Blog Network

About The Bloggers


And the Award for the 'Greatest Contribution to Reducing Assholishness' in the Legal Profession Goes to ... ABCs Ad-thumb-500x64-4198

Today, Victoria Pynchon's Negotiation Law Blog awarded its "Golden Asshole Award" to Carrie Sperling. Before anyone gets too ticked off here, let me quickly clarify that receiving the Golden Asshole Award is supposed to a good thing, as it goes out "once a month to the individual making the greatest contribution to reducing assholishness* in the profession." So, umm, congrats Carrie!

Sperling is the author of a recent paper,"Priming Legal Negotiations Through Written Demands," that draws upon research in social psychology to demonstrate that lawyers' written demand letters

deserve more attention and study. The words lawyers use to convey their demands can have powerful, lasting effects on the course and nature of negotiations because they almost certainly frame the issues, anchor a recipient’s perceptions, and prime the recipient’s goals and behaviors. If we are to fully understand what causes protracted, hostile litigation as opposed to cooperative negotiations and lasting resolutions, we must start by applying sound negotiation theory to the written demand.

The paper starts with an interesting anecdote that helps demonstrate how an initial written demand can have the exact opposite effect of what is intended, perhaps even permanently destroying any hope that the sender may have had of achieving his or her objective:

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.

Posted by Bruce Carton on November 15, 2010 at 01:02 PM | Permalink | Comments (9)


About ALM  |  About  |  Customer Support  |  Privacy Policy  |  Terms & Conditions