Reviewed by Sandra Simpson, Gonzaga University School of Law
Article: “Lawyers at Work: A Study of the Reading, Writing, and Communication Practices of Legal Professionals”
By Ann Sinsheimer and David Herring Professors of Legal Writing at University of Pittsburg School of Law.
This article reports on the results of an ethnographic study of associate attorneys in the workplace, specifically studying what they actually do in terms of reading, writing, and communicating. Not surprisingly, the study found that associate attorneys spend most of their time reading, writing, and communicating. The fascinating part of this study is the finding that associates are not reading many judicial opinions, writing many formal memos, or communicating in a courtroom setting.
The study found that lawyering for junior associates was fundamentally about reading: both digitally and in print. They read primary authority, but most frequently, they read broad-based secondary authorities and non-legal texts. These associates read often in print and bounced between free on-line sources and paid on-line sources, being very conscious of the high price of the paid on-line resources. Reading closely and carefully was important to the associates but many times they skimmed and scanned documents in an effort to efficiently ferret out the importance of the document. Associates had to quickly hone their ability to read with a purpose: to solve a problem.
The study also found that associates did write: a process which began with reading and rereading the information they had gathered to substantiate their writing. Often working from templates, associates spent a good amount of time editing their writing before sending their work to their supervisor. As email represents a large portion of their writing, much effort was spent honing their writing, focusing on word choice, tone, and content.
Not surprisingly, the environments where these lawyers worked were stressful, even the most congenial of the workplaces were stressful. Although derived from numerous sources, the most common sources of stresses were being pressed for time and needing to juggle multiple tasks at one time. Working with constant interruptions also led to high levels of stress. Of note, the authors found that “[t]he ability of the attorneys to understand their role influenced their sense of well-being as well as their capacity to successfully perform their reading and writing tasks.”
The article goes on to discuss other interpersonal skills exercised and needed to help associates be successful, namely teamwork (in a vertical structure with a senior partner), organization, and time management. Prioritizing and communication as a team rose to the top as critical skills.
Wrapping up the article, the authors suggest law schools look at helping students read for the purpose of problem solving. As for writing, the authors suggest law schools, across their curriculum, have students create emails for various purposes. Further, teaching students to use and change templates or forms is an invaluable skill. Lastly, law schools should create opportunities for law students to practice the interpersonal and communication skills necessary to navigate the “sort of high pressure and hierarchical workplaces” observed in the study. The article gives several suggestions on exercises to use.