Legal Writing New Lawyers Practice of Law

5 Tips for Writing an Effective Letter

When writing a letter to the opposing side or your client, the most important goal is to be clear and understood. You can’t be effective in making your point if your writing style obscures your message.

  1. Be brief. Get to the point quickly and avoid unnecessary words. Give brief explanations and instructions. Keep in mind that overexplaining may make your position appear weak. Remember that the reader can also request additional information if needed.
  2. Use clear language. Using legalese or over-stilted language may make you feel smarter, but it doesn’t improve the effectiveness of your letter. The key is to use language that is understood by the reader. This means that the language used should be tailored to the intended recipient, i.e., some legal terms may be appropriate to another lawyer, but not to a lay client or opposing party.
  3. Stick to the facts. When it comes to business letter writing, the reader doesn’t care how you feel, and overdramatizing your message risks losing your credibility. Just give the facts—state what happened, why it happened, and what is going to happen.
  4. Watch your tone. One sure way to turn off a reader and make your letter wholly ineffective is to pick a fight. You can be firm without being discourteous and unprofessional. A positive and pleasant tone can help communicate your point much more effectively than a threatening and angry one. Watch for subtle tone issues like patronizing language.
  5. Give details. It’s much more likely that your reader will understand your point if you provide specific details or examples. Generalizations may serve only to create ambiguity and could promote misunderstandings.  For example, be specific about when and where something will happen. When stating that an issue has arisen, describe that issue in enough detail to avoid confusion.

Once you have internalized these tips and have a strongly drafted letter, it’s useful to keep the letter and use it as a form for other similar situations. Form letters can be major time savers, but you can blow it all by failing to change it for the situation. Make sure to edit and review the form letter to make it seem like it’s written especially for the reader.

Get more legal writing advice in CEB’s Drafting Business Contracts: Principles, Techniques and Forms, chap 2. And for expert advice on legal writing, check out CEB’s program Smith and McGinty on Legal Writing, available On Demand.

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One reply on “5 Tips for Writing an Effective Letter”

Agreed. If your letter is asking for something, simply start the letter with a 1 or 2-sentence paragraph concisely stating the demand. I get so many letters from otherwise top-notch attorneys where I have to read the thing twice before I can figure out what they’re actually requesting.

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