Letter writing is one of the most important skills a lawyer can develop, since we are writing letters (or something resembling them) basically every day of our professional lives.
This is part of my series on communication techniques, where I started with a look at effective techniques for interviewing clients.
Today we’re moving away from the scary face to face stuff and into the things that lawyers think they’re really good at – writing letters.
Communication Techniques for Effective Legal Drafting
So why bother? I mean, surely the 35 seconds you spent on “plain English drafting” at university is sufficient, right?
And yet, every young lawyer that proudly brings a letter into my office for the first time watches with a look of horror on their face as I line through and rephrase a lot of it.
Of course, we’ve got to acknowledge the fact that there are as many writing styles as there are lawyers, and that although some aspects of letter writing are clear, others are more nuanced and subtle. Therefore an element of subjectivity necessarily intrudes on the process.
But since this is my website…
1 – Less is More
I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one (Blaise Pascal, or Mark Twain – depending on who you read)
We write overly long sentences, paragraphs and letters. The appropriate length of any element of a letter is, of course, subjective. In this blog I use a less formal style and I have a different approach to what I might use in a letter. As a result, some of my sentences are longer (due to asides like this) than they might be in a written advice.
A devotion to succinct letter drafting will force you to:
- get a grip on what’s really needed;
- hone your point better; and
- use clear language.
2 – Clarity of Purpose
Before you start drafting something, understand its point. Are you advising, demanding, berating, questioning, enclosing or a combination of the above?
Without this, a large number of words will end up on the page with very little point.
3 – Knowledge of Client
The best communication technique for any given client is the one that they prefer you to use.
Some clients like less detail, some more. Some like citations, others don’t. Some will follow your advice due to trust, and others want to see you’ve considered every option.
It’s not a case of “one size fits all” in legal drafting – you have to consider the qualities and characteristics of your audience. If you’re working in the dark here and can’t get any more information, then assume you are writing to a person of average intelligence, average education, and average experience (pure statistics mean you will get closest by doing this).
4 – Appropriate Words
This goes hand in hand with knowledge of client, but we need to avoid trying to sound clever just for the sake of it.
The role of the solicitor is frequently to boil complex issues down to simple explanations. If your explanations aren’t simple, then you might as well have just sent your research file to the client and not bothered writing your letter.
That said, I’m not totally against using proper (I say proper – other people say “stupid”) language. As a result I sometimes use complex (albeit legitimate) words in my letters that others think are over the top. Having another person read your correspondence is a good temperature check for this kind of thing – while I don’t want to lower the bar in my writing, if others think it sounds to snooty then I’ve done something wrong.
5 – Redundant Phrases are Redundantly Redundant
Tell me if any of these sound familiar:
- “We refer to previous correspondence”
- “We note that…”
- “We advise that…”
We have a collection of nifty little phrases in the legal profession that don’t really have any meaning but are used as a fallback position when we don’t know what to say.
Don’t know how to start your letter? Fear not – you can just refer to “previous correspondence”.
If you want to just state a fact – that’s OK, you can “note that…”
Afraid of just expressing an opinion? That’s fine, you can always “advise that…”
None of these phrases do or mean anything, of course – it’s just our way of sounding important.
6 – Latin… seriously?
Don’t use Latin in letters to clients.
7 – Personality Mismatch
Many lawyers are fairly affable. We speak to people easily and freely, and we communicate our points fairly well in conference.
Yet, when it comes time to write things down, we go all formal and boring sounding. Our points become lost in a haze of complexity.
Here’s my theory why:
- you haven’t been trained to speak – so you do it naturally;
- you have been trained (whether you know it or not) to write – and so you do it unnaturally.
You’ve been speaking to people for a long time, and so you’re probably pretty good at it. But your writing comes from your legal education, which has focused on the consumption of legal papers and cases, together with the writing of academic works. Neither of those things bears any resemblance to how you really communicate.
The result is that your letters don’t “sound like you”.
If you can read your draft letter and think “I could say this out aloud and not sound stupid” then you’re on the right track.
Of course, some things don’t translate to writing that well and a few phrases might need to change here or there – but try to stay authentic and have your own voice, rather than writing like you think you are supposed to be.
More Communication Techniques for Letters
Of course there are plenty more techniques you can use to utilise beyond those I’ve mentioned about. Executive summaries, dot points/numbering, graphics and many more can make an appearance. But if you keep the core communication techniques above in the forefront of your mind, you’ll be fine to get the rest in order over time.