With advances in technology, letter writing is going out of style as a main way for people to communicate and stay in touch.
However, legal correspondence and letters are still popular modes of communication in the legal field – whether it is typed and mailed communication or entirely electronic. Letters can be effective tools that may require different styles and tones depending on the intent of the correspondence. In this article, we will discuss some of the key elements to legal correspondence. However, please keep in mind that all offices will have their own standards when it comes to letter writing, especially with font style, font size, and paragraph justification.
Who? And, what?
Before diving too deep into your letter writing, you must first determine who the letter is for, and identify what the purpose of the letter is. This will help determine the style and tone of your correspondence. Typically, a letter to someone who is also in the legal profession will be more formal, direct, and contain more legalese than a letter to a client. In contrast, a letter to a client or vendor will tend to be more casual, will contain more pleasantries, and will be more personable. Think of it this way, sending snail mail to your long-distance best friend will be written a whole lot different than a letter that responds to a job offer.
Basic Elements of a Letter
Where do you begin? First, one of the easiest ways to make your letters look more professional is to always use letter head. Not only does this make all your correspondence look uniform, but it also automatically includes the contact information of your place of employment and your direct contact information on it so readers can easily be in touch with you if needed. In some instances, instead of writing out a long email, you may want to attach a PDF version of a letter to an email instead, complete with letterhead.
There are a couple other elements that are important to include before you begin drafting your intended message. The first of these elements is the date fully written out (ex. October 14, 2019). Next, include any mailing notations such as “Hand Delivered”, “Registered Mail”, or “Attorney Eyes Only” in the left margin above the mailing address of your intended recipient. Addresses should always include the name of the recipient if applicable, with the address located directly below. When in doubt, use formal titles for your recipient by including, “Mr” or “Ms” before names or including titles such as “Jane Smith, M.D.”. Note, that if you are emailing your letter, be sure to include the recipients email address in the address block. Below is a sample address with notation:
Via Email Only
Ms. Paula Johnson
Johnson Law PLC
123 4th Street
Libertyville, SD 00001
Furthermore, if your letter is referencing a specific legal matter or topic, it is a good idea to include a reference or subject notation in the lines between the address and start of your letter and should be indented to match the date. Typically, a reference should never exceed two lines. Below is are a few examples:
Re: Smith, Dave v. Dora Johnson
Civil Action No. 12DIV16-000012
Re: Service on McDonald Motors, LLC
Greetings and closing signatures are equally as important as including the correct title in the address portion of your letter, and often you will use the same title in your salutation. If you are unsure of who will be the recipient of your letter, such as if your letter will be read by a clerk or registered agent, it is fine to address the letter to a title rather than an individual (Dear Clerk of Courts). You may also want to conduct some research to find out who your reader will be, even if you can only narrow the options down to “Sir” or Madam”. Note that “To Whom it May Concern” should only be used as a last-ditch effort, as it is more lax and can show a lack of effort to research to your reader.
The body of your letter should begin two lines after your greeting. Usually legal correspondence will be single spaced with double spacing between paragraphs. The body of your letter should adequately and concisely convey your message. In some correspondence, such as more casual letters to clients, it may be appropriate to include niceties such as, “I hope this letter finds you well.” Other times, it might be more appropriate to introduce yourself, “My name is Hank Jones. I represent Barbara Crane in the above referenced matter.” Yet, some correspondence, especially between law firms, may be quite direct and to the point with no fluff added. Regardless of the tone, a sentence or paragraph should be used to set the tone and introduces the purpose of the letter.
Next, most letters will conclude with a paragraph that states how the reader can contact the writer or the law firm. An example of this is as follows:
"Please do not hesitate to call me with any questions or concerns. You can reach me by phone at (111)222-3333 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you in advance for your cooperation in assisting with this matter. We look forward to receiving your response."
Lastly, always include a closing along with your signature. Examples of closings are, “Sincerely” and “Best Regards”. Most letters in the legal world will be signed by yourself or an attorney. It is important to include your title under your signature so the reader knows with whom they are corresponding with. This is ethically important as paralegals may not give legal advice or insinuate that they are an attorney. An example of a signature is below:
Legal Correspondence Recap
Although letter writing may not be as pertinent in the real world, it still has a presence within the legal profession. Being consistent with the style of your letter can assist with making you and your firm more professional. While your place of employment will likely have its own preferences for style, utilizing subject notations, employing the appropriate titles for recipients, and using appropriate tone can have a lasting impression on the reader.