Improving Your Legal Writing: Six Tips for Using Critique to Your Advantage

By Ivy B. Grey

Nobody likes receiving criticism. However, the truth is that when it comes to legal writing, you can learn to understand feedback differently and make it useful for your career. By learning to handle critique well, you can create a positive attitude and demonstrate that you:

  • are a trainable team player;
  • that you take ownership over your work; and
  • that you are resilient and committed to the firm’s way of doing things.

This article provides six tips to help you use critique to become the best legal writer that you can be and find success in legal practice.

The Difference Between Critique and Criticism

It’s important to recognize that not all negative feedback is criticism; often, it is critique. While there is some overlap between critique and criticism, the words have different meanings and perceptions.

Critique connotes detailed analysis and evaluative feedback designed to improve the work. It is usually specific in nature and considers both the positive and negative aspects of the piece. Comparatively, criticism generally refers to faultfinding and condemnation that often attacks the writer as much as the work. It is usually general in nature and encourages quitting rather than revising. It is easy to mentally mistake critique for criticism, but it is more beneficial to view all feedback as critique. So try to limit your visceral reaction to feedback and reframe it as helpful critique.

By choosing to view feedback as non-hostile critique, you are more likely to grow from the experience and develop better working relationships with your colleagues. Conversely, choosing to view it as hostile criticism makes you more likely to ignore the advice, distance yourself from the criticizer, and diminish your workplace performance year-over-year.

Here’s how you can train yourself to hear the critique and harness it to do better work:

1. Schedule a Time for Critique

Seek out and schedule critique sessions. By seeking it out, you show that you are proactive, which creates a positive impression, and you control the timing.
By controlling the timing for when you receive feedback, you:

  • can select a time when you are going to be most calm and ready to listen, which means that you want to learn and grow by hearing the truth, not that you’re looking for validation;
  • will feel safe and be mentally and emotionally prepared, which reduces the likelihood that you will react defensively to negative feedback; and
  • can choose a time that works best for you, so that you are not tense, impatient, or risking ruining other crucial parts of your day.

When you make a habit of seeking critique, you:

  • build in more time for revisions;
  • become more comfortable hearing it;
  • have more opportunities to learn; and
  • learn to find the value in critique.

Remember that when busy attorneys take time to review your written work with you, they are investing in you and showing that they respect you. Do not abuse it by ignoring their advice, reacting defensively, or giving them documents riddled with obvious, easily-fixable errors.

2. It’s About Your Written Document, Not Your Value

Keep the critique in perspective. For even the worst criticisms, remember that this one document does not embody all potential negative impacts for your life and legal career.

Remind yourself that:

  • You and the reviewing attorney are on the same team. Your shared goal is to create a written document that furthers the client’s goals and meets their needs. The critique serves that purpose alone.
  • The attorney is reviewing the document, not you as an attorney. This one document does not prove anything conclusive about you or your legal career. Even if everything about your document is wrong, the feedback is not about you as a person. If the reviewing attorney thought that you were as useless as your document, he or she would not spend the time to go over your mistakes with you.
  • This one critique session is one data point. Let it stand on its own. Resist the urge to lump this critique in with every other critique you have ever received in life or your career. Being corrected does not mean that you must be humiliated.
  • You need the feedback because, as the author, you cannot see the draft’s weaknesses. You see what you meant, not what you wrote. The personal kinship that you feel with your writing project is precisely why you need outside perspective.

Let the reviewing attorney help you to improve your written work. When you accept, understand, and implement the feedback, then you are building your value as an attorney.

3. It’s Okay to Be Disappointed, But Not Defensive

We all make mistakes and wish that we had not. Disappointment is a part of learning and improving, but reacting defensively will hinder that progress.

To keep defensiveness at bay:

  • Take a few deep breaths and give yourself 15 seconds to accept that there is a gap between the perception of your document as complete and the reality that it is not complete yet.
  • Ask questions, take notes, and actively participate in your learning. Turn the critique session into a dialogue.

These two actions will keep the defensiveness from creeping in and will increase the likelihood that you learn from your mistakes and do not repeat them in the future.

4. Look for the Broadly-Applicable Rule

You have the skills and training to absorb a great deal of information and distill it into a useful, transferrable rule. You developed this skill in law school and you are honing it every day while you practice. Use those skills to get more from critique:

  • Take a step back and look for the rule when you receive critique on your writing.
  • Focus your critique session on finding the rule to use in the future. This will keep you from wallowing in how you feel now and force you to concentrate on how this experience will prepare you for future success.
  • Uncover the rule by asking questions that draw the feedback away from the details of your document. Use the answers to shape the information into a rule for your legal practice.
  • Look for positive learning experiences that may be dicta now but will evolve into precedent later. Consider whether you have learned what an archaic contract provision means and why it exists; where a procedural requirement fits in with the big picture, or whether there is a new item to add to your checklist for this type of document.

Finding and documenting rules gleaned from feedback will make your written work better, your career trajectory stronger, and you will reap the benefits beyond this one project.

5. Ask Questions and Seek Clarity

When you focus on clarity, it is harder to be defensive. You benefit from asking questions:

  • When your questions are answered, you can feel confident that you understood the direction that you were intended to receive.
  • Without questions, you may misinterpret the direction and continue to make the same mistakes in the future.
  • When you ask questions, you can learn to differentiate between rules that are necessary for your writing and mere stylistic preferences. If you cannot tell whether the critique is about substance or style, then ask the reviewing attorney to explain it to you and provide context. Much good advice is lost because it is treated as irrelevant stylistic direction.

Learn to ask questions and devour critique so that you unlock your full writing potential and decrease your errors over time.

6. Minimize the Impact of Inevitable Errors

The best way to minimize the impact of a mistake or harsh critique about your written work is to leave enough time to fix it. Apologize, accept responsibility, and then get to work. Here’s why you should plan to finish your projects several days early, if possible:

  • When you leave enough time for corrections and revisions, you leave yourself time for another chance to incorporate the feedback and produce a stellar document by the deadline.
  • When you give your work product to the assigning attorney before the time crunch, they are less stressed, more willing to explain, and more willing to give you another opportunity to improve your work.
  • If you let your work sit overnight, you can review it with fresh eyes and catch more of your own mistakes before submitting it for review.

Your first draft may not have been met with glowing reviews, but your second draft could be. Showing that you listened and providing a new document that follows the advice that you received positively alters the overall perception of your work, including the original draft. At the very least, leaving time for feedback shows your understanding that all people and deadlines are interconnected.

Don’t Make It Personal—Try Software

All six tips are easier said than done. It’s hard not to feel nitpicked when you’ve spent a lot of time creating a written document that you believe is elegant, nuanced, and, frankly, perfect. It’s inevitable that when the reviewing attorney points out big errors, you will flinch. When they point out small errors, you will feel nitpicked. You can make this process less painful by using proofreading and editing software.

With the help of software, you can deliver an error-free document that encourages the reader to be more forgiving of other more nuanced issues that you couldn’t have known about without more experience. Then you can focus in your critique session on learning as much as possible and becoming the best lawyer that you can be. If you get the low-hanging fruit out of the way first, then you can focus on your feedback on the most important things that can be true learning opportunities.

Use PerfectIt with American Legal Style to catch your errors, super-charge proofreading, and improve your written work before you turn it in. PerfectIt spots legal-specific typos, inconsistencies, and other mistakes that no spell check or grammar check can find. It also helps to enforce the legal writing style guidelines that every attorney is expected to know, but rarely looks up. These are the errors that are hardest to spot, but that attorneys at any level are expected to be able to find and fix.

By cutting out small errors, reviewing attorneys will have nothing to nitpick. That changes the impression that your work makes and puts them in a more positive mindset about the rest of your work. No matter how careful you are, you’ll be surprised how many small mistakes can slip by. Run the free trial on your next brief or memo and see the difference it makes.

Conclusion: Focus Your Feedback on Learning

Attitude is almost everything. Use these tips to prepare yourself to accept and implement feedback effectively while maintaining a positive outlook.

Ivy B. Grey is the author of American Legal Style for PerfectIt. It adds polish, reduces frustration, and saves non-billable time. Ms. Grey is also a Senior Attorney at Griffin Hamersky LLP. She's been named as a Rising Star in the New York Metro Area three years in a row, and her significant representations include In re AMR Corp. (American Airlines), In re Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP, In re Eastman Kodak Company, and In re Nortel Networks Inc.