Legal Memo Format Basics
September 15, 2022
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What is the legal memo assignment?
The legal memo is an objective memorandum that provides you the opportunity to review and research relevant case law, analyze the facts under that law, and impartially assess the potential outcome of a matter. The legal memo is an assignment that law firm associates are frequently asked to provide to senior attorneys.
Far too often, however, the assigning attorney takes one look at the result and replies, “I knew this already.” To prevent this outcome, it’s important to write a legal memo with sufficient understanding of audience, scope, purpose, and format. With proper planning, law firm associates can maximize the odds of favorable reception at the outset.
Bloomberg Law can help you understand and apply legal issues to your legal memo assignment, so your final product addresses all relevant points right out of the gate.
What’s the difference between a closed legal memo and an open legal memo?
A closed legal memo is an assignment where you are given the case law or other primary law to be used in your writing. Far more challenging is an open legal memo, where you will need to research and identify the relevant law, analyze the most legally significant facts involving a particular client, and provide a critical assessment of how the court will apply the law to the matter.
By extension, unlike a court brief, the legal memo is not the place to wager a legal opinion or argue facts. The legal memorandum serves as an objective standalone document. Therefore, it must maintain an impartial tone, with no implied preference for one side or the other.
How to conduct legal research
Learn about the best practices in legal research, including where to start, familiarizing yourself with an issue, and tips for searching documents.
What’s the standard legal memo format?
Generally, a legal memorandum comprises six sections, with the following information:
1. Heading or caption
A section, titled, “Memorandum,” identifies the recipient (To: _______), the author (From: ____), the assignment submission date (typically in MMMM DD YYYY format), and subject of the memo (Re: __________).
2. Question presented
A brief one-sentence statement that defines how the law applies to the legal question at hand, and the jurisdiction where the matter will be decided. The question presented is specific and impartial and doesn’t assume a legal conclusion.
3. Brief answer
A quick-hit legal prediction to the question presented, based on a short (four to five sentences) explanation that references relevant law and facts.
4. Statement of facts
A concise, impartial statement of the facts that captures the heart of the legal matter, as well as current and past legal proceedings related to the issue. The facts can be chronological or grouped thematically, whichever format presents the facts in the clearest manner.
Restates the main facts and delineates the overarching legal rule. Several paragraphs outline the various legal topics to be addressed in the case and provide an analysis of the legal issues, usually ordered in subsections.
The assigning attorney will likely read this section first. It predicts how the court will apply the law, and how confident you are in your prediction based on the data. With an impartial advisory tone, you identify next steps and propose a legal strategy to proceed.
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How to write a legal memo
Legal research memos can come in many forms—from broad 50-state surveys to more nuanced research on a particular point of law—but whatever the format, it’s important that you fully understand the task entrusted to you before you start typing.
If you tackle your assignment by following the recommended approaches in the legal memo example below, you’ll be more likely to find an appreciative supervising attorney, deliver better work product, cut down on the number of drafts required to arrive at a final product, and, most importantly, please the client.
Legal memorandum sample assignment
Assignment: Prepare an open legal memo on whether, under the Fourth Amendment, the use of a drug-sniffing dog in an apartment hallway is considered a search that requires police to first obtain a warrant.
Step 1: Understand the legal issues
Review legal memo assignment materials
In an open legal memo, you will be tasked with researching relevant primary and secondary resources, such as from national, single, or multiple state entities, as well as appeals circuits, to include in your analysis.
Locate secondary sources
Secondary sources, such as books, treatises, law reviews, and legal analysis publications, are a great starting point to assist with your legal memo research. Although secondary sources are not binding on courts, meaning courts are not required to follow these sources, they are still helpful tools to use when you know little about a topic.
However, remember that while you may know little about a topic, the same may not hold true for your audience. Readers like law partners and assigning attorneys will already know general law. Identify your audience’s presumed level of knowledge, then the most mission-critical questions to address. These identified gaps will inform your fact-finding and research.
Use secondary resources to better fill in the main legal topics and issues as they relate to the facts in the legal memo assignment. Your legal research should help frame the issue and lead to other relevant materials, including cases and statutes.
