Hiring a Full-time Legal Editor
by Rachelle J. Canter, Ph.D.

Oakland's Crosby, Heafey, Roach & May has long recognized that top-notch writing is essential to the successful practice of law.  When Clyde Leland, an experienced lawyer with 11 years of journalism experience, proposed that the firm create a position for a full-time legal editor, Crosby, Heafey was ready to listen.

A big firm, recognizing how important it is to teach associates to write well, but not wanting this critical and time-consuming responsibility to divert attorneys from billable work, hired the nation's first and only full-time legal editor with a major full-service law firm.

When he contacted the firm with his idea for a "law firm editor," Leland was an editor at California Lawyer magazine, where he had worked for seven years and was exposed daily to the quality of writing in the legal profession.  This exposure, and his belief that  "The written word is our currency as lawyers", led to the creation of this self-made position.

A Nice Match

Leland decided to approach firms that satisfied three criteria.   First, the firm must be large enough to support a full-time editor.  Second, it must have a substantial appellate practice.  And, third, the firm must have a good reputation for writing, and therefore respect the craft.  Crosby, Heafey met all these requirements.

Like many law firms, Crosby, Heafey recognized the importance of teaching its associates to write well, but it did not want this time-consuming task to divert senior lawyers from their billable work.  Leland's proposal was an answer to this dilemma.  In addition, what Leland didn't know, was that Crosby, Heafey had recently set a goal to write more articles for publication.

The firm soon hired Leland, who became the nation's first full-time legal editor with a major full-service firm.

The Editor's Contributions

By all accounts, the five-year legal editor experiment has been a "smashing success." In his role as the firm's legal editor, Leland's responsibilities include three main areas:

Training is Leland's primary responsibility. He offers courses for all the firm's lawyers, as well as courses for support staff. For associates, in workshops of up to 12 participants, he uses the participants' own writing samples to communicate important principles of effective legal writing.  He also provides personal coaching to anyone who asks for it.  The associate training program includes mandatory review of all writing produced by first year associates for a six-week period. When performance reviews point to writing problems, Leland assists those lawyers.

During the last year he has offered courses to everyone in the firm, from partner to secretaries.  Examples are his courses on the importance of theme in persuasive writing (for lawyers),  proof-reading (for secretaries), and  memo writing (for managers).

How effective has the legal editor been?  While quantitative data are scarce, Leland has saved the firm thousands of dollars in seminar fees by delivering over 1,000 hours a year in training.   The firm now publishes an average of three to four articles a month.  And local judges have commented on the higher quality of the firm's writing.

Quality Outcomes

An in-house legal editor with a full-time, dedicated role to train, edit, and produce legal writing can be an invaluable asset to a law firm.    A writing professional improves the quality of writing throughout the firm, ensures that the firm benefits from the increased quality and quantity of writing training, and frees lawyers to focus on what they do best. 

Hiring a full-time editor, rather than a part-time consultant, has a number of advantages.  Among these, the firm has greater continuity and standardization in its writing training, creating a consistent voice and quality in the firm's writing.  In addition, Leland's responsibilities have expanded to writing and editing marketing materials and internal communications.  He also reviews prospective employees' writing samples. 

Now an experienced trainer, he has assumed oversight responsibility for all the firm's training programs.

Another big advantage of an in-house person is the ability to provide specific assistance on the actual work products of lawyers and staff.  This has a much more direct and valuable impact on writing than do outside training programs, which work with generic samples.

In deciding to hire Leland, the firm's management envisioned his primary objective as training associates in legal writing. Over time, as those associates have become partners, and as Leland's reputation and training programs have spread, he has increased his training of partners, too.  This has broadened his impact in facilitating clear, thematic, strong legal writing for the firm.

While other firms have hired English professors to serve similar functions, Crosby, Heafey says that Leland's legal training has proved essential to his ability to grasp legal concepts quickly and in depth.  This has enabled him to provide specific writing and editorial assistance that, along with his law degree, enhances his credibility with lawyers.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 1997 issue of Leadership & Management Directions (Volume 7, Issue 3,), a publication of the American Bar Association.  Copyright © 1997 American Bar Association.  All rights reserved.  This information of any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.