How to address a colleague’s horrible writing: 10 Tips

Posted on 12-23-2015 by
Tags: writinglegally , legal writing , legalwriting , LIT , Upgrading Your Skills , Writing Legally , #writinglegally , writing

At what point would you feel it is necessary to have a sit down with an attorney you supervise and let him (or her) know their writing is sometimes careless, and lacks legal research and analysis? If you are unsure, try taking these three additional factors into consideration:

  1. An older attorney with more experience;
  2. You have known this person for more than 12 years; and,
  3. The attorney is not as thick skinned as most.

This delicate and dicey situation will have serious reproductions for all parties involved – the client, the firm, fellow attorneys and the attorney whose work is suffering. How would you address the problem? Would you tell them exactly what the issues are so they can address them, or would you provide tools they can use (workshops, etc.) to help?

After all, it is the PRACTICE of law. We are all always practicing. Nobody has this down pat.  

The above question was posed to the LexTalk community, and below is some advice from your fellow colleagues who had a similar situation, and how they chose to handle the issue.

Balance

I’d give the feedback promptly and also check in with how the attorney is doing in general. There could be something going on with that attorney's personal life to explain the mistakes. I’d empathize and try to be gentle. Balancing the please proofread and be thorough with I know you can do this since you've got some great experience and are talented. ~ knashiwa

Core responsibilities

Attorneys are paid to write and argue for clients and they must do this effectively. The longer you put it off, the worse it will get. Either the attorney will not understand that his/her writing is not up to par or will simply continue to provide the same level of service. ~ kbrinkman

How to position your message

I would do it as soon as possible, but couch it in terms of wanting to help him or her improve his or her writing skills. When I was a new attorney, my supervising attorneys had no problem telling me where I could improve my writing, and that was invaluable because it made me a more focused writer and improved my editing/revising skills. Tell him or her that you have concerns and that if his or her writing and research doesn't improve, other supervising attorneys might not be so forgiving. I would second the recommendations above about a legal writing seminar. I take them every year or two, and they are always very helpful. ~ Sarah B.

The importance of concrete examples

If you are going to engage, you will need to have concrete examples. Stylistic edits are one thing, but if substantively the point isn't getting across in the writing then you should be able to demonstrate why. If you elect not to engage, and have the option, just try and make sure the lawyer isn't in charge of any significant writing – leave that to other attorneys or associates. ~ JCo.

 

I agree with others that say it should be addressed immediately. I am a little skeptical about whether or not the problem can be fixed, however. If the writing is careless from a writing standpoint, then that is a skill which can be so slow to learn and grow that I’d be tempted to just team them up with a better writer and have the person you supervise write a brief in outline form of what it should say and then the second person expand. However, if the research is the part that is careless, then this person has much more hope of improvement and simply needs to be carefully shown the research errors. ~ emlex

Involving a neutral person

The first thing is to bring in an objective person to make sure it is not your own “bias” toward a writing style that is pushing your impression. Next, I would have a sit down, as many have people have mentioned, and explain with concrete examples. Then push for corrections and taking whatever steps are necessary to help the attorney develop. ~ Joe S.

Know your audience

Knowing your audience will go a long way toward the person actually hearing what you are saying. And, with someone who does not react to criticism particularly well, I think you have to make a conscious effort to balance the positives with the negatives. Make note of any consistent mistakes – I’ve noticed that both good and bad writers tend to make the same sort of errors, whether it be poor structure or just failing to spellcheck. Finally, encourage him/her to check back with you (or another supervisor) throughout the next writing assignment, so the feedback loop can begin earlier rather than later. ~ tnguyen

Possible support options

This is a context question - has the older attorney always had poor writing skills / habits (in which case one message or approach is required), or is it deteriorating with age? If the latter, the intervention required may be less about writing training, and more about considerations of end-of-career planning. Neither option is attractive to think about, but there are more support options available for coping with a declining attorney. ~ bschoolman

“Slash & Burn”

I agree that the issue has to be addressed quickly and pointedly. For example, rather than generalizing about the problems with the work product, I'd mark it up. My writing improved significantly when my mentor (now partner) did what I called “slash and burn” on my writing assignments. It will take an investment of time on your part to review and critique at least one writing project on a very detailed level, but that is the best way to point out the problems. I’d also make and share notes about the unsatisfactory nature of the research underlying the writing. ~ keenercam

Training, a viable option?

Both your hypothetical and my current situation involve theoretically experienced attorneys; so by this point in their careers, they should be able to write. I agree that being delicate with all discussions is important, and like the idea of suggesting training, but I'm not sure that training works for all. Some people are simply not able to write logically and coherently. ~ MVIsola

To other professionals in the legal industry, what do you think? Do you have any other suggestions or ideas to share with the community?

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