Email: One of the most useful (and dangerous) tools in a family law case.

Email can be great for co-parents because it is instant, convenient and leaves a record, but its strengths become its weaknesses if not used smartly. Most family law attorneys have some horror story about a client’s own words from an ill-conceived email being placed into the court record. I hate watching my client squirm with regret as his or her own words are used against him. While the modern age has made communication instantaneous, there are some pitfalls to avoid. Here are my email rules:

  1. Assume that anything you write will be read by the judge. Avoid sarcasm or angry expressions. The reader can’t see your facial expressions or hear the tone of your voice. Something written in jest or sarcastically can be misinterpreted.

    Don’t allow email to become a forum for argument. Just use it as a way to impart information. Be aware that emotions are not easily transmitted in an email. For example, you can write “Mary stayed home from school today with a fever,” instead of “Since you forgot to put a coat on Mary, she now has a cold and will miss school. Thanks a lot! I guess it is yet another reason why I have nominated you for father of the year.” In other words, it should be “just the facts ma’am.” Also, be aware that emotions are not easily transmitted in an email.

  2. Never send an email when you are angry. In the old days, you could write a letter and never actually send it. If you were angry, the tedious and lengthy process of writing the letter could give you time to cool down. Even if you put the letter in an envelope and stamped it, you could stop yourself before dropping it in the mail. But with email, you can hammer out all of your angry ranting and then press “send”. POOF it is gone and there is nothing you can do about it. I have personally experienced that horrible sinking sense of regret a person feels when after returning from a blind rage, a person realizes that the email he just sent was over the top or even inappropriate.

    The best tip is to simply never write an email when you are angry. If you insist on typing something while you are angry, do not send it. Wait 24 hours to cool down and then read the email again. You will be glad you waited 9 times out of 10. It’s amazing how much more rational we become when we have calmed down and are no longer blinded by rage.

  3. Use B.I.F.F. A good friend and colleague of mine, Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq., founded the High Conflict Institute and authored such books as High Conflict People in Legal Disputes and SPLITTING: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing A Borderline or Narcissist. He wrote an excellent article about how to deal with hostile emails. (For the full article from which I am liberally quoting, go to: http://www.highconflictinstitute.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=30&Itemid=101) Bill suggests using a “B.I.F.F.” response. In other words: Brief, Informative, Firm and Friendly.
    1. Brief,” in that you don’t want your email to turn into a rambling tirade that can be used against you. Don’t give the other side more ammunition to attack you.
    2. Informative,” in that you only want to communicate facts rather than unhelpful emotions. Focus on the information you want to communicate rather than on the disinformation coming from the other person. Certainly avoid personal attacks, sarcasm, name-calling, ranting and raving, etc. You want concise information that isn’t confused by emotional outbursts.
    3. Friendly,” in that you aren’t simply responding in anger. You are much more likely to end the conflict by not escalating but rather maintaining a friendly tone, even if you are tempted to respond in anger. Don’t overdo it. Just keep the tone relaxed and non-antagonistic.
    4. Firm,” in that you stand your ground in a non-confrontational way. Simply state your position clearly and don’t leave the door open for more negotiation (unless of course that is what you want).
  4. Beware of social networking sites. While not necessarily the same as email, comments on social networking sites can be dangerous. I represented a client once who had a MySpace account that she used for dating after her divorce. Later, in a post judgment custody battle, the silly and not necessarily flattering comments she made about herself and her sexual exploits were the subject of live testimony. While I fought hard to keep her MySpace account out of evidence, I was overruled. It was terribly embarrassing for her and worse, it cost her custody of her daughter because it colored the Court’s opinion of her. The moral of the story is that when posting something on the internet, a person should assume it will be available for opposing counsel to display in large font for the court and the whole world to see.

In summary, remember that while electronic communication is a wonderful tool that can streamline your correspondence, there are hidden dangers that can expose you to unwanted conflict. Just be careful with what you write or post.

Shawn Weber, Attorney & Mediator

Links to additional articles about emails:

Responding to Hostile Email, William Eddy, LCSW, Esq., High Conflict Institute

8 e-mail mistakes that make you look bad, Kim Komando, Microsoft Small Business Center

Doh! The Most Disastrous E-Mail Mistakes, Robert Luhn, About.com: Computing Center

Getting a divorce? Be aware of what’s in your e-mail, Janet Kornblum, USA TODAY, 2/14/2008

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