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Basics of Writing Samples, Transcripts, and References

When is a writing sample necessary?

If you are sending your resume to employers, you should only include a writing sample if specifically requested. Most law firms and public interest organizations do not want writing samples at the initial stage of the application process. However, nearly all judges require a writing sample with the initial clerkship application materials. Many public sector employers will request a writing sample after they determine that they are interested in hiring you. While some law firms will request a writing sample at that time as well, others never request one.

When signing up for employers during the Fall Interview Program, you can check the Career Management System to see if the employer has requested that you bring a writing sample to the initial interview. In an unscientific survey of FIP employers, around half indicated that they seek a writing sample at some point in the interview process. Among those employers, half indicated that they ask for it at the screening interview, 10% ask for it between the screening and callback interview and 30% seek it at the callback stage. The wisest course of action is to have a writing sample ready to provide to employers at every stage of the interview process in case it is requested.

Even if a writing sample is not specifically required, you should realize that your cover letter, résumé, and every piece of paper you submit will be viewed as a writing sample. Everything should be technically perfect and as well-written as you can make it.

What is an appropriate writing sample?

Legal employers would rather see legal analysis; something like a memo or brief is preferred over a research paper, and something on a legal topic is preferable to a nonlegal paper. The ultimate criterion, however, is the quality of the writing. If you are convinced that no legal memorandum or brief comes close to the quality of one of your research papers, choose your best writing. In addition, less outside editing is better, which is why previously published pieces are not automatically at the top of the list. If you use a document prepared for a prior employer, you must get the employer's permission and make sure you have made all necessary modifications and redactions to preserve client confidentiality.

The topic of the writing sample is not much of a concern for law firms. Public interest organizations naturally would be more interested in something written about the area of their work. It offers an additional indication of the applicant's interest in the subject; however, a writing sample on a different topic is not disqualifying (and legal employers recognize that first year law students have limited choices for writing samples). Judges also generally don't care about the topic of the sample.

How long should the writing sample be?

Although there is no definitive ideal length for a writing sample, 5-10 pages typically serves the purpose of demonstrating your writing ability. If all of your potential writing samples are much longer, consider using an excerpt (e.g., one argument from a longer brief) and providing a brief explanatory note.

How should I package it?

Create a cover sheet for your writing sample. It can have a simple heading–just your name centered at the top of the page and “Writing Sample” centered underneath it. Use your cover sheet to give any necessary background information about your writing sample. For example, if you use a writing project prepared for class (as most first-years do); give the name of the class and a brief description of the assignment. If your assignment contained forced limitations (the type of research you are allowed to conduct, the side of the argument you are required to take, etc.), explain those limitations on your cover sheet. If you are excerpting from a longer document, add whatever background is necessary to make the excerpt understandable. If you are using a document prepared for a former employer, explain that you have obtained the employer’s permission and made all necessary modifications.

The typical cover sheet explanation is two paragraphs; do not exceed one page. You do not need to use “resume-grade” paper for your writing sample or cover sheet. See Appendix B of the Introduction to Career Development guide for sample writing sample cover sheets.

Should I include a list of references?

Provide a list of references only when requested or when your references are personally known to the employer. Include the names of two or three persons who can recommend you for employment based on their personal experience with you either as a student (preferably as a law student) or as an employee. Employers are seeking more than character references. They are interested in references who can describe you in terms of those skills deemed important to the success of any junior attorney, including legal analysis and writing, ability to assume responsibility, and interpersonal skills.

If one or more of your references are law school faculty members, be sure that they know more about you than that you performed well in their class. Choose professors who know you from your class participation, from conversations outside of class, or from research or other independent work that you performed for them.

Prior to listing someone as a reference, have a frank conversation to be sure that he/she is comfortable with providing you with a strong, positive recommendation. Although this conversation may be awkward, it is important to learn this information up front. If possible, take some time to speak with them about your career interests as they relate to the employers who may be contacting them. In addition, provide them with a copy of your resume so they can become familiar with your background and experiences. See the sample List of References in Appendix B of the Introduction to Career Development guide for formatting ideas.

In that same unscientific survey of recent FIP employers, just over one-third of employers indicate that they request a list of references. Among those employers, close to half wish to see the list at the screening interview, one-third seek it at the callback interview, and 15% seek it after an offer has been given. As with the writing sample, the wisest course of action is to have a list of references prepared and ready to provide to employers at every stage in the interview process in case it is requested.

How do I handle requests for a transcript?

Unless an employer specifically requests an official transcript, you should feel free to provide an unofficial transcript. Be aware, however, that printed on the back of an official YLS transcript is an explanation of the law school’s unique grading system. If you send an unofficial version, you may wish to obtain a photocopy of the grading explanation from the Registrar. An “Unofficial Academic Record” is also available through the Registrar’s website, but we do not recommend submitting this to employers because your name is not included on the document and it is not formatted properly. If you have incompletes or works in progress on your transcript, provide employers with an explanatory cover sheet. Talk to a CDO counselor if you have questions about what to say.

Requests for official and unofficial transcripts must be made online at http://transcript.law.yale.edu. There is typically a 24-48 hour turnaround time. Unofficial transcripts can be photocopied. Official transcripts cannot be photocopied and only 10 may be requested at one time.

Employers request transcripts to view your grades and your course selections. First-year students who are asked to provide a transcript can explain to employers that grades are unlikely to be available before April (first semester grades from professors are due to the Registrar on the second Monday after Spring Break and are available on your transcripts a few days after that), and that, pursuant to the law school’s grading policy for first term, your transcript will show only credit or fail for each course. You can offer to send your transcript when grades are available, or to send an undergraduate transcript immediately if that would be helpful. Even prior to grades being available, some employers may be interested in receiving a copy of your transcript to see your course selections. Courses are listed on your transcript as soon as you commence the course selection process. For first-year students, that means that spring courses will be listed on your transcripts starting the first week of December. If you think your course selections may be a selling point to employers, you may wish to hold off on sending transcripts until your spring courses have been selected. For upperclass students participating in FIP, Fall Term course selections will appear on your transcripts.

For additional information about transcripts, consult the Registrar’s website. For specific guidelines regarding transcripts for judicial clerkship applications, consult CDO’s Judicial Clerkships in the U.S. guide.

-Updated July 2014