I know that I am not alone in feeling the inclination sometimes to dispatch a really sharply worded letter or email to my opposing counsel. I’m talking the kind of letter that says a big, snotty “so there!” so often it feels like a one-two punch twice in every paragraph. I know I’m not alone in this urge because I’ve been on the receiving end of such letters and emails from opponents whom I discovered later to be, deep down, pretty nice people.
I’ve contemplated why we feel the urge to do this and, further, why we indulge it more frequently in writing than in person or over the phone. I believe it’s a manifestation of the fight-or-flight response that is apparently part of being human. But I also believe we find it much easier to take an aggressive tone with someone when our communications are mediated by time and distance. Using myself as an example, I have at times written aggressive things in correspondence that I would never have had the gumption to say in person or over the phone.
Let me go on record saying here that, in all but a few instances, I’ve ultimately regretted taking an “uppity” tone in letters to opposing counsel. This is so true that I’m very sensitive to the tendency now. I take care not to send a message or letter that I’ve written when angry, hungry, over-caffeinated or all three, at least until I’ve given myself an interval to cool off and critically re-read what I wrote. The reason is that, on balance, I’ve vastly preferred the practice of law–and procured better results for lower fees–when I’ve tried to maintain a cordial relationship with my opposition.
It’s not always possible. Cordiality, like professional courtesy, is a two-way street. If my opponent mistreats me, I’m not going to be a doormat. And, during the course of a case there is bound to be occasions when we rankle one another. It’s unavoidable in a practice–litigation–in which we are inherently at cross-purposes. On the other hand, if I’ve stayed professional in my written communications, I find it vastly easier to get along in person.
The absolute worst situation is where I’ve not met in person or established any kind of relationship at all with my opposition other than an exchange of letters laced with snide comments. When the time comes for one of us to ask a favor (and that time always comes) and a phone conversation is required, there’s nothing worse than trying to shrug off the ill feelings that have accumulated through our letters. “How are you today” just sounds hollow. The balance of power in these circumstances is always tipped in favor of the lawyer who does not need the favor (an example of situational leverage, I assure you). I vastly prefer to be the one who’s taken the high(er) road and in the position of granting the favor than the lawyer who’s been asshole and is now on his knees begging.