Formal Letter Writing

Formal Letter WritingFormal letter writing is the bane of lawyers.  We just can’t seem to get a break when it comes to how our clients want us to communicate with them.  However, there are some specific strategies we can take on board which is going to assist our formal letter writing, and ultimately our communication skills and legal drafting.

What is Formal Letter Writing?

Before I just leap into things, I’d best explain what I’m talking about.

This blog post is NOT a formal letter.  You can tell this for a few reasons, most of which revolve around the fact that this is neither formal nor a letter.

Formal letters share a number of characteristics:

  • For lawyers, formal letter writing often takes the form of an advice.  Even if it doesn’t, however, if is a letter that is drafted to communicate an important point, complex conclusions, or certain matters in a way that is not personal to the recipient.  That is, anybody could generally pick up a formal letter and understand immediately what it was about and what the conclusions were.
  • Formal letter writing is frequently longer than informal.  Things like “just letting you know that we lost – have a nice day” are not formal.  However, a summary of the same case with facts, arguments, judge’s comments and conclusion is likely to be a piece of formal letter writing
  • Finally, formal letter writing is generally something that young lawyer’s won’t be finalising by themselves without input from a senior lawyer.

How do we traditionally stuff up Formal Letter Writing?

Lawyers are pretty bad at a number of things, one of which is writing formal letters in a way that clients actually read.

Does that shock you?  I’ll say it again – that 15 page advice that you painstakingly wrote, reviewed, marked up, edited and lost sleep over – your client is probably not going to read it.

The bit that they DO read will probably be the one paragraph that had a typo left in it.

Here’s how we get our formal letter writing wrong every day of the week:

  • They are too long.  When we get “in the zone” as lawyers, our letter writing takes on this life of it’s own and frequently ends up 5 or more pages of nonsense gibberish (from the client’s perspective).
  • They contain information that the client simply doesn’t care about.  The 3 pages of the summary of facts – client doesn’t care, nor do they read it.  In fact the only reason you included it in your letter is because you wanted to cover your backside.  Sometimes this is necessary or relevant, but often it’s not.
  • We don’t put the conclusions front and center.  Much like an impatient reader of a murder mystery, your client fundamentally just wants the answer.  By all means include the reasoning if it’s relevant, but the answer to the question, or the recommended course of action is what your client is after.  Just put it up front, because I promise you they are going to flick to the last page anyway if you don’t.

Better Formal Letter Writing Looks Like This

Writing a good formal letter of advice, or any other kind of letter, takes this form:

  • Everything in the letter serves a purpose for the benefit of the recipient.  Anything else can be put in an attachment or an appendix or something.  They probably won’t read it, but then they weren’t really going to anyway.
  • Finding the answer is easy, and finding the principle recommendations is also easy.  These are either in a summary at the start, or under a clear heading at the end (if the letter is short).
  • The letter is absolutely no longer than it must be.  There’s no rigid rule here, but most formal letters don’t need to be longer than a few pages.
  • There is a clear “call to action” in the letter, telling the recipient what they should do next.

Pretty simple isn’t it?  And yet we do have a tendency to stray from these rules pretty frequently.

Try putting these principles into your next formal letter, and let me know how you go.

Any other tips for me?  Let us know in the comments!

Happy Lawyering!