentence structure, paragraph structure, format, etc. But the feedback came from hearing what worked for people and what didn’t work for people and then taking pieces of that away and forming my own style.

Speaker 1  22:56 
That’s really interesting.

Speaker 2  22:58 
It I’ve been, I mean, I’ve been doing, like, from college to grad school to the field, I was in before law to law school to now I’ve been doing technical and academic writing for 15 years. And I feel like I’m good at it. But I don’t feel like I’m as good as I could be. It’s still a work in progress. And every time I get a draft back with red marks on it, I think, okay, what did I do wrong? Is there something I can change about how I structure assignments like this? Is there something I can change about my sentence structure? Am I using m-dashes way too much? The answer is always “Yes.” You’re never done. It’s always a it’s always a process. Writing is a practice. And the thing about practice is, you have to do it all the time. No, you’re not. It’s, it’s a work in progress. always

Speaker 1 23:50 
We have just a couple more questions. And I feel like you’ve spoken to this, but I’m gonna go ahead and ask it more directly. To what extent do you think writing is valued in your organization and in your field as a whole?

Speaker 2  24:00 
Incredibly highly?

Speaker 1  24:05 
It seems inevitable, as you said, sort of trafficking in words. So yeah, um, and how would you define successful writing as a student as opposed to successful writing in your current position?

Speaker 2  24:25 
One of the frustrating things about being a student and I’ll go back to what I said two questions ago, is that sometimes you’ll get a bad mark on a paper. And it’ll be a bad mark for reasons related to how you wrote the paper, not necessarily the content of your paper. And that isn’t an indication that you wrote a bad paper. It’s an indication that the decision maker who graded it didn’t like the style of your paper, right. So as as much as research and teaching assistants and professors try to be objective and try to be neutral about how they grade things, they inevitably have their preference. Sometimes you’ll just get some someone who doesn’t understand your style of writing that doesn’t appreciate it. So as much as it would be nice to say, “in college, it’s simple because there’s a grade at the top of your paper. And in professional life, it’s hard because there’s not.” I mean, in both cases, you can’t, you can’t be sure that if somebody liked or disliked it, it’s directly because of your writing style. There’s so many other factors in play, and everybody has their individual opinion. So for me, success in college was, if I felt that I put in my best effort in the circumstances, right? There were some papers where there were four other things due that week, and like, my girlfriend was sick, and I had to be in another city for an appointment or whatever. And there just wasn’t all that much I could put in. So I got a B and I still put in the best effort I put in the very time compressed circumstances. And I think that’s that’s a nice way to define success, because it doesn’t depend on what somebody else, on the mood somebody else’s in when they’re grading your paper. But what matters is if you put the work in, if you feel like you’re improving, if you feel like you took lessons from previous negative feedback and tried to respond to them. That’s how you know you’re on the road to somewhere you want to be.

Speaker 1
Right. And based on those criteria, would you say that you’re a successful workplace writer now?

I mean, I’m still trying… the time pressures; as much as it feels like college is a really busy time, it’s probably the most flexibility you’ll ever have with your schedule. So that that gets worse and worse and the deadlines get tighter and tighter and you’re never able to devote as much time as you would want to. But I’ve definitely gotten better at being able to turn out a high quality product on very tight deadlines, and I’m proud of that, but it’s still tighter the deadlines get the harder the process is and I’m better but it’s harder. So you’re still you’re still working toward something but never all the way there. It’s always a work in progress.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Click here to read full transcript