This article has been written by Justin from LawTeacher helping law students with their law essays since 2003.
Drafting a legal letter is not something that should be undertaken lightly, or on the spur of the moment. It is important to remember that legal documents, including letters drafted for a supervising solicitor may, in time, become part of the legal process and may even be read out in court, if the information contained within the letter is pertinent to the case. There are several factors to consider when beginning to draft a letter:
What purpose will this letter serve? There are generally three categories into which legal letters can fall; information, guidance or request. Consider the purpose of the letter and once you pin down why the letter needs to written that will give invaluable assistance in the wording of the document.
Who will be reading the letter? The letter will need to be handled very differently depending on whether it is going to be read by a judge or other solicitors who will have a thorough understanding of legal terms and nuances, or if it is going to be pored over by a layperson with little or no legal training. The target audience of the letter must be considered so that the wording can be adjusted accordingly.
Legal letters can be read by frantically busy lawyers who have little time to read through a confusingly worded document; they may discard the letter, or put it to one side for later, which may have a negative impact on the case at hand. On the other hand, legal letters are often sent to plaintiffs or defendants, people who may be very worried by the legal bother they find themselves in, and who may not have a clear-cut understanding of legal definitions and terms. To avoid any confusion, a legal letter should follow a clear structure; an opening paragraph that summarises the details of the case, followed by a second paragraph indicating the action taken, or needing to be taken, along with any guidance that may be felt necessary to pass along. A concluding paragraph should indicate any other information and possibly repeat a call to action with a dead line or time limit. When ending a letter to a known and named person, ‘Mrs A Smith’ for example, the end salutation should be ‘Yours Sincerely’; while a letter addressed to an unknown or unnamed person, that is ‘Dear Sir or Madam’, would end with ‘Yours Faithfully.’
The tone of a letter should be dictated by the audience and the purpose of the communication. The recipient’s situation must be remembered when formulating the letter and tone adjusted accordingly. If the letter is dealing with an estate it must be remembered that there are bereaved people involved, who have lost a loved one, and a certain amount of sympathy and empathy should be employed. Likewise, if the legal situation is becoming urgent and needs to be dealt with in a very short time, the tone should reflect this state of affairs and insist on a response. A politely-worded missive risks being ignored until it is too late.
All legal documents must be 100 per cent accurate. You don’t want to find yourself in a situation where a defendant has walked free because of a poor quality document which enabled the defence to cast doubts on the strength of the prosecutor’s case – a nightmare scenario to be avoided at all costs! Double- and triple-check all facts included in the letter, ensure names are spelt correctly and that addresses are not only correct, but up-to-date. Use a dictionary or a spell-checker, then read through the letter minutely, looking for any mistakes that may have crept in.
The Solicitor’s Code of Conduct 2007 emphasises that customer care is paramount in all dealing between solicitor and client and this must be adhered to strictly. Ensure that the client is given all the relevant information and be sure to include terms and conditions of the law firm including a recent, accurate price list. Clients must be informed of any potential costs they may incur, for example, if the case is lost they may be responsible for the other parties’ legal fees. Rule 1 of the Code of Conduct gives details of the Core Duties a solicitor must afford his or her customers and some part of a legal letter must include this information, or at the very least, mention the enclosures with the letter that supply this information.
In short, when drafting a letter for your LPC supervising solicitor make sure that you have all the information to hand, including the latest updates. Make sure you have no distractions while you work, and set aside enough time for a good draft to be made in one sitting. This will prevent accidental slip-ups, like vital information being left out, and will help the letter to flow in a readable and ‘user-friendly’ manner.