Topic: Professions & Institutions

The Ethics of an E-mail Fiasco

You might not think acting like a jerk would be a career handicap for a lawyer. But the fact is that dignity, civility and respect are supposed to be standard components of every legal practitioner’s professional conduct, and when lawyers display a significant deficit in these qualities, it can cost them jobs, clients, and in extreme circumstances, even their bar cards. A recent nasty e-mail exchange that found its way into the cyberspace jet stream has put two lawyers under ethical scrutiny by their colleagues. Neither has come out of the debacle unscathed, but their conduct would never have been anything more than a petulant private spat if others hadn’t behaved wrongly as well.

The popular on-line pastime of turning ill-considered private e-mail messages into in-box amusement for millions must be labeled what is: unethical. There is nothing inherent in an e-mail that implies permission to subject its writer or recipient to national ridicule by copying it to the world. It was wrong for one of the two lawyers in the exchange to share the message with a colleague and then tell that individual that he could send it to others. It was wrong of the colleague to do so without acquiring the permission of the other lawyer (which he almost certainly would not have received.) It was wrong of every person who received the exchange, and who would hate to have their own private messages end up on listservs, blogs and e-zines, to send along it to others.

The issue isn’t how easy it is to send out copies of e-mail or how one should be careful of what one writes on the Internet. The issue is respect for privacy, empathy, and our understanding of how devastated we would be to have the world learn our names in connection with our least flattering actions. There are people behind these messages. And the people aren’t public servants or elected officials, whose e-mails can be the subject of legitimate public interest, like the revealingly disengaged e-mails sent by ex-FEMA head Michael Brown during Hurricane Katrina. What would we think of someone who was send a copy of an embarrassing letter authored by a stranger and who then made thousands of copies of the letter, put them in envelopes, and mailed them to as many people as possible? We would think that person was a gratuitously vicious busy-body. The ease of e-mail disguises the meaning of this conduct, but doesn’t change its nature.

The Scoreboard is tempted to question the ethics of whichever journalist it was who decided to complete the unwanted and undeserved exposure of the e-exchange by writing a story about it. But once the e-mails had been around the world a couple of times, it is hard to argue that there was any privacy left to protect.

The dispute arose when Massachusetts attorney William A. Korman thought he had an agreement with recent law school grad Dianna Abdala to join his criminal law firm. There is some question about whether she actually accepted the job or not, but she ultimately decided to decline, sending him this e-mail:

Dear Attorney Korman: At this time, I am writing to inform you that I will not be accepting your offer. After careful consideration, I have come to the conclusion that the pay you are offering would neither fulfill me nor support the lifestyle I am living in light of the work I would be doing for you. I have decided instead to work for myself, and reap 100% of the benefits that I sew. Thank you for the interviews.

Korman was annoyed. He felt that e-mail was an inappropriate medium for the rejection of a job offer that has been made face-to-face, and said so in his response:

Dianna – Given that you had two interviews, were offered and accepted the job (indeed, you had a definite start date), I am surprised that you chose an e-mail and a 9:30 p.m. voicemail message to convey this information to me. It smacks of immaturity and is quite unprofessional. Indeed, I did rely upon your acceptance by ordering stationary and business cards with your name, reformatting a computer and setting up both internal and external e-mails for you here at the office. While I do not quarrel with your reasoning, I am extremely disappointed in the way this played out. I sincerely wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors.

What happened here? Korman seems to have forgotten that he initially received an acceptance from Abdala after offering a salary that he subsequently reduced. This scenario understandably does not charm job seekers, so his indignation thus is a bit excessive, as is his reaction to Abdala’s use of e-mail. Yes, it is not the most accepted method of sending formal messages, but it is getting there fast. Abdala is 24; in her generation, e-mail is routinely used for invitations, condolences, congratulations, resignations, even proposals of marriage. Given the fact that attorney Korman materially changed the original job offer and she evidently felt that she had been the victim of a “bait and switch,” the fair thing for him to do would have been to give her a break, wish her luck, and be done with the matter. If he felt it necessary to include a lecture on the proper uses of e-mail in professional dealings, he should have left out the “immaturity” comment, which amounted to a personal attack.

Unfortunately, she escalated the rhetoric:

A real lawyer would have put the contract into writing and not exercised any such reliance until he did so. Again, thank you.

Abdala’s ethical (and smart) response would have been to apologize for any misunderstanding, to explain that she meant no offense by the use of e-mail to convey her decision, and to thank him for the opportunity. Her actual response was nasty and several levels above Koran’s criticism on the insult scale. It was also incorrect. If they had a deal, as Korman believed, a handshake was enough for him to rely on. Lawyers are supposed to honor their words; in fact, the Massachusetts ethics rules insist on it. If you have to get an agreement in writing to be sure that a lawyer means what she says, then you don’t want to work with that lawyer.

Korman couldn’t let her message go, although he should have:

Thank you for the refresher course on contracts. This is not a bar exam question. You need to realize that this is a very small legal community, especially the criminal defense bar. Do you really want to start pissing off more experienced lawyers at this early stage of your career?

Abdala actually has sent an ethics complaint to the Massachusetts Bar, alleging that this was a threat. She’s deluded. First, as threats from lawyers go, this one is so soft as to be imperceptible. Second, he is absolutely correct. It is always ill-advised to make enemies in any professional community. A young lawyer entering the business should not go out of her way to insult veteran lawyers. As Abdala might say, “Duh!”

But what she really said in reply to Korman was this:

“bla bla bla.”

Whatever her legal skills, witty repartee is clearly not Abdala’s strong point. This response gets my 11-year-old several hours in his room; in Abdala’s case, it pretty much proves Koran’s earlier point about being immature and unprofessional.

Nonetheless, there was no reason for anyone to read her words (if indeed bla is a word) other than Korman. He, however, began the process of circulating their e-mail dialogue to the world, and by doing so, wins the Scoreboard’s Booby Prize as the least ethical of two lawyers who need to learn either to avoid contentious e-mail exchanges, or to infuse them with more restraint or wit, ideally both.

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