As I left for work one crisp, sunny April morning, I spotted a five-by-seven printed form on my car’s front windshield. The form’s message proclaimed, in large, bold letters, “youparklikeanasshole.” The form had a checklist of infractions like “two spots, one car,” “that’s a compact?” and “over the painted lines.”The bottom of the printed form said,
Parking is far too limited in our overcrowded streets and parking lots, and you happened to park like an asshole. Go to the above web site to see why someone else thought you parked like an asshole. Don’t be too offended, we all do it one time or another—it just so happens you got caught.
My next-door neighbor, who evidently put the note on my car, listed my infraction as “other” with a follow-up explanation written by hand: “You are parking too close to my garage. It’s hard for me to pull my truck in.” I studied the note for a few moments. I felt my heart start to pound and my whole body became uncomfortably warm. I wadded the note and tossed it. I was angry. When I arrived at work twenty minutes later, I was still angry. I told my co-workers about the note.
They all agreed with me; it was rude and inappropriate.
When I returned home that evening, I visited with neighbors who were not complaining about my parking. I showed them the note, now crumpled and dirty. They, too, became angry. One neighbor suggested exacting revenge on the note’s author by letting the air out of his tires. Another neighbor excitedly suggested something involving Crisco. Although I am a trained mediator, I became giddy about the prospect of getting even.
Perhaps it was a moment of self reflection that led me to question why I was even thinking of revenge. But that written demand evoked intense emotions in me and in my neighbors. We did not care about investigating appropriate responses or attempting to resolve the problem; we wanted to make my neighbor pay for his rude behavior. Instead of encouraging me to change my behavior in the way my neighbor requested, the note had an entirely different effect. The written demand prompted me to make my neighbor regret placing that note on my windshield.
This incident led me to question the legal demand letters lawyers write. I wondered if demand letters often evoke similar negative emotional reactions in their recipients. And, if so, do those emotions influence the recipients’ behaviors in ways that hinder settlement?
I think the parking story above is a great example of a person trying to achieve a reasonable goal (to get a neighbor to stop parking in an improper way that impedes his own ability to park his car), but completely undercutting that goal through a needlessly infuriating "demand letter" of sorts. If any lawyers reading Sperling's article can use it to avoid repeating this pattern in their own future demand letters, then perhaps there actually will be a reduction in assholishness in the legal profession.