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Vitriol and email: A lawyer's how-to

Vitriol and email: A lawyer's how-to

First, take a deep breath: A lawyer's guide to responding to angry emails.

WHEN an email from a client, journalist, your colleague sends you into a temporary rage, first take a deep breath. Then follow these instructions carefully.

A practical post by blogger Lawyerist has warned lawyers about how to respond to angry emails.

"When an email sends you into a temporary rage, do not reply until you have calmed down," blogger Randall Ryder, who also practises consumer rights law in the US, writes. He warns that young attorneys are particularly prone to firing off emotional responses without taking time to formulate a calculated response.

We've all read an email we deemed offensive and then reread it later to realise it's just a normal email. Conveying the right tone is tricky over email, and so remember that this goes both ways. When you combine that with already contentious relationships between opposing parties, it can be a recipe for disaster.

But if you reread an email an hour or two later and decide it's definitely them being rude and not you being overly sensitive, then follow the following steps.

"Douse the fire rather than pouring gas on it," the blogger recommends.

"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, go and chat to them face to face. "It is much harder to be a jerk in person and much easier to be a rational human being." He admits it's not pleasant at first, but it should diffuse the situation and open the lines of communication.

If face to face is not an option, then 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, the Lawyerist recommends.

If picking up a phone sends you into a mild panic, then choose your words carefully in email. You may start your email with a peace offering, like: "I may not have communicated that effectively." Say what needs to be said and leave it at that. Respond to questions concisely and clearly, and stay away from those throw-away comments or dig you're busting to make.

The other person may indeed remain unreasonable or angry, but at least you can feel sure you've dealt with it professionally, even if they haven't.

The Lawyerist also reminds lawyers that emailing a client at work can invalidate the solicitor-client privilege. And if opposing counsel sends you an emotionally charged rant, sending a similarly charged email might end up part of the case down the road.

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