The importance of reporting letters
From both a client communication and a claims prevention perspective, reporting letters may be among the most important documents in a lawyer’s file.
Reporting letters support client communication by describing the work that has been completed and the results achieved. Good reporting letters should also communicate whether any issues remain to be resolved or tasks require completion – and whose responsibility it is to deal with these.
Should the matter result in a claim, having interim and/or final reporting letters in the file can be very helpful to the lawyer’s defence for at least four reasons:
Correspondence is confirmation: Reporting letters establish that the client had notice of the lawyer’s decisions and actions. While it’s legitimate for the client to depend on the lawyer’s expertise, it’s harder to allege obliviousness about, or complete disagreement with, the choices the lawyer made.
Routine blurs memory: Where many months or years have passed since the work was done, these letters preserve details that might otherwise be lost to memory – especially if the lawyer handles matters that follow a predictable pattern (for example, real estate law, or the defence of traffic offences) in which the regular repetition of steps can make it easy to forget specifics.
Reporting letters help highlight the client’s own obligations: Interim reporting letters outline outstanding tasks and what will be needed to complete those tasks. In some cases, further work is contingent on some action by the client: he or she may need to make a decision, provide a document (or make documents available to the other party), apply for a license, or take some other step. Where a client later alleges unacceptable delay or inaction in the lawyer’s part, a reporting letter may assist the lawyer in proving that the client shared responsibility for the delay.
Reporting letters help when fees are at issue: Where the lawyer’s fees become an issue – either in the context of a claim or otherwise – detailed reporting letters can help establish the work that took place on a matter. Where the work was billed hourly and there are supporting dockets, the reporting letter may simply support those; but if the work was done for a flat fee, reporting letters may be among the only sources of evidence about what steps were taken and how much effort was involved.
A marketing opportunity: Excellent reporting letters serve a marketing purpose by anticipating clients’ future needs. For example, if the work done involved the incorporation of a business, the lawyer might make mention of other business-related legal services available: for example, the negotiation of commercial leases, the preparation or review of supply or distribution agreements; or assistance with intellectual property protection.
Depending on the nature of a lawyer’s practice, reporting letters can serve many useful purposes that a lawyer may not even contemplate at the time he or she prepares them. You may even consider sending an introductory letter, at the beginning of a retainer, setting out what you will do, and drafting the reporting letter as a confirmation that you’ve completed the list.
The lesson: write a final reporting letter for every file. To help keep clients informed of progress, consider using interim reporting letters for all but the simplest and briefest matters.