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Taking out the heat - key points to avoid in legal letter writing

Author: Kristin Heimark |

11 Jan 2012 | 10:03

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During my early legal days, I became embroiled in increasingly snarky correspondence with a respected firm of solicitors. They knew I wasn't a qualified lawyer at that stage and, I felt, they had taken several opportunities in correspondence to let me know they were dealing with an idiot - and, by God, I wasn't going to let them get away with it.

As we prepared for court, my supervisor instructed a very experienced and wise barrister. He took us through the strengths and weaknesses of our case. He told us he thought our analysis was right and that we had good prospects of success.

He did speak to me privately though, and I've tried to live by his words ever since.

He said: "Take the heat out of the correspondence. The court will not be impressed."

It didn't matter who started it. My job was to worry about my side of the street.

Since then, I've had a number of highly emotive letters land on my desk, from solicitors and lay-people alike - and it's apparent these people didn't get the 'cool it' memo.

Below are some of the things I've observed from these interactions and thought would be useful to pass on about letter writing:

- Do not accuse people of crimes. It only winds them up.

You really don't want to be defending a claim for defamation either.

The better way may be to write to your landlord saying you are concerned that your respective accounts do not tally and that you need a breakdown of how he has calculated your arrears so you can check if his records are correct - rather than accusing him of "stealing" or "fraud".

Are you so convinced a crime has been committed that you've called the police? Well then, leave it out of your letter.

- Don't threaten people. It only makes them want to call your bluff.

Think about it. You'll only feel sheepish if they tell you to, "go ahead and take this to the Supreme Court/European Court of Human Rights/Anne Robinson".

It is always better to be seen as the reasonable and slightly bemused guy who's trying to sort this problem out rather than ranty man who people can't have a conversation with without police intervention.

Maybe Anne Robinson will be the final arbiter of your complaint. At least you will be able to show her that you've tried to do everything possible to resolve it before having to involve her.

- Don't use multiple fonts and font sizes. AND FOR CRYING OUT LOUD, DON'T USE BLOCK CAPS!!!

The only thing it will achieve is the instant loss of your credibility. Reasonable people do not shout. Block caps are considered shouting. I avoid them. I also avoid exclamation points for similar reasons. Multiple fonts and fonts sizes in letters makes me wonder if the writer has other issues that have nothing to do with me. It's not going to help your case, so leave it out.

Now, here's a double-down don't:

- THIS CLAIM IS FRIVOLOUS, VEXATIOUS AND WHOLLY MISCONCEIVED!!!! doesn't scare anybody and is seen as more bluffing.

You may be justifiably angry with the way you're being treated, but block caps, exclamation points and over-emotive words are not going to help your case.

And speaking of over-emotive words...

- Some lawyers like to give with one hand, and take with the other.

And they love the word 'disingenuous'.

It does not matter if you politely open your letter with: "Thank you for your letter of 6 January", if you go on to say, "...the contents of which are wholly disingenuous and do you no credit" - you're still calling someone a liar.

I say take a deep breath, recognise this as 'heat' and think very carefully about whether pre-litigation point-scoring is going to help you or your client be attractive to the court.

Believe me, there is nothing more tedious than reading an exchange of 'handbags at dawn' correspondence that doesn't take the case anywhere. The judge will want to shoot both of you.

- You can stand your ground and be dispassionate at the same time.

Before you write, remember the point of these tips is to get the court to focus on the merits of the case - and not any personality flaws - at least not any of yours.

The other point is it's far less expensive (financially and emotionally) for people to try to resolve disputes themselves without having to go to court.

Some cases require judicial intervention. Certainly in a domestic violence or homelessness situation, there may be no point in continuing to try to agree or reason and the police and/or a judge may need to intervene right away.

The cases I'm talking about are contract disputes, snails in ginger beer and many problems with councils and landlords.

I hope the above examples illustrate the pillars of good letter writing:

Be polite.

Be dispassionate.

Focus on the issue and not your emotion about the issue or the person.

If you can do this, you're more likely to be able to resolve your dispute without having to go to court. And if you have to go to court and do have to get a judge to resolve the problem, your evidence (and that's what these letters are) is clear, precise and on point. As a bonus, you get to claim the high ground and have a better chance of your case really being heard.

Kristin Heimark is a solicitor advocate, consultant and blogger. Click here to visit Kristin's blog and click here to follow her on Twitter.

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