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A Curmudgeon's Perspective

Fighting Words: Letter of the Law

By Otto Sorts

My neighbor Charlie stopped me in the driveway the other night and asked, “Can you help me here? I got this stupid letter from some jerk lawyer, and I’m mad as hell!”

He was red-faced, waving the offending letter violently. “Well, sure,” I replied, uncertain what kind of commitment I was making. I read the two-page letter, a response to a claim against the city regarding a city tree that fell on Charlie’s car. The first page was a legal argument on why the city was not liable and why Charlie had no standing. It sounded harsh and confrontational, and the edge of the letter was crinkled from Charlie’s angry fist.

“Martha’s Worried About My Heart!”

When I looked up from the letter, Charlie said, “When it happened, the city guys were very friendly and cooperative. Now they have some mad-dog litigator attacking me!” His frustration was apparent. “I’ve always gotten along with those city guys,” he added, “but if they want to fight, I’m ready to go after them.”

I tried to calm him down. “Did you read the whole letter?” I asked.

“No,” he replied, “I got too pissed off and had to stop. Martha’s worried about my heart!”

I read him the last paragraph of the letter, where the city extended a good faith offer to settle his out-of-pocket expenses related to the incident. He grabbed the letter, read it himself, and brightened immediately.

“Well, son of a bitch!” he said. “Why didn’t they put that at the beginning of the letter?” Then with a sheepish grin, he said, “Thanks. It’s good to know that there are some good lawyers around.”

I agreed with Charlie’s question. Why burden a letter to a citizen with an approach that is guaranteed to stimulate conflict and bad feelings against your client? Sure, including the legal CYA stuff was appropriate and expected, but it could have come later. All but a small part of the letter was aggressively confrontational — and that small good part was relegated to the end of the letter.

Why Contribute to the Stereotype of the Asshole Lawyer?

Lawyers tend to think in terms of conflict and argument, and communications often reflect this need to challenge and contradict. However, this style of communication is not always appropriate. When you represent a client, you need to be sensitive to their relationships with others involved in the matter, particularly with those outside of the profession, like Charlie, who may take things more personally.

You can be aggressive and persuasive without attacking, or using fighting words. In addition, the written word often comes across as cold and harsh (just consider all the times you’ve had to deal with email communications). Obviously, we don’t want to include emoticons in our legal communications, but we do need to be sensitive to how the recipient will read our message. Remember, “You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.”

Of course, the lawyer who wrote Charlie’s letter might say, “You catch more flies with shit than with honey.” Unfortunately, there is often some truth behind the stereotype.

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Otto Sorts Otto Sorts

Otto Sorts has been reading law since before Martindale met Hubbell. Of Counsel at a large corporate firm that prefers to remain anonymous, Otto is a respected attorney and champion of the grand tradition of the law. He is, however, suspicious of “new-fangled” management ideas and anyone who calls the profession the legal “industry.” When he gets really cranky about something he blogs at Attorney at Work.

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