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Small Section Guide Memo Writing Essay

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A Guide to Writing a Legal Memorandum
(for Small-Section Students)

University of Wisconsin Law School

Fall 2011

This guide summarizes general advice for first-semester students on how to write a memorandum of law. In the fall semester, the small-section memo writing project is designed to give you some initial experience with writing in the larger context of a doctrinal course. Writing can be a helpful tool in your learning process during the semester, and you can use your small-section memo as a writing sample for summer job applications. You will receive more detailed instruction and practice in legal writing during your formal Legal Research & Writing courses in the spring of your first year and the fall of your second year of law school.

NOTE: If your professor gives you instructions or preferences that conflict with anything in this guide, be sure to follow those instructions instead.

The Purposes of a Memo

The primary goals of a legal memorandum are to educate the reader about the law relevant to a particular issue and to explain how that law will apply to specific facts. A memo presents an objective analysis of the law, not a persuasive argument intended to advocate on behalf of a client. Although a memo can be a tool in preparing a persuasive case, it is typically an in-house document that tries to predict how an impartial judge would decide the case.

Lawyers and law students write memos for a variety of reasons. For example, a student in a law clinic might write a memo to a supervising attorney who has asked a question about the law. A judicial clerk might write a memo to a judge evaluating the strengths and weakness of the opposing sides of a case and explaining what result the law seems to require. A lawyer might write a memo to prepare colleagues for a meeting with a client who wants to know how the law affects her situation and who is seeking legal advice.

The Audience for a Memo

You should assume that the audience for your memorandum is a law-trained reader who is unfamiliar with the particular rules or facts of your case. Although you will submit your memo to your assigning professor—who is an expert in that area of law—you should not write your memo with your professor in mind. Instead, imagine that you are writing for a legal reader who does not know about the applicable law or your client’s case. This will help you to include necessary background information and better depth of discussion, and it will make your memo more useful for future readers.

The law-trained reader – In writing your memo, you can assume that your reader is trained in the law. This has several implications for your writing. First, it means that you should not explain very basic ideas relating to law or the legal system, or you risk writing “down” to your audience. For example, you would not explain that judges look to previously decided cases to reach a decision in a new case. Any lawyer will know this basic rule of “stare decisis.” However, it is acceptable to emphasize certain aspects of basic legal concepts to anticipate questions your reader may have about your analysis. For example, if your issue is not governed by any binding cases (under rules of stare decisis), you could note that point briefly in your memo by saying, “Because there is no binding authority on point, the court will lo...

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