The first few times you try to write a legal memo, it’s going to be a little awkward. Don’t worry, that’s normal.
You’re busy trying to sound like a smart lawyer, and you’re not really sure how all the pieces fit together (not that you’d necessarily admit that), so you tend to just throw everything in there in the hope that something will stick.
Well, here’s another idea: Imagine the client is your grandmother.
How Would You Explain Things to Your Grandma?
I don’t know about you, but both of my grandmothers were pretty smart cookies.
That being said, they both lived a long time, and if I wanted to be sure they understood something, I had to slow down and focus on the most critical elements of what I was explaining. If I used a lot of fancy words, or didn’t explain something clearly, chances are good they’d get lost, or bored, and decide to go downstairs for bingo. (They were both ace bingo players, so you had to be pretty compelling to compete.)
So, let’s imagine one of my grandmothers came into my office and told me a story about what happened last week, when a neighbor down the hall regrettably ran over her poodle Snookles, causing the dog no permanent harm but causing my grandmother great emotional distress when she heard about the incident later.
After doing some research, I find a bunch of cases and a few statutes that are on point. She comes back for a second meeting, and I launch into my explanation:
Well, there’s this one case that says you might have a claim. But there’s this other case that says you don’t. Then there’s this really important statute that’s sort of related…here, let me read it to you. Oh, and then there’s this other statute….Hey, where are you going? Come back!
Too late, she’s off to bingo.
When I finally catch up with her at dinner, flush with bingo winnings, I try to explain all of my research again. After a few minutes of listening politely, she looks up and says,
Honey, just get to the point. Do I have a case, or not? That’s all I want to know. What’s important here? I’m 93-years-old! I don’t have all day to listen to you drone on about a bunch of stuff I don’t understand or care about. Just give it to me straight!
Ouch, back to the drawing board.
The next day, we meet again. This time, after a sleepless night of effort, I’ve nailed it down. I’ve distilled all of that research down to a few key questions, which I’m ready to explain.
Okay, Grandma, here’s the deal. You’d arguably have two different claims: Claim A and Claim B. To prove Claim A, you need to show X, Y, and Z. X and Y are easy, because of these facts…. Z, on the other hand, is a close call. Here’s what the Court will analyze: A, B, and C. You can easily show A and C, but B is tricky because of…. Our best argument is…but your neighbor will argue…. I think you’ll win, but it could go either way.
To prove Claim B, you’ll need to show D, E, F, and G. Each of these is easy except for F. That’s tricky, and here’s why…. I’m not convinced you’ll win on this point.
I go on in this vein for a while, clearly explaining each legal requirement, and discussing how the facts that my grandmother explained a few days ago fit into the legal analysis.
When I finish, grandmother is beaming with pride. “See,” she says, “I knew you could do it! Oh, and by the way, I made up that whole story about Snookles. She’s been fine all along. I just wanted to test what they were teaching you at that fancy law school up the road. Want to be sure you’re gettin’ your money’s worth, after all. Seems like there’s still some work to do, but I think you’ll be okay in the end.”
Not sure whether to laugh or cry, I decide to join her for a rousing game of bingo. Which she wins, naturally!
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