What is the purpose of the Character Reference Letter?

We get it.

Someone has made an allegation of wrongdoing. You’re the target. As a result, those allegations have smeared your good name.

Stakeholders in the process ahead will read the allegations against you. Theoretically, our judicial system operates under the premise that people are innocent until proven guilty. Yet the allegations themselves often lead people down a path to a verdict of guilt. Inevitably, the following people will form a biased opinion about anyone accused of wrongdoing:

Investigators who take a first look at the allegation, including
FBI agents
DEA agents
Securities and Exchange Commission attorneys
Federal Trade Commission attorneys
Police officers
Prosecutors that choose to bring the charges against a defendant
Probation officers that prepare pre-sentence investigation reports
Judges that determine guilt or innocence, and then sentence defendants
Prison officials that determine where the individual will serve the sanction, what programs will be available, and to some extent, when the individual will return to society.
Probation officers that supervise release.
People who work with the individual after the case concludes.
Defendants that understand the challenges ahead should take every step possible to influence the process. It’s true that no one can change the past. But all of us can start to lay a foundation that will advance our prospects for success in the months, years, and decades to come.

One step in the process is preparing for the character reference letter. And to prepare for the character-reference letter, we must understand its purpose.

What is the purpose of a Character Reference Letter?

A good character-reference letter should help readers understand more about the individual. To the extent that an individual can influence the ways that others perceive him—notwithstanding allegations of misconduct—that individual influences the prospect for a more favorable outcome.

All human beings are more than any given event. But when a person faces an allegation of wrongdoing, that allegation, or complaint, or conviction, tends to overshadow everything. It influences the way we see a person.

Would you like to test the theory from a recent accusation in a civil case?

What thoughts would you have if you were to read the following statement from the office of a government agency:


Statement by [Government Prosecutor] on $25 Million Settlement Agreement Reached in [Name of Defendant’s scheme] Case:
In 2013, my office sued [Defendant’s name] for swindling thousands of innocent Americans out of millions of dollars through a scheme known as [name of alleged scheme].

[Defendant’s name] fought us every step of the way, filing baseless charges and fruitless appeals and refusing to settle for even modest amounts of compensation for the victims of his phony [scheme].

Today, that all changes. Today’s $25 million settlement agreement is a stunning reversal by [Defendant’s name] and a major victory for the over 6,000 victims of his fraudulent [scheme].

I am pleased that under the terms of this settlement, every victim will receive restitution and that [Defendant’s name] will pay up to $1 million in penalties to the [government jurisdiction] for violating state [type of] laws.

The victims of [name of scheme] have waited years for today’s result and I am pleased that their patience—and persistence—will be rewarded by this $25 million settlement.

If you were to read the above-captioned case, and you knew the name of the defendant, what thoughts would you have about that individual?

Be honest.

If you were to read such an article, published on a government website that named the defendant, what would you think about that person?

That is an actual headline and text from an article that you can read if you visited the following link:

And it is an article written about a man who became the 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump.

If you’re like most Americans, you would have formed an opinion about the individual after reading the allegation. Obviously, President Trump successfully overcame the allegations against him.

Although we’re not offering a roadmap to become president, we’re convinced that if a person crafts a coordinated character-reference campaign, that individual can improve outcomes after allegations of wrongdoing.

A series of strategic, well-crafted character-reference letters can help anyone that needs to influence perceptions.


Because character-reference letters help us see an individual for the totality of his or her life, especially when the letters come from credible sources.

What is a credible source?

It’s someone that knows the individual best. That doesn’t necessarily mean someone of influence or power in society. Good character-reference letters come from people that know the individual well. They serve the defendant well if they attest to specific details about the person’s conduct in relation to others in society.

Good character-reference letters help us move beyond the snapshot in time that led to the allegation of misconduct.

To further illustrate the point, let’s stick with the same press release above, but transpose the name of Donald Trump with a fictional name, like Alan Davis.

What would you think about Alan Davis if the press release were describing him?

By transposing the name Donald Trump with Alan Davis, we can take the “politics” out of the learning exercise about character-reference letters and remain focused on understanding the “purpose” of a character-reference letter.

After reading such an article as the one above, most people would think about Alan Davis as:

Being untruthful
A prosecutor accused him of scamming people
Being a scammer
A prosecutor said he had 6,000 victims
Being deceitful
A prosecutor said he filed baseless charges and fruitless appeals
Being a manipulator
A prosecutor said he swindled people through his scheme
Being worthy of punishment
A prosecutor said he operated a fraudulent business that victimized thousands of innocent Americans.
Being without remorse
A prosecutor said he refused to settle with victims
If Alan did not do anything about the allegations, people would have a hard time seeing anything “good” about him. No one would know about the other aspects of his life.

Regardless of the allegation, Alan may have other attributes. For example:

Despite coming from a poor family, Alan worked hard to put himself through college.
Alan built a business that employed 25 people.
Alan paid taxes each year responsibly.
Alan coached little league baseball for seven years.
Alan volunteered at his church as a Sunday school pastor.
Alan sponsored Thanksgiving dinner at a local senior center.
Alan mentored a young employee who went on to start his own business that now employs 100 people.
Alan has been a faithful husband and father of three children.
Alan donated 10 bicycles to a development program for at-risk youth.
Alan spoke openly about his crime, expressed remorse to his victims, and took affirmative steps to reconcile.
A series of character-reference letters, from 10 different people, may influence the way others think about Alan. Nothing is going to change the fact that an allegation of wrongdoing has been made. And nothing is going to change the fact that Alan admitted wrongdoing and entered into a settlement agreement. No one can change the past.

Nevertheless, a series of character-reference letters can help stakeholders get a more complete picture of Alan. They may begin to see other characteristics of his life, which counterbalance the accusations of his being a scammer, or deceitful person.

Good character-reference letters will help readers understand more about the individual’s life.

All of us are individuals.

All of us have chapters in our life that we would like to erase.

Our character is more than a single chapter in the book of life. Our character is a reflection of our life in its entirety. A good character-reference letter will complete the picture that others use to judge who we are as individuals.

When it comes to a person facing judgment in the criminal justice system, a character-reference letter campaign can help soften judgment and lead to mercy for a defendant.

As we’ll cover more later, the purpose of the character-reference letter is not to offer explanations or excuses for the allegation of wrongdoing. Rather, character-reference letters should highlight attributes of the defendant’s life that would otherwise not be apparent to the stakeholders who stand in judgment of the individual.

The more a defendant understands the purpose behind a character-reference letter, the more strategic that defendant can become in coordinating an effective character-reference letter campaign.

The remaining chapters in this course will help.