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Talk Is Cheap

"Just write a letter," she told me. "Tell him what to do so he'll do it," she explained. "How much could a letter cost?"

In my nearly 30 years of practice I have received hundreds of strongly worded attorney letters. Most end with "Govern yourself accordingly." Every last one is really more a study in comedy than anything to be taken seriously.

"Mr. Soenso, I am hereby putting you on notice that unless you do x, y and z immediately, we will file an action against you and seek monsterously large attorney fees. Govern yourself accordingly."

Oh please, since when does the public jump when they receive an attorney letter? Probably well before 30 years ago when attorneys were fewer in number and people were far less used to litigation and lawyering up.

The lady was right, writing a letter doesn't cost much but throwing away even the comparatively small fee seems like an awful use of resources. Rather than force compliance or reform conduct, it seems to only serve to further embolden the other side, like taking a swing at them and missing.

"Will you file suit immediately if they don't do x, y and z?" I ask.

"I"m not prepared to file suit," she conceded. "Besides, we won't have to. He will cave."

I don't bluff. It is a mantra, of sorts, in our firm. Gamblers bluff. They don't care about their credibility. Bluffing is a part of their game. But in family law litigation, bluffing means you are lying. And once your bluff is called, once you are caught lying, your credibility is destroyed. When we tell someone something, we mean it. We stand behind it. You can take it to the bank. We don't bluff.

You can send a letter, but it better enclose your suit, the suit you've filed, the suit for which you have scheduled a hearing. And your enclosures should include the Notice of that hearing. That way, when you say, "do x, y and z immediately," you can offer a meaningful alternative, "or show up on thus and such a day and explain to the judge why you think you don't have to do x, y and z." That way, "see you in court," carries with it an actual invitation to the party.

There is one other circumstance in which a letter is not only acceptable but probably necessary. When you want someone to do x, y and z but you've never told them. You can't sit quietly for years and then have a major melt down about their failure to do something. In that situation, you have to create the evidence that circumstances have changed and you now want them to live up to their obligation. You have to give them the opportunity to blow you off. In that circumstance, you are writing, not to exact compliance, but to create a record. That is a very different use of a letter and consequently, it is a very different letter indeed.

So, generally, don't waste your time or money with a letter that will engender amusement, antipathy or antagonism but very little else. Use your money wisely and load up for the battle to come. Only by being ready for battle will you win that battle.

Now, govern yourself accordingly.

-Michael Manely 

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