How much does a letter cost?

Written correspondence is a solicitor’s stock in trade. A huge part of a family solicitor’s working day involves writing or receiving letters or emails. It’s how we primarily liaise with solicitors acting for other parties, and it is often how we conduct negotiations about financial issues or arrangements for children.

A common question that clients ask is “How much does a letter cost?” Clients who ask this question are often very keen to keep their legal bills as low as possible. That is of course entirely understandable. Nobody likes paying money to lawyers. Paying money to a divorce lawyer is in many ways the ultimate distress purchase. These clients usually want me to write putting forward a proposal for agreement by their ex.

However, the answer is actually not very straightforward at all.

On the face of it, it seems like such a simple question and there is a potentially simple answer. Most solicitors handling family cases will charge on an hourly rate basis. Solicitors live their lives in six minute units. Each hour is divided into 10 units of 6 minutes each and the solicitors charge on the basis of how many units of time (or part thereof) they spend on a case. A short and straightforward letter generally costs one unit, i.e. a tenth of the solicitor’s hourly rate. Let’s say for the purposes of this blog, that a solicitor charges his or her time at £250 per hour plus VAT. Therefore, a single letter should cost £25 plus VAT (i.e. £30 including VAT at 20%).

However, if the letter is lengthy or complex, such as a letter which contains proposals for settlement, then it is likely to take the solicitor more than one unit to draft it. If a solicitor takes 30 minutes to draft a letter, it will cost £125 plus VAT. If it takes an hour, it will cost £250 plus VAT.

Whenever a client asks me “How much will a letter cost?” I explain that drafting a letter involves more than just a letter. Once I have drafted it, I will need to email it to my client. I charge for the email. The client will then consider it and then will then telephone me or email it back to let me know if it is approved or if any changes are necessary. All this is chargeable time.

Then if I send the letter off to the other side, I will probably eventually get a reply (hopefully by email, although it never ceases to amaze me how many solicitors still rely on snail mail as their primary form of written communication). I charge for the reply. I then also charge to take my client’s instructions on it. And so on.
Therefore, this single letter of this type probably costs a few hundred pounds.

Some clients understandably feel that this seems rather high for what they perceive as just being a single letter. They struggle to appreciate that it involves a great deal more than just drafting one letter.

There is another, perhaps rather glib, justification for the high cost. I have seen it argued that a client isn’t just paying for the letter, he or she is paying for all the years of legal training and on-the-job experience possessed by the solicitor. This is of course an economic argument which is a difficult one to put to a client.

The reality is that correspondence, although frequently necessary, is a very expensive way to conduct matters. Written correspondence has the advantage of being careful, considered and hopefully clear and unambiguous. Telephone calls, on the other hand, can be vague and poorly worded and ambiguous. However, the advantage of a telephone call is that you can ask for clarification on the spot or conduct negotiations back and forth there and then. With letters, you have to wait for a reply.

Letters also have a hidden cost.

Say I send a letter to the solicitor acting for the spouse in a divorce. That solicitor then forwards my letter to his client. That client will then either telephone or write back to his solicitor. The solicitor then responds to me in writing. I then have to forward it to my client who will then telephone me or email me. Already, one single letter which may have cost £25 plus VAT has grown like a virus. It has created five other letters, emails and telephone calls, all of them chargeable. Therefore, a single letter costing £25 is actually six letters in total, costing £150. Then there is VAT on top of that at 20% so the total cost is £180. When you look at it like that, it’s no wonder solicitors are so expensive.

There is an alternative to doing it in this way. The collaborative process involves couples and their solicitors sitting around a table and discussing matters face-to-face rather than conducting negotiations in correspondence. Both spouses and their solicitors will sign a participation agreement committing them to working together in a cooperative and collaborative way, and committing them to not going to court. Correspondence is kept to a minimum (although some correspondence is still necessary and chargeable). The parties can therefore concentrate their legal fees on reaching agreement. This is a much better way of dealing with matters.

Of course, solicitors will have to do work on the cases outside the collaborative meetings and they will charge for their time, including charging for correspondence. However, it has the potential to reduce the amount of correspondence quite considerably, to keep the cost down and provide greater value for money.

If you would like to know more about the collaborative process, please click here.

If you would like to arrange a consultation, please telephone on (01206) 848426 or click here.

10 July 2019

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