“Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”1
Reports of the death of the business letter are exaggerated or, at best, premature, despite the advent of email, shared folders and files, smart phones, and social networks. Nearly all lawyers continue to write professional letters, yet few lawyers have specific training to do so. The following tips attempt to fill that gap and to shorten the learning curve until business letters breathe their last.
1) Choose a Format and Stick to It
The days when lawyers’ secretaries would learn the conventions of business-letter writing in “secretarial school” have passed into history, and “typing class” has gone the way of the rotary-dial phone. Now, you must learn the general format of a business letter from books such as the Gregg Reference Manual2; in templates included in word processing programs; or at online sites such as the Purdue Online Writing Lab.
Once you have chosen a format, use that format consistently as a general template so that clients recognize your style and know what to expect while your staff, if any, understand your preferences and system.
2) Create Templates for Standard Types of Correspondence
If you write similar letters regularly, then create forms. Form letters serve as rudimentary checklists, and you save time by not searching through computer files to find the letter you wrote last month so you can send a similar letter to a different client this month.
3) Devise a Writing Strategy Based on Audience and Goal
A lawyer often plunges into writing a letter without taking a few moments to think about its audience and purpose. A letter is a worthwhile communication tool only if the recipient understands, and is receptive to, its content. Knowing this, the conscientious lawyer tailors the letter to meet the characteristics of the person to whom the letter is directed. Often, however, the lawyer fails to identify the characteristics of the wider audience. For example, if you are writing to opposing counsel, the audience expands to include opposing counsel’s client, at the least, but possibly also to the client’s family members, business associates, or even neighbors. Taking a few minutes to contemplate “who will see this letter” may help you set the letter’s tone and content.
Assessing the purpose of the letter is as important as identifying the potential audience. Most letters offer advice, persuade someone to a course of action, or inform someone about something. The letter’s central purpose deserves the most attention, but the letter may also serve secondary purposes: create or maintain rapport; clarify facts or strategies; seek information; request directions about how to proceed; and establish time frames or communication parameters.
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Occasionally, a secondary purpose is the letter’s main focus. For example, if you are awaiting a court decision for an impatient client, you might write a letter to the client informing the client that the court has not yet made a decision. Although the letter’s ostensible purpose is to inform the client of the status of the case, its true purpose is to maintain rapport with an uneasy client.
After you have analyzed the audience and determined the purposes of the letter, you must develop a writing strategy that acknowledges the importance of projecting a professional image and maintaining appropriate, and consistent, tone. Each lawyer brings an individual style and personality to letter-writing. An effective writer tries to project an image of competence and trustworthiness without sacrificing this individuality. In doing so, the lawyer should pay particular attention to the letter’s tone. Underestimating the effect of tone may result in unhappy clients and annoyed adversaries. To discover if your letter’s tone is what you intend, read the letter aloud. Then alter the words, sentence length, voice (active or passive), or style to achieve your desired tone throughout the letter.
4) Organize Intentionally
Once you have decided what to say and how to say it, you must organize your letter. For example, you might organize a client advice letter like this: introduction; short statement of material facts; short conclusion; analysis; extended conclusion and recommendation, if any; and closing. You would alter this organization for other types of letters, but every letter should follow an intentional design so that the recipient receives your message in an understandable way. Formal letters should not be “stream of consciousness” or dash-offs. If the subject matter is important enough to warrant a letter, then the letter’s style must reflect its important mission. As part of the organization, confirm that the letter uses the formatting you have adopted for all letters (see Tip 1).
5) Don’t Forget the Mundane Details
Sometimes the devil truly is in the details. Be sure to note at the bottom of the letter if you are including enclosures. The historical convention was to simply type “enc.” at the left margin following the signature line, with the identification of the enclosures noted in the body of the letter. The more modern convention is to list the enclosures following the “enc.” or “enclosure” notation so that no question arises as to what is included. The specific enumeration serves as a convenient checklist if a staff member is compiling the enclosures.
Always keep an exact copy of the letter. If you are saving the copy electronically, be certain that the date is not a macro that will update each time the letter is pulled up; you want the date on the saved copy to be identical to the date on the original.
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If you transmit the letter electronically, use a system that allows you to confirm that the letter was sent and, if possible, received. If you send the letter via mail or another delivery service, confirm that the address on the envelope is identical to the address on the letter. You are not expected to keep a copy of the envelope but if lack of delivery becomes an issue, you must be able to rely on the practice of using the exact address on the envelope that you used in the letter’s heading.
Remember to sign your letters. An unsigned letter does not present the same problems as an unsigned pleading or affidavit, but it may project a less professional image than intended.
Generally, you should sign and mail the letter on the date used in the letter’s heading. However, given mail pick-up times and other realities of law practice, you might not be able to follow a “mail on same date” policy. Sometimes letters written on Friday go out on Monday; sometimes letters written on Sunday go out on Tuesday; sometimes holidays or vacations intervene. However, you should develop a policy about these delays and follow a standard practice with respect to date, signature, and mailing issues. For example, if you are writing a letter that you are certain will not go out the same day, you might use the expected mailing date in the letter’s heading. On the other hand, you might have a policy to always date the letter on the day you write (or dictate) it, without regard to when it is mailed.
6) Consider “Refreshing Your Recollection”
You may have been exposed to letter-writing in law school or elsewhere, but perhaps that exposure seems long ago and far away. In addition to the resources listed in Tip 1, you might consider digging out your old writing textbooks. Those listed here (or previous editions) may already be on your shelf:
- Legal Writing: Getting It Right and Getting It Written, by Mary Bernard Ray and Jill J. Ramsfield (West, 5th ed. 2010);
- Legal Writing and Other Lawyering Skills ch. 15, by Nancy L. Schultz and Louis J. Sirico Jr. (Aspen/Wolters Kluwer, 5th ed. 2010);
- Writing and Analysis in the Law ch. 15, by Helene S. Shapo, Marilyn R. Walter, and Elizabeth Fajans (Foundation Press, revised 5th ed. 2008).
Business letters, whether mailed, scanned, or delivered electronically, are alive in law practice. Use the tips in this article to keep them “well” until they are truly replaced by new forms of communication.
1 This statement often is attributed to Mark Twain, although apparently it is a misquote or paraphrase. See Mardy Grothe, Viva la Repartee 124-25 (HarperCollins, 2009).
2 William Sabin, Gregg Reference Manual (McGraw-Hill College, 11th ed. 2010).