Correspondence and memoranda
13.1 Letter-Writing Conventions
13.1.1 Beginning a letter
When beginning your letter, note the following conventions:
• Dear Sir opens a letter written to a man whose name you do not know.
• Dear Sirs is used to address a firm where at least one of the members of the firm is male. When writing to American firms, Dear Sir or Madam is preferred, since it does not assume that the person who opens the letter will be a man.
• Dear Mesdames (extremely formal and rarely used) is used to address a firm where all the members are female.
• Dear Madam is used to address a woman, whether single or married, whose name you do not know.
• Dear Sir or Madam (or Dear Sir/Madam) is used to address a person when you do not know their name or sex.
When you know the name of the person you are writing to, but do not know them well, the salutation takes the form of Dear followed by a courtesy title (i.e. Mr, Ms, Miss, Mrs, etc.) and the person’s surname.
Initials or first names are not used with courtesy titles, e.g. Dear Mr Smith, NOT Dear Mr J Smith or Dear Mr John Smith. Persons who you know well can be addressed using just their first name, e.g. Dear John.
In British usage, a comma after the salutation is optional, i.e. Dear Mr Smith, or Dear Mr Smith.
In American usage, it is customary to put a colon after the salutation, i.e. Dear Mr Smith:.
13.1.2 Ending a letter
If the letter begins Dear Sir, Dear Sirs, Dear Madam, Dear Mesdames or Dear Sir or Madam, the ending should be Yours faithfully.
When writing to American firms, Respectfully yours (very formal) or Yours truly (less formal) should be used. However, in general American lawyers take a more relaxed approach to such formalities than their British colleagues.
A letter to someone you know well may close with a number of different informal phrases. Examples include:
• With best wishes
• Best wishes
• With best regards
• Best regards
• Kindest personal regards
Avoid closing your letter with old-fashioned phrases, e.g. We remain, sir, your obedient servants.
Commas after the complimentary close are generally not used in legal letters. The complimentary close is usually placed on the left, aligned under the rest of the letter.
13.1.3 Reference table (letter endings)
The table below provides a quick guide to ending your letters, according to the title used in the opening:
A number of abbreviations may be used at the foot of a letter for certain purposes. Here are some examples:
• Enc./Encl. indicates that documents are enclosed with the letter. If there are a number of these, it is usual to list them.
• p.p. means per procurationem (literally for and on behalf of). It is used if someone other than the writer has signed the letter.
• c.c.means carbon copy (although carbon copies are little used nowadays). This abbreviation is used to indicate that copies are sent to persons other than the named recipient. Frequently the letter will specify the persons to whom the copies have been sent.
• b.c.c.means blind carbon copies. This abbreviation is used when other persons have been sent copies but you do not want the recipient to know this. The abbreviation is written on the copies only and not on the original version that is sent to the recipient.
The abbreviationFAO is sometimes seen in the address printed on the envelope. It means ‘for the attention of’ (e.g. FAO the Managing Director).
13.2 Letter-Writing Style
The main aims of legal correspondence in all cases are clarity and accuracy. However, the style of correspondence will differ slightly depending on the intended recipient. When writing to another lawyer, the writer can assume that legal jargon and terms of art will be understood and do not need to be explained. When writing to clients and other third parties, this assumption cannot be made. Care should be taken to explain legal technicalities in terms that a layperson can understand.
In all cases, start by thinking about what you are going to say and how you are going to say it. Ask yourself these questions:
• What am I trying to say?
• Who am I trying to say it to?
• What do they need to know?
• What sort of tone should I adopt?
• What words will express what I am trying to say?
• How can I divide my writing into manageable sections?
• Could I make it shorter?
126.96.36.199 General considerations
The most important thing to remember when writing a letter or email is to consider the reader. The content and style of your letter or email will be affected by the following considerations:
• Who will be reading it?
• How much do they understand about the subject-matter of the letter (i.e. the content is likely to differ if you are dealing with (a) a client or (b) an expert in a particular field)?
• What do they need to know?
• How much background information do they need?
• Do you need any information from them?
• What sort of tone should you adopt?
Whoever you’re writing to, you should ensure that your letter or email is:
• as short as possible but not shorter,
• clearly written,
• clearly set out, and
• appropriate in tone.
188.8.131.52 First paragraph
The opening sentence or paragraph is important as it sets the tone of the letter and creates a first impression.
If you are replying to a previous letter, start by thanking your correspondent for their letter:
Thank you for your letter of 5 May 2006.
If you are writing to someone for the first time, use the first paragraph to introduce yourself, the subject of the letter, and why you are writing:
We act on behalf of Smith Holdings Ltd and write concerning the lease on 22 Fairfields Avenue, Farnley Trading Estate.
184.108.40.206 Middle paragraphs
The main part of your letter will concern the points that need to be made, answers you wish to give, or questions you want to ask. The exact nature of these will depend very much on the type of letter being written.
220.127.116.11 Final paragraph
At the end of your letter, if it is to a client or to a third party, you should indicate that you may be contacted if your correspondent requires further information or assistance. If appropriate, you might also indicate another person in your office who may be contacted if you are absent. It is not usual to do this in a letter to another lawyer acting for another party in a case, however.
Here is an example of a typical letter ending:
Please do not hesitate to contact me, or my assistant John Bowles, if you require any further information.
It is important to try to strike the right tone in your letter. The right tone in most cases is one of professional neutrality. On the one hand, you should avoid pompous, obscure language. On the other hand, you should avoid language that is too informal or colloquial.
At all times, and particularly when writing to parties on the other side of a case from your client, you should avoid any tinge of personal animosity. This is important because although lawyers often find themselves in the position of having to threaten people or organisations with legal action on behalf of clients, the lawyer must ensure that basic standards of professional courtesy are adhered to at all times.
When seeking the right tone, certain things should be avoided: