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Q: Today I got an e-mail from a partner I work with sort of critiquing my appearance earlier in the day at an important hearing in court. He said I wasn’t forceful enough and that we could have gotten a better outcome if I had pushed a little more. He didn’t exactly phrase it in the most tactful manner, either. What do you think of e-mail as a vehicle for criticism? A: Bottom line: I don’t like it. Writing anything down that is sensitive, whether in a letter or e-mail, usually is a coward’s way out. It’s certainly easier for the writer to say difficult things in a distant way, but it is more hurtful to the recipient and, in the long run, not helpful. Generally, the person who gets the message is so hurt or put off by how the message is sent that they don’t focus on its possible validity. I’m referring here to situations involving colleagues, as in this reader’s question, not with opposing counsel or other practice situations in which transmitting difficult messages involves an entirely different set of guidelines and approaches. I’d tell the partner that you prefer having feedback sessions face to face so that you can have the benefit of finding out more. Emphasize that you want and welcome feedback — negative and positive — if the person can help you learn and be a better lawyer. But the other person has a responsibility to learn how to communicate it properly, so that the mode of delivery doesn’t overwhelm the message. Those who are inclined to transmit sensitive information via e-mails should sit back and think first. The great thing about e-mail is that it streamlines informational communication so well, especially about perfunctory organizational matters. But it’s a pathetically poor mode of communication for sticky topics. It’s invasive, it seems imperious — like the writer can’t waste the time to actually track the person down — and it lacks context and humanity. It doesn’t have any of the body language and informal cues that a face-to-face meeting, or even a telephone call, can include. Remember: a written communication that is critical stays embedded in the brain far more permanently than an evanescent conversation. The best rule of thumb when you are considering sending a critical or emotional e-mail is at least to delay and think about it. Better yet, if it’s even remotely sensitive, seek the person out for a face-to-face communication or a phone call so the person can react. An easy test is to look at the words you’ve written and imagine saying them exactly as written if you were talking to the person. If you would express yourself differently in a personal conversation, you probably need to skip the e-mail and have a conversation. English, a former litigator, is principal consultant with Values At Work in Montclair and the author of “Gender on Trial: Sexual Stereotypes and Work/Life Balance in the Legal Workplace” (ALM Publishing, 2003). Her advice column appears regularly in the New Jersey Law Journal . Send your questions about law firm politics and law office management to [email protected].

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