How To Write A Legal Letter

It has become obvious to me that many of my colleagues in the legal profession have a real problem with the way they write.

And it’s getting worse.

If you’ve read a letter from a lawyer lately you probably felt some disappointment about the wordsmanship. Where have all the “notwithstandings” and “hereinafters” gone? Is there no room anymore for the humble “thereof”?

This move towards plain English threatens the thing we hold dear in our legal system: that the system remain a bafflingly impenetrable place where nobody but a highly paid expert can make sense of what is going on.

In light of these disturbing trends, I have compiled a short lesson for young lawyers on bringing legalese back into their work.

Take this example of a legal letter. It’s perfectly clear what the author is taking about, isn’t it?

Dear Sir

I act for John Smith. I understand that you act for Bob Black.

Our clients have been discussing a proposed widget supply arrangement.

I have drafted an agreement based on my client’s instructions about what has been agreed. The draft agreement is attached. If the attached draft is acceptable to your client, please arrange for your client to sign it and return it to my client.

Please contact me if you wish to discuss this matter.

Yours faithfully

So where did our author go wrong?

The opening

“Dear Sir” shows no imagination at all. If you want to draw the reader in to your web of deceit and lies, you need to offer something more colourful.

Like this:

To my esteemed fellow colleague: a joy it is to acquaint myself with you. Salutations and solicitations, learned brethren.

Now isn’t that much nicer?

The introductions

Now is where the hard work begins. Don’t go charging in there, people. A legal correspondence is a finely tuned instrument. Treat it carefully and respect it.

If you were planning to romance a beautiful and sophisticated heiress in her boudoir, would you blunder in and state your intended business? Of course not! So why this?

I act for John Smith. I understand that you act for Bob Black.

You’ve just struck out and are going home alone.

Why not try a little sweet-talking?

Whereas it is my humble pleasure to represent Mr. John Smith, a good and honest man whose legal affairs the said author has been entrusted with for a number of years. Insofar as you are duly appointed with full plenipotentiary powers in respect of a certain Mr Bob Black, The said author has been given full authority and capacity to treat with you on behalf of the said Smith, so as to ensure appropriate communication is established to the mutual benefit of both your client (the said Black) and the author’s client (the said Smith).

That will have her heart pounding.

The main part

The trouble of course is that eventually you have to lift the veil. What is it that you want? You have to be ready to tell all.

If you get this part of your letter wrong you do a grave disservice to your client. So be careful.

I’m sure you already see how lacking in sparkle this is:

Our clients have been discussing a proposed widget supply arrangement.

Try this instead:

It now behoves the said author to establish the circumstances behind this communication. In particular, the said Smith and the said Black did on occasions numbering more than once enter into verbal discussions with respect to a matter pertaining to widgets and the supply thereof.

And now you have to get to the real meat of the letter. This is just weak, and it reveals a practitioner who is not on top of his game:

I have drafted an agreement based on my client’s instructions about what has been agreed. The draft agreement is attached. If the attached draft is acceptable to your client, please arrange for your client to sign it and return it to my client.

Let me suggest an alternative:

To that end, and with due consideration being given to the instructions presented to the said author following discussions and correspondences between the said author and the said Smith, the said author has composed a document that purports to represent the position taken by the said Smith in respect of the said widget negotiations, so as to provide an appropriate legal mechanism in respect of binding in a legal manner the said Smith and the said Black into a contractual instrument to the mutual benefit of both of the said parties, notwithstanding that the said contractual instrument thus presented for your perusal and consideration, and the perusal and consideration of your client, being the said Smith, represents an initial draft only and may be subject to further elaboration and consideration should such further elaboration and consideration be required by either your client (the said Black) or the author’s client (the said Smith), and without prejudice to the foregoing, and save and except that the contractual instrument enclosed for your perusal is an initial draft, the author entreats you to consider, after due deliberation and appropriate consultation with your client, whether execution of the said contractual instrument by your client is a matter your client is prepared to consider undertaking; and if so it would gratify the author if your client, being the said Black, could appropriately execute the said contractual instrument by customary means and then dispatch the said contractual instrument to the author’s client (being the said Smith), in order to establish the means for the said Smith to execute the said contractual instrument and thus complete the legal formalities necessary to establish legal relations between our respective clients.

The closing

This is critical. Don’t ruin it now. You need to finish with a flourish.

This is just poor:

Please contact me if you wish to discuss this matter.

Yours faithfully

Here’s a stronger ending that will leave the reader spellbound:

In circumstances such that the matters hereinbefore expressed in this legal correspondence should give rise to questions, concerns, or other matters worthy of communication, you may rest assured that the said author would be humbled to receive your enquiries. The author entreats you to initiate appropriate communications with the author’s said self, should any matters trouble either your good selves or your client, being the said Black.

I am, as ever, your humble and respectful colleague.

If that doesn’t close the deal I’ll swallow my monocle!

Next week

Next week we’ll be learning how to talk to the media. Bring your Latin book!

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