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Writing wrongs

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  • Daphne Perry

Daphne Perry offers some simple writing techniques to improve client service and business returns

When I write to a probate client, what do I want? To help the client. Give the service I’m paid for. Win recommendations, get more work. Do justice.

But what does the client want? What do clients get? And how could we improve the service and achieve more of our aims, just by how we write to them?

Ignoring all other aspects of client service, this article suggests some answers to these questions, focusing on what solicitors can achieve through template documents and better writing habits. That’s not to say that all legal writing is bad – only that even good writing can always be improved.

What does the client want?

Here are some common sense suggestions supported by client research for the Solicitors Regulation Authority in 2016 , 2017 and 2018 :

  • a drip feed of useful information as I need it, not too much at once
  • contact to reassure me, even when nothing is happening
  • key information up front, and the rest where I can find it – maybe in separate sources
  • clear information on costs
  • information on the legal process, so that I know what stage I’m at (though clients called for this in the 2016 research, most solicitors canvassed in the 2017 research still didn’t know it)
  • simple, direct, clear communication.

Experience shows, and research confirms, that stress reduces our thinking powers. It becomes harder to find and understand information; we can’t take things in; it’s hard to concentrate and easy to become emotional and irrational. On the Holmes and Rahe stress scale , the death of a spouse is the most stressful life event, scoring 100 points, while the death of a close friend scores 37 points. Moving home (the condition of the conveyancing clients in one of the SRA’s studies) scores only 20 points.

It follows that clients suffering the stress of bereavement have even more need for these aspects of good communications. Unpublished research among organisations including the War Widows Association confirms this, and also suggests that the bereaved are looking for condolences just at the start, but not too much sympathy, keeping the tone factual and unemotional. (Thanks to Rob Waller of the Simplification Centre for sharing the results of his survey in 2013.)

What does the client get?

You don’t need to read 300 pages of research reports to know that many clients, bereaved or not, don’t get this sort of communication. Solicitors have been known and reviled throughout history for their bad writing. Officially, everyone supports plain language and encourages its use. In reality, most lawyers have forgotten what plain language looks like.

Using a client’s language is a great way to build rapport, show empathy, and prove that you understand the client’s needs

Lawyers imagine that ‘whilst’, ‘insofar’ and ‘such [thing]’ are still in common use in the 21st century. We suppose that non-lawyers say ‘advise’ when they mean ‘tell’, and ‘execute’ when they mean ‘sign’. Our hard-won knowledge and experience of legal language and process stop us talking or writing to clients in their own language. Which is a pity, because using a client’s language is a great way to build rapport, show empathy, and prove that you understand the client’s needs.

And it’s not just our vocabulary. We say too much, in too many words, we bury the key information, and we give no clue to the contents in headings or format.

What to do about it

Enough complaining. We may suffer from the curse of knowledge, but we are good writers, bright, and quick to learn. We just need to focus our efforts.

In one way, client care letters are the perfect place to start. In most firms, they and the terms of business are the most-used templates. Make a template readable, and every lawyer in the firm will write well whenever they use it. Plus you are teaching every fee-earner how the firm expects them to write. They will be quick to pick it up, as they have done until now from all the wordy and legalistic letters and templates already in circulation.

In another way, client care letters are not the easiest target. They are heavily influenced by regulation, and some paragraphs suggested by professional bodies suffer from the usual problems of legal writing. Until a template is changed, fee-earners rightly hesitate to edit. But they can still practise new and better writing habits in all their non-standard communications, and suggest improving the templates when they can.

This article will suggest a few steps you can apply to every letter and email you write. And I’ll illustrate it with text from client care letters.

1. Give them less to read

In writing workshops, lawyers always say they want to make their writing ‘more concise’. It’s not hard to do. Before you send any email, look at it and delete something. If you’re working on a longer document, delete some words every time you save it. Repeat until it becomes a habit.