Throughout, utilize legal memo space wisely. Remember, legal memo length varies by subject. Some topics require only a short summary, while others compel long-form treatment. For guidance, search your firm’s office document management system for previous legal memos.
Sample assignment – Step 1
Understand the legal issues: Legal research depends on the right search terms. In the dog-sniffing case, for example, you can use the keywords: (“Fourth Amendment” and (drug n/3 sniff! s/ dog) and (apartment n/3 hall!) to locate relevant articles on the Bloomberg Law platform.
More broadly, while your search into secondary sources may span books and treatises, law review articles, and other legal analysis publications, make sure to vet all legal authorities for relevance.
[Research tip: It can be challenging to know all relevant keywords. Bloomberg Law provides a convenient search results page, where relevant article blurbs showcase additional keywords to explore. Based on targeted keywords, you can better gather the most relevant background information to assist with your analysis.]
Step 2: Develop a research plan
Identify primary law
Primary sources are not always apparent. In such cases, work your way backward. Reviewing secondary sources will help you identify a list of relevant primary law resources, like case law and related statutes. Keep your research organized and create a research plan to identify key resources. The research plan will list the relevant primary law and how the case or statute supports your comprehensive legal analysis.
Save the relevant cases and statutes to a designated workspace. Bloomberg Law provides a streamlined and secure digital working area where you can add your notes as well as upload and store your drafts to keep organized.
Sample assignment – Step 2
Develop a research plan: In the dog-sniffing assignment, some legal research may mention cases on the use of detection dogs, including the U.S. Supreme Court opinion Florida v. Jardines, 2013 BL 79684 (U.S. 2013). Read through these articles to reveal additional relevant cases and statutes to support your analysis.
Step 3: Confirm your legal memo research
Once you have your research plan, you want to verify all your research to make sure you’re relying on the most current case law available. Bloomberg Law’s litigation tools like the BCite citator tool help you work smarter and faster to validate your case law research—specifically, to determine whether a citation still represents good law and can be relied upon—and helps you to conduct additional research to find more cases and resources that support your legal memo’s findings and conclusions.
Robust verification should ensure you know the following information:
- Composite analysis – the overall treatment of the cited case by other courts.
- Direct history – How a cited case has moved through the court system.
- Case analysis – Cases that have subsequently cited to the case.
- Authorities – Cases relied on by the court in the main case.
- Citing documents – Legal materials, such as court opinions, administrative decisions, and secondary sources that reference your case by citation.
Sample assignment – Step 3
Confirm your research: To see whether Florida v. Jardines is still good law, you will of course need to pull up and review the case status. As part of this verification, you should review how other courts have treated the case. Once you have verified case status, you can better find additional secondary cases and other sources like statutes that cite to your case.
[Research tip: Carefully review whether case law citation can be relied on in your legal memo. While a legal memo is written for internal stakeholders like the assigning attorney, and not for the court system, it may nonetheless serve as a primer for future material.]
Attorneys may later incorporate any case law citations within the legal memo into court filings in support of their arguments. Given this broad potential reach, it’s imperative to verify all case law within your legal memo. Any unverified case law that later makes its way into public documents will result in an admonition from the court.
It is also important not to cherry-pick case citations. Remember the legal memo’s purpose is to inform, not to argue the facts. The legal memo must therefore provide an objective summary of all relevant case law and how it applies to the facts at hand. The omission of negative case law only compromises future legal strategy and heightens client legal exposure.
Step 4: Write an objective analysis
The legal memo showcases your critical legal thinking skills. Use your research plan and research materials to help organize your analysis. Remember to clearly state the law and the facts, in the active voice, and present your analysis in a logical manner.
Even with the IRAC legal memo format (Issue, Rule, Application, and Conclusion), it can be a challenge to write with precision. For example, it may not be clear which details to include in the statement of facts. Skilled legal memo writers often begin with the discussion. With complementary considerations of legal authority and factual criteria, this section clarifies the most legally significant facts and informs other earlier sections like the question presented and brief answer.
Across all stages, Bloomberg Law provides a vast trove of articles and resources to assist you in preparing your legal memo. Whether this is your first or fiftieth legal memo assignment, you can showcase clear and impartial legal analysis in your legal memo and other writing assignments in ways that establish you as a strong legal mind.