I just received a bad settlement letter. I don’t mean the terms were bad. But the presentation was terrible. Rather than move things forward, it will cause my client to dig in her heels and make settlement that much harder. My standard for a settlement letter is one that leaves the reader nodding their head in agreement by the time they get to the end. Here are five suggestions for writing a good settlement letter.
1. The Purpose of Your Letter. I think the problem a lot of lawyers have with writing settlement letters is they write them for their clients instead of for the opposing party. If they think about it at all (and I’m not sure they do) the purpose of the letter should be to effect a settlement, not client relations.
2. Who Is Your Reader? To be sure, this letter is better than the inflammatory correspondence I get from some lawyers. But it could be improved upon. We all think if we just talk and talk, we will persuade someone to our way of thinking. They will hit their head with their hand and say “Oh, now I see what you mean!” But it doesn’t work that way. Most writers write from their own perspective and never think about the reader. I try to write from the reader’s perspective.
3. Get to the Point. The letter I received takes three single spaced sentences to say we are increasing our previous offer a little bit. The preamble to this is a statement of facts spun in favor of the sender’s client. Admittedly you can charge your client more for this letter than a one sentence letter.
4. You Are Not the Judge. The letter also talks about the law that applies to the facts. But there is no smooth transition to a conclusion. The letter spins the facts, states the law, and then states how the lawyer thinks the judge will apply the law to their facts. Therefore, the letter concludes, my client better take their offer or she will get less at trial. Since I can never predict how a judge will rule at trial, it annoys me when other lawyers do it. But why do they think their opinion of the judge’s opinion will be persuasive? Doesn’t every lawyer think his case is on the side of the angels?
5. Smooth Out the Rough Edges. How about being empathic and sympathetic with my client whose marriage is ending? Why not be honest and say you don’t know how the judge might rule, but your offer has certain benefits to my client in addition to avoiding uncertainty and the time, trouble and costs of trial? Finally, we all are more likely to settle with someone we like than someone we don’t like. So a few pleasantries will help rather than the cold formalities that most lawyers employ.