It’s inevitable. Even if you write like Faulkner (or perhaps especially if you write like Faulkner) there will come a time when the product you produce is not the product that the partner wanted. This is painful, but it can also present an opportunity to impress people with your phenomenal ability to rebound and integrate constructive criticism into the next draft.
Some of the strategies detailed below are my own, but many are stolen from my peers.
You get called into someone’s office only to be told that your memo, brief, etc. is not up to snuff. This is the kind of moment when one should try very hard not to fall apart at the seams or appear remotely defensive. Your new mantra? It’s not that your work isn’t “good,” it’s just not what the partner had in mind. The next step is to figure out why. I channel my inner investigative reporter—What didn’t work? How can we fix it? Take extensive notes during this conversation, and hone in on the specifics. Does the partner hate string cites? Prefer a different organizational structure? Long for shorter sentences?
The trick is to avoid focusing on yourself and how you feel at this moment (there will be time for this later!) and pretend that you’re an outsider, just there to solve the problem. Your immediate goal is to create a product that both you and the partner will feel good about. It helps to have left time for creating a second or even third draft, especially if you haven’t worked a lot with this person before and aren’t familiar with their style and preferences. If there is no time to edit the offending draft, get it out the door and then return for the investigative reporter conversation. If you can’t implement the changes on this brief, you can ask for an opportunity to do so on the next one.
Return to the Drawing Board
After hearing the feedback, dive back into your draft and implement the suggested edits. After meeting with a partner to hear his or her thoughts on a brief, I like to use my notes as a checklist, checking off each point to ensure that I’ve implemented the edit. Sometimes it may be worth an entirely new approach. I’d run your idea by the partner before throwing your old draft out the window, but a third way can occasionally solve a brief’s problems.
If you’re worried you still might not be on the same page as the assigning attorney, ask a trusted peer to take a peek. Beg them not to spare your feelings. Another approach? Ask the partner’s legal assistant for examples of the partner’s previous motions to compel, summary judgment briefs, etc. (this also works before you start the assignment). If you have a mentor, this might be the time to enlist their mentorship and ask them to peruse the second draft before you submit. All of these options, of course, depend upon how fast the deadline clock is ticking. If you can hear the Jeopardy theme playing in the background, you may only have time for one of these options.
Revise and Resubmit
After you revise, it’s time to resubmit. In my high school, if you handed in a test early in the class period, the teacher would pull out a red pen and begin grading your exam. I found watching someone grade my test to be among the most stressful experiences in my life. Since we’re not in high school anymore, I advise grabbing a colleague and hitting Starbucks after you hand in a substantial revision (if the day is over, a drink also suits). Regardless as to what happens next, you worked hard and deserve a moment to shake it off and prepare for the next step.
Meditate on the Experience
After you complete the brief and it’s out the door, you can take time to evaluate how you feel about the whole experience. (If you’re like me, you may dwell; I’ve heard that some strong souls like to simply do something they call “moving on”). If you were able to obtain some helpful feedback, you might want to mull it over. Does it have applicability beyond the specific project? Did you receive advice that might be worth implementing in all of your legal writing efforts or was this advice particular to one partner? Taking the time to parse these issues might actually have the effect of bringing your work product to a whole new level.
In college, I took an entry-level English class with Nancy Mason Bradbury. Nancy Mason Bradbury was the world’s nicest woman with a very soft and sweet voice. Two weeks after we had all handed in our first college papers, Nancy Mason Bradbury handed them all back to us. In her very soft and sweet voice she told us that the papers were all terrible and that we would all fail unless we rewrote them. She then offered to meet with us to discuss necessary edits. Nancy Mason Bradbury’s advice changed my life. For the first time, someone explained to me the mechanics of writing, and I improved as a result.
Of course every piece of writing advice and constructive criticism will not be life changing, but it’s worth stopping to think about the advice so you can decide for yourself, after the drama of the moment has passed.