Diary of a busy practitioner, juggling work and family somewhere in England
I recently wrote a letter to my eight-year-old, and it reminded me of a few things.
It reminded me that she doesn’t know I write a blog, so there are probably more efficient ways of getting in touch with her. It reminded me of the importance of the written word, and that letter writing will continue to be important for her generation, despite the speed and informality of our current communications. It reminded me that I wanted to add to my series of blogs on softer legal skills with an article on letter and email writing.
I am of the view that the way you communicate as a lawyer is extremely, extremely important. The style you use should be appropriate to the circumstances, and the words you use should be tailored to the (sometimes more than one) recipient.
There is always a word, a phrase, a way of putting something, that will get your point across, convince someone of your point of view, or even just start to put someone in a different frame of mind.
When I was at sixth-form, I dropped a hot iron on my mum’s living room carpet, making a large burn mark. My mum was already at work but she would be home before me. I also knew my gran would be coming in during the day to walk the dog. So, I left a note saying 'Gran dropped the iron on the carpet.' By the time my mum got home from work, my gran had scrawled the word 'FIBBER' on my note, as I knew she would. My mum walked in from work and could only laugh.
I’m not suggesting you lie in correspondence, but simply that you really consider how your recipient will react to it, rather than how you feel sending it. This doesn’t just apply to litigation; every letter you send on behalf of a client is important and must set the right tone to achieve what you want it to achieve.
I recently persuaded my client’s brother, through one letter, to settle his claim against their father’s estate for the sum of £2,000. In that letter I did a number of things. I showed him that I understood the details of his claim. I showed that I wasn’t interested in the copious details he had provided of how my client had always been the favourite child, and why I wasn’t interested. I set out exactly what I would do if he insisted on proceeding with his claim, why I didn’t think he would be successful and suggested he accept my offer before he incurred any further legal costs.
On the other hand, I come across a solicitor fairly regularly who always writes the most formal, aggressive letters. Always, regardless of who he is writing to. Recently he wrote a letter before action to my client, who brought it to me. It was five or six pages long and whilst it was set out in accordance with a pre-action protocol, it was a load of nonsense. I wrote a one-page letter back, answering the questions that I thought would help resolve the matter (yes, they could have a copy of the will; no, the estate wasn’t as large as they thought; that sort of thing) but not over-indulging what was essentially a fishing expedition. Your client, I told him, has not set out a viable claim and my client has no duty to incur legal costs responding to every irrelevant remark you have made, and, unless he came up with a claim with some substance, no I wouldn’t be agreeing to mediation. It is quite unusual for me to not agree to mediation, and if he thought about his knowledge of me, he could infer quite a lot from that.
He emailed me when he got my letter - 'Dear Sirs,' it started. I won’t bore you with the content (although I do hope he is giving his client some realistic costs information at this point) because in the second half of this blog I wanted to turn my attention to the formalities of letter writing, and where I think we are with that in 2021. Bearing in mind the comments I received on my blog about commas, I think I should pause to say this: you may disagree with me. That is OK, I’m just telling you what I think.
I feel quite strongly that 99% of emails should be addressed to an individual. 'Dear Ms Jones,' or 'Dear Chris,' not anything more formal. Particularly if, you know, you’ve been to three networking breakfasts with the person you are emailing. I think, if you are on quite friendly terms, you can replace the word 'Dear' with 'Hi', but not 'Good morning'. It is too clunky. The only time you should be more formal and not address a specific person is when you don’t know the individual recipient - for example if you are emailing an 'info@' address.
In letters, the reality is that 'Dear Sirs' is still the accepted way to start a formal letter to a law firm or other professional practice. I know, I know. But I don’t have an alternative that doesn’t make me look like I don’t know how to write a letter. Grammar and feminism are equally close to my heart. 'Dear Sir/Madam' is only appropriate if you don’t know at all who you are writing to - eg the occupier. Unless your tactic is to stay formal for a particular reason, I suggest very quickly moving your relationship with the recipient on to the point that you can address them directly.
Your letters should usually have a heading, unless perhaps you are writing a very gentle, sensitive letter. There is no need to add the letters 're' before the heading, what with it being 2021.
I think letters look much more professional fully justified, but I know that this is going out of fashion. As such, I think you can be … fully justified … in making your own call on this one, unless you have a firm style.
If you have written the letter from yourself as an individual (eg 'Dear Mrs Smith, I enclose a draft of your will') then the letter should end with 'Yours sincerely' and your name. Small 's' for sincerely. If you have written on behalf of the firm (eg 'Dear Madam, We have been instructed by your neighbour') then you should end with 'Yours faithfully' and the name of the firm.
I’m only going to say this once. 'Kind regards' is written with a small 'r' and ends with a full stop. The much harsher 'Regards' of course has a capital 'R' but again has a full stop. If you want to speak to me about 'Rgds' or 'Best', I don’t want to speak to you.
Capitals should be used at the beginning of sentences and for names. If you have defined a term, this should then become a name and be capitalised. Unless you have defined them, the following words are not names and should not be capitalised in the middle of a sentence:
You get the idea. I literally taught my five year old this last week.
In conclusion, on the substance side of things: don’t pad out letters, be clear and concise, tailor your letter to the recipient, and be sure they know what you are asking of them.
Whilst you may have to be more formal than you would in verbal communication, a good rule of thumb is that if it wouldn’t make sense or flow well verbally, it is probably not right written down.
On the formality side of things, I know it is 2021 but if I receive a letter from you with random capitals, no heading, a mix of 'we' and 'I' and a faithfully instead of a sincerely, I will be as distracted from your message as if you met me at court wearing jeans.
Whilst emails can be more informal, of course, treat them with caution because my final point is this: written communications can have many recipients, including unintended ones. You may write to your client’s neighbour, but they may show it to their solicitor. You may write to your client who then decides to get a second opinion on it. At all times, be proud of what you have written. Especially now that it is - more likely than not- in some kind of digital format, it will be around for a long, long time.
*Some facts and identities have been altered in the above article