Outsiders to the legal profession tend to believe that you as a lawyer are measured primarily by your ability to perform in court. Anybody who’s ever worked within the industry, however, realizes that your success depends just as heavily (if not more) upon your written presence. Indeed, the documents you compose should serve as your central channel for bolstering your value - both internally (within your firm and court system) and externally (to your clients). Legal documents are not simply vehicles for your thoughts and ideas; they are weapons of tremendous impact that directly affect your odds of winning a case, swaying a potential client, or becoming partner at your firm.
With so much on the line, it’s imperative that your documents are designed to showcase you as a winner. Follow these 5 critical steps to ensure that your letters, forms, briefs, and more, hit hard and push for favorable outcomes across all your ventures.
1. Identify the audience and purpose.
Start by stepping back and re-familiarizing yourself with the larger context behind your document. Think about your audience, and decide which strands of diction and syntax will be most appropriate, accessible, and digestible for them. Try to empathize with your audience. For example, if you’re composing a Client Intake form, understand that your audience includes: a) non-lawyers, and b) people with various levels of English proficiency; so you’ll need to rephrase or define words like “plaintiff” and “beneficiary”.
Next, identify exactly what your document is meant to accomplish. Are you collecting information? Persuading a judge? Intimidating a witness? (Just kidding). In some situations, your intent will entirely determine the format of your document - especially if there are regulatory standards that deter flexibility. Many times, however, you’ll have have some liberty to decide how to convey your message, and there is a significant difference in the tonality and reception of a letter versus that of an email, a card, or a PDF printout.
2. Outline all key components.
Think of your document as a cause-and-effect operation. In identifying your purpose, you found your “effect”; now, identify the trigger factor(s) that will push your audience to actualize your intended effect. If you’re writing a letter or a report, construct a strategy around your core argument - just like you would in litigation. Bullet-point every item you plan to include: key information, examples, graphics, statistics, quotes, etc. Decide if you want to include letterhead, or print on a particular type of paper. If you’re composing a form, list out all the fields you’ll need to include, whatever instructions you’ll provide, and any scanner codes or other items that you want your audience to receive. Be meticulous; it may be annoying, but it’s a lot better than starting over because you overlooked a necessary detail.
3. Construct a frame.
Develop the physical and contextual platform surrounding your message. Begin by categorizing your key components and placing them in a clear, coherent, and strategic order. Pay close attention to dependencies (don’t mention B until you’ve mentioned A) and redundancies. Next, map out the physical space that your finished document will take up on your letterhead, template, or stationery, and distribute your components accordingly. If you’re designing a form, allocate space depending on the type and length of potential answers.
Save time by investing in technology that will automate this process for you - for example, an intuitive software that uses templates to auto-fill the documents and court forms you use repeatedly (wink wink).
4. Create content.
This part is pretty self-explanatory: just turn your outline into tangible, usable words and phrases. Whether you’re composing a letter or a form, put some serious thought into your word choice, and make sure it fits your audience and purpose; remind yourself that “Which of the following applies to you?” will be interpreted differently than “Select all of the following that apply to you”.
Always begin with a draft or prototype, and build from there. Collaboration helps: although you know what message you’re attempting to convey, outside feedback will give you a fresh perspective and highlight any problems you failed you notice.
5. Plug, chug, and optimize.
When your content is finalized and ready, insert it into your frame. Delete anything that isn’t absolutely necessary to the structure and flow of your message, and make stylistic adjustments as needed. If your letter doesn’t fit on a single page, for example, decide whether your standard letterhead should apply to both pages of the document, only the first, or neither. Change your font and point-size to fit your application (ie. don’t use a font that clashes with your letterhead, don't clutter the page, etc.), and, above all, be consistent with your style.
If you’re not sure how to style your document for maximum impact, consult an expert - like Alexandra Devendra, former attorney and founder of Devendra Design. Alexandra specializes in typography, design thinking, and aesthetic innovation as they apply to the practice of law specifically; her company creates and optimizes legal documents (including forms, letters, letterheads, and more) to establish a powerful brand image for client firms.
We’re fortunate enough to be joining forces with Alexandra for our free upcoming webinar, “Building Your Brand: How Legal Design Shapes Your Success”, during which she will cover the basics of legal design and how you can use aesthetics to make your branding statement more powerful. All attendees will be eligible to receive discounts from MerusCase and/or Devendra Design - click here to read more and sign up today!
