Reviewing Draft Work

Substance, style, and total confusion for early career lawyers…

When I coach early career lawyers, a persistent sources of dismay is the highly variable reviewing/editing approaches that supervising lawyers bring to their documents.

This isn’t hard to imagine. If you gave an identical fact situation and legal question to 10 partners practising in the same area, they would all draft differently – in style, format, language and length, although the differences in substance generally would be minor.  And each would be convinced that their style was right.

It’s also easy to see how rotations expose young lawyers to this variability.

Having said all that, it really is disheartening for people who think they’ve just got on top of their firm’s style only to be attacked by new oceans of red biro (or track changes).

Obviously firms which invest in good quality style and language guides combined with training can solve part of this because everyone is obliged to comply with the guide, including partners (theoretically).

But most unsophisticated firms don’t have these resources.

So what can they do to reduce young lawyer confusion without concurrently reducing the quality of work?

We believe the key is to distinguish between substance and style. Now, clearly, some people just write dreadfully and they need significant remedial work. We get that. But once lawyers are reasonably past this stage, and understand the firm’s preferences for (say) brevity and common language, then reviewing their drafts ought to mainly be about substance.

So here’s a tip:

Instead of reading sequentially and marking up from the first word, consider stepping back and first quickly scanning the essential arguments from start to finish.

  • Are they all there?
  • Are they clearly made?
  • Is the advice sound?

If all of that is there, and the style differences amount to no more than minor personal irritations, then consider just saying good work!

The problem with detailed edits without an initial overview is that you regularly make changes which become visibly unnecessary and convoluted the further you go, and in some cases this means multiple resubmissions – which could have been avoided.

Yes, there is a bit of personal vanity involved (my style is the only style!) but our exercise in paragraph two suggests this vanity may be misplaced. Clearly there are many clear, valid, and utterly coherent – but different – writing styles.

So if you’re looking for more productivity and less dismay (you and your young lawyers) consider stepping back a bit before unleashing the red biro and do a scan of the overall substance first.

Published: Queensland Law Society – Proctor, March 2016

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