Ending on a good note. How closing letters can build and protect your practice.
We know that engagement letters confirm the scope and terms of representation and that nonengagement letters memorialize the parties’ understanding that no services will be provided. However, have you ever considered sending a letter when the tasks set forth in your engagement letter are completed and, therefore, your representation has concluded? Sending a closing letter or disengagement letter should be an integral part of your practice. These letters serve several purposes and can help build and protect your practice.
A closing letter informs the client of the status of the legal matter.¹ Send the letter as soon as the legal matter has concluded or when you have decided to end the representation. Identify the client and specify in detail the matter that you handled. Try to make the letter clear and concise. State why representation is ending, such as the case is over, you are retiring, or you have completed the service for which you were retained.
A closing letter can protect both you and your client. It communicates to the client that the representation has concluded and that you are no longer working on the matter for the client. The letter promotes mutual understanding between the lawyer and client, which, in turn, protects the client from mistakenly believing that the attorney continues to work on their behalf. In the event that a client believes that the assigned engagement is not complete, such a letter will certainly spur the client to contact the lawyer accordingly. If a closing letter is not sent, the parties may be left with the unenviable position of the lawyer thinking she is done and the client believing otherwise. Such situations rarely turn out well for either party.
Lawyers have to practice smartly, if not defensively. Should a later dispute arise between you and your client, a closing letter can serve as evidence, if needed, to confirm communications and to start the statute of limitations clock for any alleged malpractice action. Therefore, make sure to date the letter. Sending a copy of the closing letter by email will further create an electronic trail if a question arises of whether or when you ended the engagement.
If there are any housekeeping matters, address them in the letter. For example, you may wish to include in your letter a statement of how long you retain client records and files before they are destroyed and the procedure for your client to pick up a copy of their file, if they so desire. Also include with the closing letter any original documents or items that should be returned to the client, or confirm that such items have already been delivered to the client.² If the final bill has not yet been sent, mention the final bill, acceptable methods of payment, and the required timeline for payment. In addition, address the return of any unused (unearned) deposit or retainer.
Thank the client
A closing letter is also an excellent opportunity to thank your client for their business and for entrusting the matter to you for handling. Adding a personal touch to the letter is even better. Nowadays, simple “thank yous” are overlooked, and when given, are much appreciated.
If the client is someone you would like to represent again, mention your other practice areas. Depending on how your client came to you, your client might not be aware of your other specialties and those of your firm beyond the legal matter for which you were engaged. Thanking the client for the opportunity to represent them is an excellent transition into letting them know that you would like to represent them in the future for matters within your field of practice.
If you believe that this client will give you a positive review, ask for one in your closing letter. Online advertising is increasingly competitive. Positive client reviews not only help attract future clients, but can also increase the strength of your website’s online ranking. Sending a closing letter by email with a link to your preferred review platforms reduces the barrier of entry for your client to review you. So, if you only send a closing letter in paper form, the client must search for the review platforms or manually enter links listed in your paper letter, and your chances of getting a review decrease accordingly. Since some clients still like communication by mail, it also does not hurt to mail and email closing letters. Remember that mailed copies of a closing letter also give you an opportunity to enclose your business card or other marketing material.
As the professional in the relationship, the lawyer should confirm the beginning of the relationship with an engagement letter and the end of the engagement with a closing letter. But, hopefully, the end of the engagement will not be the end of the professional relationship. Creating a solid closing letter can pay off down the road and assist in building your practice. Consider creating a form or checklist to cover what you want to include and have a colleague or staffer look over the final product. Another set of eyes to proofread your final product is always advisable. A closing letter will perhaps be your last interaction with the client, so make the most of it.
¹ See Va. Rules of Pro. Conduct r. 1.4 (Communication).
² Va. Rules of Pro. Conduct r. 1.16 (e).
About the Author
Jordan Heath is an associate attorney at Heath, Overbey, Verser & Old, P.L.C. He is the First District Representative of the Virginia State Bar’s Young Lawyers Conference. He can be reached at Jheath@hovplc.com.
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