Lawyers communicate with clients and opposing counsel more than ever via e-mail. It is certainly convenient, but it also presents a number of problems.
For example, e-mailing a client at work can invalidate the attorney-client privilege. If opposing counsel sends you a emotionally charged rant, sending a similarly charged e-mail might end up as part of a motion down the road.
Regardless of your level of experience as an attorney, here are some tips for responding to angry e-mails.
Take a deep breath and sit tight
When an e-mail sends you into a temporary rage, do not reply until you have calmed down. If everyone followed this rule, I guarantee at least 50% of all e-mail wars would never happen.
E-mail lends itself to misinterpretation—tone and emotion can be difficult to convey. I have read more than one “offensive” e-mail and decided an hour later that it was just a normal e-mail. Young attorneys are especially prone to firing off emotional responses without taking some time to formulate a calculated response.
If you re-read an offensive e-mail an hour later and still find it offensive, consider one of the following options.
Douse the fire instead of pouring gas on it
Sending an equally nasty response is easy and temporarily gratifying. It will also drive an even bigger wedge between you and the other person, which is bound to create more headaches and problems down the road. Whether it is a co-worker or opposing counsel, you need to have a functioning relationship with this person. With that in mind, take the high road and make an effort to smooth things over.
If you work in the same office, have a face to face conversation. It is much harder to be a jerk in person and much easier to be a rational human being. It might not be pleasant at first, but it should diffuse the situation and open the lines of communication.
If face to face is not an option, than pick up the phone and have an actual conversation. Many people are lions over e-mail and lambs over the phone. In some cases, just the act of making a phone call is enough to extend an olive branch and get things smoothed over. Even if the other person is tense at first, making an effort to tackle the problem head on will usually get the other person to communicate and work towards a solution.
If you cannot fathom picking up the phone, then choose your words wisely in a response. You can even start off your e-mail with something like “I may not have communicated that effectively.” Then say what needs to be said—and leave it at that. If you need to respond to a question, then respond concisely and clearly, but stay away from throwing in a little comment or dig.
Of course, with any of these options there is always the chance the other person will continue to be unreasonable or angry. Many times, however, there has been some sort of mixup or miscommunication that needs to be resolved. When you get an angry e-mail there are plenty of ways to respond—but try and fix the problem instead of complicating it.