How to Respond to a ‘Lawyer Letter’
You Just Got a ‘Lawyer Letter’. What now?
Maybe you got a Cease & Desist letter. Maybe a lawyer reached out to you to try to resolve a dispute. Maybe you got a “nastygram” or a “lawyer letter” or an e-mail from a lawyer. Whatever the reason or type of communication, being on the receiving end of a missive like this can be a little unsettling, especially when you disagree with the contents of the message.
In this article, I’m going to give you some tips for responding to a “lawyer letter” in a way that will improve your chances of resolving disputes without escalating an already tense situation to the level of [even more] expensive litigation.
First Things First
Lawyers are like nuclear weapons. If one party has one, the other party needs one. Mutually assured destruction is a great incentive to peacefully resolve parties’ differences–whether they are nations, companies, or individuals.
If you have received a lawyer letter, you probably need to, at least, contact a lawyer and discuss with them your situation and the contents of the message. It’s a good idea to have a competent, experienced lawyer tell you where you stand. Also, don’t expect this service to be offered pro bono. This is a valuable service, one that is worth paying a lawyer to perform (and it shouldn’t be too expensive).
(Dig Deeper: What to Do Before You Call for a Legal Consultation)
If you have a friend or a family member who is a lawyer, this is a great time to take them to coffee, lunch, or dinner, and ask them about your situation (assuming they’re open to talking to you about it). Don’t spring it on them, though. Let them know what’s on your mind, and tell them you’d like to discuss it over coffee if they have time. The key is: respect their time.
Attitude Is Half the Battle
If I call (the attorney for) a person who is a potential litigation opponent to discuss a dispute or other legal matter, I always hope that the person on the other end of the phone is going to be:
- A good listener,
- Cooperative, and
- Interested in resolving the situation by using the least burdensome means available.
There is a whole list of “Don’ts” I could give you. The list would inevitably include making statements like, “I have been [kind of professional] for [number of years], and …,” (logical fallacy: appeal to authority). The list would also include argumentative, rhetorical questions, like, “Are you calling me a liar?!” The list would also include repeatedly restating your position without acknowledging the other person’s position. Again, I could write a comprehensive list of “Don’ts;” this is not such a list.
Honestly, I don’t want to write that list any more than you want to read it. I don’t want to say, “Don’t do X, Y, and Z,” because, dear reader, I know you’re more interested in learning what you should do than in learning what you should not do. So, be the eight things listed above. Be that way.
Practicing Eight Good Traits to Defuse Conflict
Be objective. This means putting your personal feelings and emotions aside. It means taking a deep (inaudible) breath, and swallowing your pride and / or indignation. How you feel probably does not matter very much, if at all, to the person with whom you are speaking. And that is okay; how you feel is not the fulcrum on which the universe turns. You need to learn not to react to people, but, rather, to respond to the issues raised in discussions with others.
Be reasonable. This involves taking positions that you feel others can relate to, understand, or agree with. Being reasonable also involves giving others the benefit of the doubt, when possible. Finally, being reasonable means taking the position that is most consistent with resolution of a dispute or conflict.
Be understanding. Much of human miscommunication involves one party or the other (or both) refusing to listen to the other side (or each other). Let the person with whom you’re speaking know that you have heard what they have said, and that you understand their position. Then, focus your contribution to the discussion on the specific issues of disagreement at the heart of the conversation. Don’t just stubbornly repeat your own talking points; doing so implicitly communicates that you are not interested in listening to any voice but your own.
Moreover, make an effort to see the situation from your opponent’s point of view. Just being able to understand their perspective does not necessarily mean you agree with it; still, it’s important to make the effort and to acknowledge that you do understand their point of view.
Be a good listener. Okay, this one… I can’t even teach you this in a single paragraph. All I can do is say, learn to listen. That’s far easier said than done. I strongly recommend the incomparable Mortimer Adler’s book, How to Speak, How to Listen. It’s easy to read and inexpensive. Do yourself a favor, and read it–twice.
Be honest. Unlike the last point, this one shouldn’t require any explanation. Don’t say things that are misleading or flat-out untrue.
Be transparent. Now, this one is a little more difficult than just being honest. On the one hand, you need to be open and honest, and tell people things that they reasonably need to know, but, on the other hand, there are often circumstances where it’s better to control the flow of information. I guess the best recommendation I can give you is: be reasonably transparent, and don’t hide the ball when providing some information could lead to resolution of a dispute, but withholding it is likely to lead to costly litigation.
Be cooperative. I once called a pro se plaintiff in a case to try to reschedule a hearing, and the woman just screamed at me, threatened to have me arrested for “harassing” her, and hung up on me–repeatedly. Then, she had the nerve to tell the judge, at the hearing, that she wanted a continuance, because she didn’t have time to hire a lawyer. She had demanded “her day in court,” and wouldn’t talk to me about rescheduling. This woman was so uncooperative, argumentative, and irrational that not only did she not get what she wanted, but the judge recognized very quickly what–or, I should say, who–the problem in the litigation was. I mopped the floor with her, in that case, and won a very easy victory for my client, the defendant. Don’t be that person.
If you’re pro se, or haven’t hired a lawyer yet, remember that lawyers probably expect the same professional courtesy from you that they would get from other lawyers. Don’t scream, swear, threaten, or hang up on lawyers that call you. They’re just doing their job.
Demonstrate that you are interested in resolving the situation by using the least burdensome means available. There are several Alternative Dispute Resolution (“ADR”) techniques parties can use to resolve disputes. If the parties cannot directly negotiate a compromise, they can engage in good faith mediation to resolve the dispute. If mediation doesn’t work, they can take their case before an arbiter, and agree, in writing, to abide by whatever decision the arbiter makes in arbitration.
If you have received a “lawyer letter,” consider ADR as a next step for conflict resolution. Hire an attorney to negotiate a settlement or compromise for you, or invite the other party to a good faith mediation, or invite the other party to engage in the arbitration process. All of these can be far less expensive and time-consuming than litigation.
Crafting Your Response
It’s always best to have an attorney respond, on your behalf, to a “lawyer letter,” or a phone call from a lawyer. If that’s not an option for you, though, make sure that you send a typed, written response to the attorney (by e-mail or mail), and keep a copy for yourself. I’m not going to say, “do this,” or “don’t do that.” Instead, I will just say: Be this way, when you respond. Be the eight good things I have described above.
If you do that, you’re more likely to achieve a result that is in everyone’s best interest. Good communication is difficult, even when there is no argument or dispute in play. It is all the more difficult when the parties start out disagreeing with each other. Our modern, Western culture (especially over the Internet) is very bad at disagreeing without being disagreeable. If you can manage to disagree without being disagreeable, you are more likely to resolve disputes and settle conflicts before they turn into expensive legal problems.
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