This is a guest post by 3rd Year JD student and EAGLE facilitator, Ellen Roberts.
How do you write a legal memorandum?
This is a question all of us encounter at some point in our time as law students. Most likely, the first encounter will be in preparation for your PPL syndicate assessment. Many of you will subsequently be assessed on this form of writing as part of a legal internship subject. Some of you will also require this skill if you pick up a job alongside your studies as a research assistant to a barrister or professor, or at a legal firm or community legal centre. Inevitability, if you pursue a legal career, you will produce and encounter many legal memoranda. This post aims to provide a snapshot of the key skills required by this form of legal writing so you can get started with your memo!
Why do I need to learn how to memos?
The skill of writing legal memoranda is undoubtedly a crucial one to develop and is foundational for good lawyering! With practice throughout your legal studies, the skill of writing legal memoranda may also serve as a demonstration of your employability. In my own experience, writing memos has boosted my confidence in my ability to translate findings about legal questions into an accessible, coherent and purposeful document in a diverse range of situations. In fact, I have drawn on this skill for each of the scenarios described above. The legal memos I’ve produced have also varied across these experiences, with some only requiring brief, direct answers to legal questions, and others needing a more nuanced analysis.
So what is a legal memorandum?
This can be answered simply as a document of advice. As with advice-giving generally, it is important that this document be clear, informative, and accessible. Ideally, the memorandum’s reader should be able to cast their eye over the document and immediately find what they’re looking for. The level of detail should be measured against the purpose of the advice: is it in-depth research on a specific legal question or a summary of general findings about an issue? Even where greater detail is required, a legal memorandum should remain simple, use unambiguous language, and be to the point.
How do I structure my memo?
Well-structured writing is key–think IRAC! Remember to:
- Clearly state the issues;
- Identify the relevant legal rules, principles or other authorities (look to legislation, case law, regulations/subordinate legislation, and international law);
- Apply the rules to the facts at issue (consider distinguishing factors, relevance of the jurisdiction and policy considerations); and
- Present a conclusion that logically flows from this analysis.
Other signs of a quality memo include numbered paragraphs, defined terms, and effective use of headings for each issue and sub-issue. This is because:
- Numbered paragraphs enable easy reference.
- Defined terms help to maximise the clarity, precision and accuracy of your analysis. For example: ‘For the purposes of this advice, mental disability includes cognitive and psychosocial disability’.
- The use of sub-headings, as you will no doubt find for all your legal writing, is akin to a superpower that transforms that ‘stream of consciousness’-type bundle of words into a structured, condensed, and prefaced analysis. As you refine your memo drafts, you will be able to build specificity and argument into the headings themselves (e.g. ‘Does the law apply?’ will be replaced with ‘Does the ICJ’s Advisory Opinion ‘_____’ narrow the interpretation of section 198 of the Migration Act to include ____?’). This is also a groovy trick for saving words.
An additional and effective way to ensure your memo ‘hits the nail on the head’ in terms of structure is by stating upfront what your findings, recommendations and conclusions are in the form of an executive summary. Such a section should be brief (a series of ‘one-line summaries’) with each point directly relating to a section in the substantive part of the memo. Imagine your boss (whether a Minister, barrister or leader in a team of solicitors) has only enough time to read the executive summary before racing off to a meeting. Could they provide direct and specific answers to questions about issues addressed in the memorandum? If yes, then your executive summary has worked its magic.
By utilising the advice above, your legal memo might look something like this:
This is by no means the only way to structure a legal memorandum; your structure will vary depending on what goals the advice is serving (consider the audience, the timeframe you’re working with and the memo’s overall purpose) and a degree of flexibility with your structure in order to meet this purpose is a good thing. The main takeaway is to ensure that your memo is clear, coherent and accessible.
With this advice in mind, your complex and critically considered advice will read like Jamie Oliver’s ‘quick and easy’ recipes rather than Shakespeare. All the best!