There are days where even lawyers who LOVE their jobs wake up and don’t want to go to work; the idea of drafting another pleading or talking to another client is just too dreadful. Most working professionals are bound to hit a wall every now and then, regardless of their job - but given that practicing law is extremely stressful, it probably happens more often to lawyers. (If you’re one of those lawyers who is always happy at work and has never had a bad day, please email us immediately and tell us how you do it.) For the 99.99% of lawyers who do have bad days every once in awhile, here are things you can do to make work enjoyable even on the worst days:
Get a Hobby
Wait, how are you supposed to get work done when you’re focusing on doing something fun? Turns out, having a hobby actually improves your job performance. When you take time to decompress and do something fun, even if it’s for an hour, it can actually alter your mood and get you to have a whole new perspective on your work. So whether it’s going for a run, taking some photos, working on a crossword puzzle, just go out and do it and then get back to work.
Explore a New Practice Area
OK - this sounds like an extreme step, but it’s all about thought exploration. For example, if you’re a family law attorney, you can “explore” the idea of focusing on adoption (and not just divorce cases). You don’t have to take any action steps until you're ready to commit; even just considering the transition may increase your appreciation for your current work, or spark new ideas in your mind. Spend an hour researching what other attorneys do and see if it piques your interest. The reason this may be a good way to make law fun again is because we all fall into ruts and get bored of doing the same thing over and over. The book Hooked: How to Create Habit Forming Products suggests that what makes something a habit-forming product is creating engagement in various methods. If you’re constantly rewarding someone the same way, or providing the same benefit for using your product, that gets repetitive and boring to your consumer. The same goes for anything we do in life. Sameness is boring. So, try to "explore" a new area of law, and see if it gets you excited.
Jeena Cho is the lawyer-turned-meditation-guru who you need to follow. She is an expert on meditation and mindfulness, and encourages everyone, especially lawyers, to pursue meditation. According to Jeena: “When you’re in a stressful situation, the last thing that you may want to do is sit down to meditate. However, research study after research study indicates meditation can trigger the relaxation response in the body. The relaxation response was first described more than 40 years ago by Harvard Medical School Professor Herbert Benson… The physiologic opposite of the well-documented fight-or-flight response, the relaxation response, is elicited by practices including meditation, deep breathing, and prayer, and has been shown to be helpful in the treatment of stress-related disorders ranging from anxiety to hypertension.” If you want more information on meditation, follow Jeena on Above the Law and her blog.
Do Some of the Menial Tasks
If you take a break from over-thinking and focusing on big goals, and instead focus on smaller tasks, you can actually get a lot of work done. Break up big projects into TINY (and we mean tiny) pieces, just so you feel like you're accomplishing a lot. Breaking it up also makes it less overwhelming and intimidating.
Set Working Hours
We turn back to Jeena on finding work/life balance; it turns out, it’s really hard to achieve. Creating your own working schedule may do the trick. If you set specific hours and have a hard stop at 5pm every day, you may actually be more productive. According to Jeena: “Most research indicates that the average person can perform up to three to five hours of deep work.” Furthermore, “working more than 50 hours diminishes your output so much that you might as well not work those hours at all.” So, if you limit your hours, you’ll actually be more productive and have an incentive to get all your work done in a set amount of time - rather than having a seemingly endless workday. Ultimately, you’ll be more focused.
Add a Creative Task to Every Work Day
While drafting pleadings is invigorating (no, we’re not being sarcastic), it can also be draining. Adding one creative task to your agenda for each work day can provide a much-needed change of pace, and can reinvigorate your interest and motivation in completing tasks that are a little more draining on your mind. Whether you brainstorm ways to market your firm (even if your ideas are completely outrageous or cheesy), or draw, or paint, or color - add creativity to your work schedule and do it. You’ll be surprised how much more engaged you are.
Talking to other people is hard, but it can really boost your mood and morale - and even give you inspiration to improve your practice. We intentionally called this section “Mingle” instead of “Network” because we don’t think going to legal events will help with this. Mingling requires that you step out of your comfort zone: meet some new people outside of your industry, listen to some thought leaders in other industries, attend lectures, book clubs, social events in other industries, a gala, an art exhibit - anything to get you out of your comfort zone and get you thinking about something else other than work.
Recharge & Refresh
You've probably heard the expression "Netflix and chill" and some days, you should do exactly that. If you're burnt out, just stay at home, put on a good movie, and relax. Recharge your batteries - because tomorrow, you'll be that much more productive.