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Taking the high road: How I learned to press “Delete”

You ever have one of those days where every person with whom you are dealing woke up on the wrong side of the bed? As attorneys, we have the “luxury” of working in a profession where this can be a common occurrence.

I had a day like this recently. At 4:30 a.m., my son decided he no longer wanted to be bound by the protective rails surrounding his bed and, upon reaching the floor, decided he wanted the rest of the house to join him in being awake. So I got up and eventually made the transition from cranky baby to cranky attorneys and faced the major deadlines I had looming at the office. As the day progressed, I couldn’t catch a break.

Toward the end of the day, I finally reached my breaking point. An email came in with so much snark, so much vitriol and so many mischaracterizations that a proper response was in order. As my blood began to boil, I clicked “Reply All” and let the words flow. About half way through writing my response, however, another email popped up on my screen. This one was from a partner in my firm who also received that previous nastygram, but his email was addressed only to me. It contained two words: “Don’t respond.”

His email served as a reminder of what I already knew. Writing a letter or email fueled by anger is almost never a good idea and does nothing to serve your client’s interests. So, day in and day out, how does someone in one of the most contentious professions avoid the urge to respond to a nastygram with equal bluster? I employ a few tactics that have always served me well.

First, I remember the suggestion from one of my law school professors that you should always assume that any letter you write will appear one day in The New York Times. For an example of someone not heeding this advice, see Dan Gilbert’s open letter that was published immediately after LeBron James’s “Decision.” Thinking this way also helps you avoid grammar errors and typos (and the Comic Sans font, if at all possible).

Second, I try to assume that the people I come across every day are dealing with much more than a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call, a concept described beautifully by David Foster Wallace in the commencement speech he gave at Kenyon College in 2005, which later turned into the viral video “This is Water.”

Finally, my favorite tactic in these situations is the “walk away” method. Simply put, whenever I prepare a response to a nastygram, I write it down and then walk away. Later, I come back to it with fresh eyes, at which point I typically delete much of what I wrote and remove any unnecessary comments within the email or letter. It can be very therapeutic to write down what you want to say to the other side, but you don’t have to press “Send.”

With the ability to instantaneously respond to someone via email, it is now more important than ever to practice restraint in our profession. The last thing you want is for a split-second decision on a bad day to lead to something you later regret.

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