Good targets for deletion are:

  • Wordy phrases: you’ve used five words where one would do.
  • Repetition: you’ve said the same thing twice, perhaps in different words. (‘In other words’ and ‘ie’ are giveaways.)
  • Unnecessary information: you’ve said things that are correct, relevant, and part of your thinking process, but the reader doesn’t need to know them.
  • Legal references: lawyers often cite laws, even when we know the reader doesn’t care and won’t look at them. For example, when we tell the client they can cancel the contract in the next 14 days, why should we begin ‘Under the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013 …’? Sometimes we are just storing these details in the letter for our own future reference. If we don’t delete this information, we should at least demote it to the end of the sentence, paragraph, section or document, to make it easy to skip.

Test yourself: delete wordy phrases, repetition and unnecessary information from the following sentence, taken from the start of a specimen client care letter published by the Law Society: 

‘This letter sets out the terms on which we are able to assist you in respect of the matter for which you are seeking legal advice. We will take your instructions and assist you on the following terms.’

(See the end of this article for a suggested revised version.)

2. Write in their own language

Here we return to empathy. The war widows said they have so much paperwork to deal with that they want the interaction ‘kept businesslike to enable us to complete it without dissolving into a soggy mess’.

That doesn’t mean we should write like lawyers. We can be businesslike in neutral language, using the words that clients would use themselves.

Good targets for editing (with examples from current client care letters) are:

  • Lawyer’s words for ordinary things: monies (money), disbursements (expenses), matter (work), or instruct (employ).
  • Puffed-up language: ‘proceed swiftly to expedite an application’ (apply quickly), ‘I would be happy to provide further assistance if required to do so’ (I am happy to help with this if you ask), or ‘it is imperative that such advice is sought early in the administration period’ (you need financial advice now).
  • Unnecessary legal terms: ‘pecuniary gifts of £1,000 each’ (£1,000 each), ‘divided her residuary estate between’ (left the rest of her property to), or language copied from legislation.
  • Unnecessary capital letters for important (legal) things: the Will or the Grant of Probate. These aren’t the names or titles of specific people or bodies, so these capitals are about 200 years out of date. It’s a subtle way to fail to write in the client’s language and to suggest that Legal Things are more important than everything else.
  • Latin: ‘circa’ (about).

Compared to these examples, language used in the sample client care letter looks nearly normal – but it isn’t. How many of your clients would use the words ‘seek’, ‘assist’, ‘matter’, or ‘instructions’ when asking you to help them by doing some work?

3. Use self-explanatory headings

If you didn’t have time to read this article, you could get four useful suggestions just by skimming the headings. If one thing interests you, the headings let you go straight to it. If you mean to read it all, it’s still useful to have an overview before the detail. And if you ever refer back to it, the headings show where each piece of information is filed. Headings are useful even for the relaxed and alert reader, but to the stressed and confused reader, they are a must.

It is a waste to head every email with the same name or reference, which the client already knew from seeing your firm’s name. And it’s unkind to write a page of text without any other headings. You can’t have too many headings, providing each one describes all the text that appears under it.

4. Format to support meaning

One way to make format support meaning is to put the right information at the start. If you ever have the client’s attention, it will be at the top of the letter or email, so that’s where you tell the client what they most need to know. This is prime space, not to be wasted on obvious or trivial information. Ask yourself what the client needs to know or do when they have read this letter, and highlight those terms in your draft. If they aren’t at the top, move them.

Put your contact information and opening hours somewhere obvious – in the letterhead, or a side bar, or anywhere that’s easy to find – not in the middle of a letter or set of terms.

Use lists where possible, with bullets or (if anyone will refer back to them) numbers. This approach not only helps the reader, but also helps you to organise your information better, avoiding ambiguity and repetition. Everything the listed items have in common should appear before the list. After the list, start a new paragraph. And try to give each list item an in-line heading, as a label for quick reference, as in the bulleted lists in this article.

Better writing helps lawyers too

All this is for the reader’s benefit, but the writer will also reap the rewards, getting a quicker and fuller response and satisfying clients – in short, helping to meet the lawyer’s aims as well as the client’s hopes.

Client care letter: revised version

Original: This letter sets out the terms on which we are able to assist you in respect of the matter for which you are seeking legal advice. We will take your instructions and assist you on the following terms.

Revised: This letter sets out the terms on which we can help you.

Daphne Perry is an ex-barrister and founder of ClarifyNow, a Plain English consultancy, writing and training firm. She is co-author of Clarity for Lawyers (https://clarifynow.co.uk/clear-legal-writing-publications/).

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