How to write a legal memo.

Hurrah! I just got my first visitor looking for legal information- I hope whoever was searching google for "how to write a legal memo" found what they were looking for. I sure know you didn't find it here.

I'm in law school, so if you're out in the real world, so sorry.

My understanding of the process is this:
  1. Read over the fact pattern your professor gives you very carefully. If it's a closed memo with included research, skip steps 2 and 3.
  2. Develop a research plan. ID key words, topics, phrases. Start in secondary sources- ALR, journals, restatements, hornbooks. Get familiar with terminology, concepts, etc.
  3. Jump in to primary sources. Look at statutes first. If your state/jurisdicition has Uniform Jury Instructions, look there for a concise summary of the law in that area. Then move on to case law. If you don't find much in your jurisdiction, expand your search.
  4. Step back from your research (or the provided information) and start identifying the law. Synthesize your cases to determine key themes.
  5. Outline. We use IGPAC (Issue, General rule, Precedent, Analysis, Conclusion).
  6. Draft.
  7. Revise.
  8. Revise again.
  9. Revise again.
  10. Revise again.
  11. Turn in your memo. Cross your fingers and hope for the best.

Hope that helps!

EDITED on 2/27/06:
So many people have found this post and I am horrified at the lack of useful information here! Really, I think the key is getting to know your facts intimately. Part of what makes good memos good is really knowing how the law applies to your specific situation.
Some other suggestions:
  • Your analysis has got to make sense. Does it explain ll the undeniable facts? Does it account for inconsistencies? Does it have a solid base in the applicable law? Most importantly, does it jive with common sense? If your argument raises eyebrows, it probably won't fly.
  • Start with the general principle/governing rule. Example: All men are mortal. Then apply that principle to your facts. Socrates is a man. The conclusion should follow logically- Socrates is a mortal.
  • Edit out waffling- vague and murky writing appears weak.
  • Make clear where the law is uncertain or scanty.
  • Distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information. Your goal is to be complete, but to address the KEY issues that affect how the issue will be resolved.
  • Assume a naive reader. This means that your reader presumably doesn't know your facts as well as you do, isn't as famniliar with the relevant law, and is neutral or otherwise undecided on the issue.
  • IGPAC: Issue identifies the general substantive issue that arises in the situation. The issue is what's important in the case.

    The general rule is a syntehsis of case law/statutes on the subject- rarely found in a single source. Synthesize the case law so you get a more comprehensive view.

    Precedent is the individual instances of the law- each piece. Give examples of how the various courts applied each rule to facts similar to yours. This shows the reader where the rule comes from and what it means. Keep this brief- focus on your case, your issue.

    Then comes Analysis/Application, the heart of your memo. This is where you apply the rules to YOUR facts. Analogize and distinguish your case from precedent. Don't assume that it's obvious how the law applies to your case. Explain your reasoning and support it with cites to your precedent cases.

    Your Conclusion simply states your position- your best judgment about the probable outcome of the issue. You can make this contingent on something else if you need to... Example: Assuming we can prove that throwing a snowball was peaceable conduct, the court will likely find that....

  • Avoid IGPAPAPAPAPAPAPA. Discuss all your precedent cases at one time. When you're done with that, apply those cases to your facts all at once.

Writing in General:
  • Topic sentences are key. Give your reader a sign post at the start of each and every paragraph. Tell your reader what the paragraph is about. Break up loger paragraphs so the reader doesn't get lost. Use simple, direct language.
  • I had a fabulous writing profess who wrote out of order. He'd write his analysis/applicationn, then his precedent, then the general rule, followed by the conclusion, and end with his issue. Then he'd take care of the formalities: framining the questions presented and the "decorations" (formatting.) I find this really helpful- focuses you on the argument and what you need to support it, and you kinda work your way back from that.
  • Read aloud often. Helps you figure out where your language isn't working, smooths transitions, ensures your writing makes sense and hangs together well.
  • Avoid: bad page breaks, rhetorical questions, "Jones is a case that...." "In Jones, the court...." (Just say: Felons are prohibited from possessing guns when... Cite.), Phrases like "It can be argued..." (Just argue it!)
  • Use: pincites. Topic sentences.


Anonymous said...

...this is not the answer I thought I would get to my legal question! Anyway, enjoy school - I can tell you really like to nit.. a lost law student

Anonymous said...

Thanks, this actually helped me a little :)

~from a confused law student

Anonymous said...

Well I was hoping for something a little more indepth, but I'm only an undergrad. I'd rather look at your page then countless pages of verbose-ness. Plus I am as obsessed with knitting as you are. =)

Anonymous said...

I was recently admitted and have been practicing at a firm as an associate attorney for 3 weeks now.

Today I was asked to write a "memo" for the first time since law school.

What my partner is asking me to do is NOTHING like what we were assigned in law school.

He wants me to write him a memo explaining the parole process for a client, yet hasn't given the client's file or any information about the client whatsoever. I don't even know why the client is in jail!

I have no idea how to apply law to a client I know nothing about. How can I come up with any legal conclusions? All I am doing right now is stating rules and citing the statutes. Basically, I'm repeating exactly what it says on the official Parole Board website (which I had printed out yesterday and gave to him and he left me a note today saying to put it into a memo).

I'm very frustrated right now! I don't see how what I'm writing can be a memo if I can't apply the law to anything. It is just a list of rules.

Maybe he is just using the term "memo" very loosely. Who knows. In any case, good luck to you!

Peoples Voice said...

Hi, cant you ask him for more specific information like the reaon for the incarceration or read the file. I'm not an expert only a 2nd year paralegal student. Do you think that would help?

Katherine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Katherine said...

Funny! I'm knitting socks while I attempt to write a legal memo for my paralegal program.

I totally googled "how to write a legal memo" because I am entirely lost in just one area. I'm still lost, but you've helped!

I'm really trying to figure out how to identify the "key issues" and summarize them. For some reason, that term just seems very abstract and vague. I mean, WTF?

I guess everytime I google a legal memo I find more of what I call a case brief. I hate this!

Oh well, back to my Jaywalker and googling. :)

Tony said...

Will somebody please help me and explain on how to write a legal memo in plain english. I'm finishing up my bachelors in paralegal studies and I'm thinking about law school.