“My op-ed in today’s New York Sun” was the subject line of an innocently self-promotional e-mail that Columbia Law School dean David Schizer blasted to nearly 11,000 Columbia Law School alumni in the United States shortly after 1 p.m. on March 3. In it, Mr. Schizer weighed in on the campus issue that has been agitating pro-Israel supporters around the world: the purportedly pervasive anti-Israel climate at the university’s Middle East and Asian languages and cultures department.
“The state of Israel is one of the few shining achievements of an otherwise bleak 20th century,” he opined. “I believe that Israelis have the right and duty to defend their homes and families.”
His aggressive position-taking might have prompted its own share of outrage if it hadn’t been swiftly sidelined by an equally global and divisive issue of our century: spam. In creating this listgroup, someone in Columbia’s communication office-the culprit or the facilitator, depending on where you stand on the outcome-had deleted an essential line of code that would have directed all the replies to the dean’s inbox and prevented the recipients from spraying their thoughts across the country like crop fertilizer.
“Bianca Russo/JPMCHASE is out of the office” was one of the first of several hundred e-mails the esteemed esquires downloaded after clicking “Send/Receive.”
Quickly, the litigious responses started streaming in. “This is an unacceptable intrusion on my time,” fumed Vincent Palladino, a partner at Ropes and Gray. (Later, he contritely told The Observer: “In retrospect, I overreacted. But it is a measure of how intrusive e-mail can be that I did so.”)
“You are flooding my inbox with stuff I have no interest in. I find it very unprofessional,” was the stiff, sober response from a 1986 alumna, Florence Cameron, with a less-than-professional e-mail handle: Sitcomlady. (“I use a totally different e-mail address for my legal career and connections,” she wrote later in an e-mail to The Observer. “I also had no idea that I was responding to everyone.”)
Of course, such responses went out to all, triggering once again the automatic “out of office” responses. After the fact, one alum likened it to being stuck in an elevator-a very, very large elevator.
People responded true to form.
“Please remove me from your list,” wrote Charles Fried somewhat dispassionately. The Harvard Law professor was Solicitor General under President Reagan. (“They can deal with me by mail,” he told The Observer about his alma mater.)
“Thanks for the article,” was the breezier response from Byron Swift, an environmental lawyer.
Angry messages were met with responses from those-perhaps not litigators-who tried to soothe their former classmates with explanations. “The problem, I believe, is that whenever you reply to the above e-mail address, it automatically forwards your response to everyone on the list. So everyone should stop replying to this e-mail,” calmly assessed Eric Grannis, a.k.a. Mr. Eva Moskowitz, perhaps a little too confident in the capacity for rational decision-making of his professional peers. (“The concept that you have to be a prick to be a good litigator is just wrong,” Mr. Grannis, who is a litigator, protested when we pointed out his politeness.)
Others were more collegial. In fact, for slightly more than an hour-the time it took administrators to realize the extent of the problem and disable the list-the Columbia Law School community was pressed shoulder-to-shoulder in a kind of reluctant, but nevertheless cozy, hug. “I have only received four ‘out of office’ messages, which suggests that, as a whole, our collective noses are to the grindstone. Regards to all, and keep up the good work,” toasted Len Weiser-Varon, a corporate lawyer in Boston.
Others were less sanguine. “I wish I were on vacation, too,” mused Heidi DuBois, an associate in Debevoise and Plimpton’s tax department, to the thousands of others who could probably relate. (Ms. DuBois explained to The Observer that she wished she had been out so she “could have avoided the ‘out of office’ e-mails.”)
Finally, the tentative chumminess took its final turn, toward inevitable pitching: “’92 class graduate here …. If anyone is looking for a good special education lawyer, give me a call,” wrote Julie Gaughran. (“I’m ashamed to say, I think I was the only one who was tacky enough to plug my firm,” Ms. Gaughran said later, though she wasn’t-and another attorney posted an ad for a used Volkswagen. She added that she’d thought, “Hey, this is a rare opportunity. This will be my only 10 seconds on a national stage-why not?”)
Reflecting on the e-mail-exchange experience, Ms. Gaughran found it a trip. “It was certainly more pleasant than going to a reunion. You didn’t have to diet; you didn’t have to smile,” she said.
Mr. Schizer apologized for the glitch, saying it hadn’t happened before with the six or seven e-mails he’s sent since starting as dean in July. (Because he’s worried the technology may trigger the same glitch, he’s not e-mailing that sentiment.)
“I do regret the inconvenience this may have caused people,” he said. Nevertheless, “a few people said, ‘The glitch helped me to catch up with some people I hadn’t been in touch with before.’ So that was pretty funny, too.”
Phineas Leahey, class of 2002, a grave-sounding Davis Polk and Wardwell associate, made a rather precocious contribution: “In any event, having to delete a ‘flood’ (hyperbole?) of e-mails is outweighed by the widespread interest,” he wrote with all the solemnity of a justice penning a decision. “Requests for removal should, of course, be respected.”
When we caught up with him later, he described what he meant by “interest” a little more specifically.
“The mass e-mail that at first seems to divide the 10,000 alumni (or their representatives in the exchanges),” he wrote in an e-mail to The Observer, “reunited former classmates, introduced former graduates to each other and may have even sparked romances.”