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Law research and writing skills: Writing legal memos

Legal memoranda

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Memorandum of advice.

A type of assignment that you may complete in your law degree is a ‘legal memo’. A memo may be addressed to a colleague or supervisor in a law firm (known as an ‘in-house’ memo). This usually outlines the legal issues in a client’s case, and your assessment of that situation in relation to the current law. Another type of memo is a legal policy memo, which may be addressed to a political or organisation responsible for policy change i.e. a submission to a law reform commission.  

Occasionally you may be asked to write a 'letter to the client' or the memorandum may be for the client as well as for a legal colleague. Read your assignment instructions carefully to determine who is the audience for the memo. 

  • You need to focus on the audience as well as the task. For a legal colleague, the tone will be impersonal and objective, the writing concise and precise, using the accepted citing style for any references to legislation or other sources.
  • A 'letter to a client' would be written in a more informative, non-legal style, emphasising the possible actions and likely outcomes of the client’s case, usually with recommendations.
  • You should use headings for clarity, and can also use numbered paragraphs for ease of reference. 

Content and structure:

Most commercial memoranda will be looking at the issues arising from the client’s questions or from a scenario you are asked to advise on.

  • You may begin the memorandum with an executive summary, which gives an overview of your conclusions on the issues. Or, you may begin the memorandum with an outline of the issues to be discussed. 
  • You then need to analyse these issues in depth, ideally under separate headings. Research the current legislation, how this has been interpreted by the courts, and then apply this law to the facts of your scenario. It is helpful to use the IRAC or MIRAT structure for each issue in the client’s situation. Your headings should reflect the issues, and may be phrased as questions. It is helpful to see the memo as a type of ‘problem question’, with a slightly different presentation in that it needs to be in the form of a memorandum. 
  • You must include authorities (cases and/or legislation) to support your application of the law to the facts. Take note of the reasons for ‘considered, distinguished’ etc and any split bench judgments, and how these diverse interpretations of the law are relevant to your client’s situation. Apply the law to the issues arising in your scenario, anticipate counter-arguments, and make a conclusion on each issue. This is usually your assessment of a possible court decision.  

For a memorandum looking at policy issues, e.g. a submission to a law reform commission or politician, start by summarising the issues and their significance.

  • State your position at the start and outline what the memorandum will demonstrate and argue. Usually you will be researching policy matters, perhaps arising from a judgment, perhaps addressing a community concern. The analysis may focus on  the intended purpose of the suggested reform, amendment or submission. 
  • You would usually be looking at how the intended legislative change would interact with existing legislation e.g. between the Commonwealth and the States, or with existing provisions within an Act.Use headings and subheadings to clearly demonstrate the different points of your submission. 
  • Any recommendations would arise logically from your discussion and form the conclusion of your discussion. Address counterarguments and write in a professional yet persuasive tone. 

See our Policy Papers guide for more information.

Memo structure

Suggestions for an in-house research memorandum (NB: there is no one 'right' style. Check your assignment instructions carefully.)

For further tips see our 'Law Study Hacks' video on the left hand side of this page.

Opening:

In practice, at the top of the page will be a file number (usually on the interview record or file note) so that all records on this case are kept together. Not all law school assignments require this, however it may be included.

Below the file number you can include:

                                Recipient:   ______________________

                                Sender:      ______________________

                                Date:          ______________________

Below these details you may write "Re:          ______________________ " (Re is short for ‘Regarding’, which would be the client or organisation concerned in the legal matter)

Body:

Sometimes, the main part of a memo starts with an executive summary. This sets out the main issues, the main areas under dispute or those that require most analytical depth and discussion, especially if the research indicates this is a contentious area of law. This should suffice to provide enough context for the reader and your conclusions/findings/recommendations on those issues. 

You may include a short section outlining the main facts of the case. If you decide to do this in an assignment, try to avoid going into too much detail, especially for relevant facts which will be used in the main discussion. 

For each issue, write a separate heading. Apply the IRAC answer structure for each issue, and come to a mini conclusion for each.

Closing/conclusion:

End the memo with your overall conclusions about the client's situation in relation to the issues you have discussed. If required, state your recommendations. Be succinct and clear with your conclusions. Be realistic with recommendations and conclusions about the client's situation - avoid being overly positive or negative.You may sign off the memorandum with your name.

 

Legal memos

Take a look at this interactive tutorial from University of Ottawa, Legal Memos Made Easy.  You can choose to take on an example file - you will be briefed on the client's story, receive the assigning lawyer's instructions, and get memo writing advice.

Read this article for ideas on How to Structure Your Legal Memorandum.

Find books on legal writing at call number F15 in the Law library on Level 3, or search for "legal writing" via Search. See, for example: