Tips for Writing a Legal Letter of Advice
How to write a legal letter of advice? It's an excellent question with a much hated answer: it depends.
The fact of the matter is that the individual demands of the situation dictate the length and style of legal correspondence just as much as convention. But we've cobble together a few tips to help solos and small firm attorneys get pointed in the right direction. Once you write a few, you'll find that many of these letters practically write themselves.
Know the Subject and Your Audience
Depending on whether or not a fee agreement has already been signed (or a retainer) your letter's length and style will be dictated by a number of factors, including the subject and the sophistication of your client. Be cognizant of your client's ability to understand.
Is your client requesting a demand letter from someone who injured him in a car crash? In PI cases, the length of the letter may be as much a function of whether or not the defendant has insurance (i.e., money).
If you're writing the letter to the defendant personally, then typical demand letters tend to be short and sweet. But if the letter is being written to the insurance adjuster, most demand letters tend to go a little longer -- about four to five pages, depending on the facts and the causes of action claimed. In letters to insurance companies, it's common to include case law and statutes.
Give Your Client What She Paid For
If your client paid for song and verse, then that's what you give them. Increasingly, Unbundled Legal Services are becoming more common. In plain English, this means the attorney gets paid for something less than full representation through trial. That means you could be called on to write a nastygram letter to a defendant and that's it.
It's good to make a good first impression, so make sure that your client gets what she pays for. And there isn't (to our knowledge) any ethical rule prohibiting writing letters before first drafting any sort of correspondence. Careful, however, of charging extra-high fees to write a simple letter that might run afoul of the ABA's "reasonable fees" provision.
Focus on What Matters
In personal experience, I've noticed a tendency for some boutique firms to write long and prolix letters. This, unfortunately, is part of the whole "boutique" experience. That is, there is a belief that if a client is going to a specific firm to deal with a specific matter, they expect legal briefs and letters from law firms to recite chapter and verse and the entirety of the practice guides. Cynically, this means billable hours.
But ethical attorneys should steer away from that. Most likely, a client will be coming to you, hat in hand, simply looking for way to fix his problem. And sometimes a single page can do the trick. Forget the useless fluff.
Always End Client Letters With a Conclusion or Call to Action
When writing an advice letter, always include a conclusion that advises the next course of action. "Don't threaten your ex-wife." "Do continue to return your parole officers' calls." Plain English is always appreciated. A conclusion that includes a call to action in plain black and white is an excellent liability shield.
- Demand Letters: The Lingua Franca of Attorneys (ABA)
- 5 Tips for a Writing Flawless Demand Letter (FindLaw's Greedy Associates)
- Handling Difficult Clients: Three Strategies (FindLaw's Strategist)
- Non-Engagement Letter: When Do You Reject a Client in Writing? (FindLaw's Strategist)
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