From Homer’s Odyssey to the shortest stanza, legal letters have a tendency to vary wildly when it comes to length.
So how long, really, should a letter letter actually be?
Just how long should a legal letter of advice be?
I’m sure you’ve seen both ends of the spectrum and today we’re going to have look at the factors that go into how long a letter of advice should be, from a lawyer to a client.
Sometimes I’ve seen letters that are 20 pages long. I have in fact seen letters over 100 pages long that contain the advice that the person sought.
I’ve also seen letters of advice that have been one page long.
What were the distinguishing features?
Now, on the one hand it would be easy to say things like this:
- “No letter of advice should be more than two pages long,” or,
- “No letter of advice should be shorter than one page long, because you can’t possibly have gone into the intricacies.”
But that’s not very helpful for you at all – so we’re going to do better than that.
The Length of a Legal Letter is a Subtle Question
It is a subtle and nuanced question. And so in order to determine how long a letter of advice should be, I’m going to give you this answer:
it should be as long as it has to be, but no longer.
That’s not that helpful, so let’s look at it from a practical perspective.
Who is the advice for?
The advice might be for different categories of people.
If you have a sophisticated client, you might not need to go into the fundamentals. You might need to just leap to the answer.
If you have a long-standing client who trusts your opinion but you need to reduce something to writing at their request, perhaps they don’t need all the normal butt-covering that you might otherwise put into a longer letter of advice.
If you have, though, a new client, perhaps a less sophisticated client who doesn’t know a lot of the legal jargon, but you know from your meetings with them that they are particularly interested in knowing more detail about how you’ve arrived at your conclusion and you want to avoid some of the second-guessing and some of the information that’s going to come back after you deliver your advice, then perhaps what you can do is you can insert some of that information into your letter.
So think about this: who is your audience? Who are you writing for? Because that is going to have an impact on how much information must go into your advice.
What’s the Letter of Advice About?
Next step is this: what is the advice actually about? What is the question that was asked?
Because a lot of the advices I’ve seen go into all of these different questions, and perhaps unnecessarily.
If you’ve been asked, “Can I sue for breach of contract?”, do you really need to establish, for example, that there was a contract if that’s not an issue?
Do you need to establish that there was consideration?
Do you need to talk about equity? Do you need to talk about estoppel?
Those things might come into play in a breach of contract case, but they might not, so what is it that you actually have to answer? Because if things haven’t been raised directly by the question, and the answer doesn’t in fact impact the advice you’re giving in any way, I’d say you can probably safely leave it out.
Do you Need to Repeat your Instructions (’cause clients don’t read that bit)?
The next thing I want to get you to think about is this: do you need to regurgitate facts back to your client?
I see letter after letter after letter that does this. “You have told us the following things,” or, “You have provided us the following documents.”
Now, I understand why lawyers do this, I do. I understand that what you want to do is to limit your advice to being based upon the information that you have been provided, but does it need to be in the letter?
I can guarantee you your client does not read that part of your letter. Now, if you want to protect for the risk, perhaps you can take those things and put them into an appendix.
But for the actual letter of advice, that’s not advice; that’s regurgitation. You’re just telling the client what they already know.
They know what they gave you. They know what they told you.
If you’re making assumptions, that’s a different thing. But if you’re just telling your client what they’ve already told you, they’re going to be a bit annoyed that they have paid $400 an hour for you to write a letter of advice just to tell them what they already told you. Put it in an appendix. Get it out of the letter of advice.
Perhaps don’t even put it in at all, depending on how they provided the information. You can just put in one line: “we base this advice on the information and documents you’ve provided us, if you have any questions or concerns, feel free to get in touch with us.”
Now, I know that’s going to be a problem for a lot of lawyers, because they’ve grown up in the law seeing a very different approach. Give it some thought. Do you really need that information in your letter, or is there another way you can do it?
Do you Have to “Earn” Your Fees by Writing More?
The next one I want to tackle is this: “the advice has to be longer, otherwise the client won’t appreciate the bill they get”.
I see this pretty often, and I can understand it from one perspective. If you spend a lot of time researching to arrive at a conclusion or a lot of legwork has gone in, but ultimately you can boil your advice down to a single page, how is the client going to react when they get the bill?
If you’re going to send a $10,000 invoice on a one page letter of advice, how is your client going to react to that?
again, this is a subtle issue, and it’s a difficult issue depending on who your client is, because some clients might react badly to that, and explaining the value that went into that letter of advice might be extremely difficult.
Perhaps what you can do is give them the letter of advice in a one-pager or a two-pager and put your research memorandum behind it so they can understand the amount of detail that went into the product.
But again, most clients, I won’t say all, but most, certainly many, don’t really care how you arrived at the conclusion.
I know there are a lot of bush lawyers out there and they like to Google things and they like to check the information and the data and the advice they’ve been given, but most clients who have approached you for legal advice will rely upon your professional opinion.
The only reason you need to do anything else is because you want to do some backside covering or you want to justify your bill. That’s not necessarily the best reason to have something in a letter of advice, but perhaps it’s a reason to have something in a memorandum that you can attach.
Bring your Letter Back to the Fundamentals
So once you’ve written your letter, you’ve taken some of these things into account, how can you bring it back down? How can you boil it down to the fundamentals?
A lot of people get caught up in the drafting process and they find that their advices are much, much longer than what they have to be.
But there is a way you can boil it down, and that’s to go back to the first couple of questions we asked, which is:
- who is the advice to; and
- what is the question that they wanted answered?
With that you can pare back, you can start removing.
Cull out the things that don’t actually address those issues will help the client in those areas, because they’re unnecessary. They haven’t asked those questions. Those issues haven’t actually been troubling the client at all.
So how are you going to go about doing that? If you have any sort of letter really, but in a letter of advice, if a client’s asked a question, make sure you have answered the question.
If you’ve got something in there that doesn’t answer the question and isn’t directly necessary to explain why you’ve answered the question in that particular way, then perhaps you can take it out.
There’s always room for appendices or attached memorandums or further explanation on the phone or whatever, but the letter of advice should be the advice. If your client’s reading things and in their head is going, “Why are they talking about this? “I don’t care about this,” and they’re getting confused, and they’re getting up to page three and they still haven’t actually come across anything which even seeks to address their question yet, then I don’t think you’ve done it right.
You need to look at what is necessary and what is not necessary in order to have your letters streamlined, to have them effective, and to meet that ultimate goal of the advice being as long as it needs to be, but not any longer.
And that is my advice in relation to your advice.
Got any more hints for better legal writing? Let me know in the comments!