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Legal letter drafting is an essential part of any legal dispute or arrangement. Most jurisdictions place an elevated value on memorialized thoughts, wishes, and demands. It is important, then, that letters be carefully drafted: each word has meaning, and in many cases, what is written in a legal letter is binding. Drafting tasks typically fall to an attorney, though most anyone can craft an effective legal letter with a bit of research. The best tips for legal letter drafting are to know the issues, know the party, and know the legal rules of the governing jurisdiction.
Demand letters are among the most common legal letters. A demand letter is often the first step in launching a legal dispute, and can lead to trial later on down the line. Most of the time, a demand letter cites a grievance for a particular wrong. Personal injury, emotional distress, property misuse, or even a dog’s persistent bark can be the bases of legal letters. To draft a demand letter is in many ways to draft a complaint letter: the writer identifies a problem; makes a formal, memorialized complaint; and demands redress.
In order for a legal demand letter to be effective, it must usually do more than ask for redress: it must usually cite legal authority that specifically allows redress. This is typically the hardest part of legal letter drafting. It is not usually difficult to identify a problem or ask for damages, but figuring out what damages the law allows can be a challenge. A demand letter that asks for a remedy that the law does not permit, or that mischaracterizes what the law says, can lead to a harassment or extortion claim against the drafter.
Legal letters can also be used in less contentious circumstances. A letter designed to draft a contract, for instance, can start the ball rolling for a legally binding agreement, and a letter to draft a will can set out initial wishes and distribution requests. Neither contracts nor wills can be completely formalized in a single letter, but letters are a good way to set up early terms and come up with a baseline for negotiations.
Again, knowing the law is essential. Before drafting a contract letter, for instance, it is important for a drafter to understand what the governing jurisdiction’s rules are on contract formation and language. In some places, certain contracting words must be used, and formalities must be followed in setting up the contract’s form and structure. The same is often true for wills. Although a probate court will certainly consider a legal letter outlining a will, that letter is not usually itself an enforceable instrument unless it follows the precise form dictated by statute.
Language and word choice is also an important consideration in any sort of legal letter drafting. It can be tempting for a non-lawyer to pepper a letter with legal-sounding language, but this is not usually necessary or helpful. Legal terminology may make a letter sound important on the surface, but it will not fool a court. If a letter is not legally sound, no amount of “legalese” language will save it.
One of the best ways to draft an effective legal letter is to look at examples of similar letters that have been written by attorneys. Reading a breadth of legal letters can give a drafter a feel for the appropriate format, as well as a sense of what kind of legal references are needed. Because the laws are different in different places — and are prone to change over time even in the same place — it is not usually advisable for drafters to rely on prior letters for legal interpretation. Citing statutory law without actually understanding it is never advisable. Using existing letters for ideas on format, content, and organization, however, can be very helpful.