Lawyer’s Ketchup Email Circles the Globe

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Yet another lesson taught by the internet on what not to write in an email.

In 2005, a senior associate at Baker & McKenzie's London office became a bit irritated with a secretary who had allegedly spilled ketchup on his pants (or in British, "spilt tomato ketchup on his trousers") a week before and had then taken time away from the office without having reimbursed him for said trouser damage. "Dear Jenny," he wrote upon her return to the office, "I went to the dry-cleaners at lunch and they said it would cost four pounds [$7.30] to remove the ketchup stains. If you could let me have the cash today that would be much appreciated."

It was a bad time to impose on Jenny, who replied, "With reference to the email, I must apologize for not getting back to you straight away but due to my mother's sudden illness, death and funeral I have had more pressing issues than your four pounds. I apologize again for accidentally getting a few splashes of ketchup on your trousers. Obviously your financial need as a senior associate is greater than mine as a mere secretary."

She added that she had forwarded his email to other lawyers and staff in the office and that they had all offered to "do a collection" to raise the four pounds for him. "I, however, declined their kind offer but should you feel the urgent need for four pounds it will be on my desk this afternoon."

According to one report, the associate came by to get his money.

In the meantime, others at Baker & McKenzie had passed the message on, and it has since shown up in newspapers and around the internet. Reuters reported that the associate received a number of emails (I would guess the number is large) in response, including one from an investment banker saying he was "deeply saddened to hear about the ketchup stain tragedy" and another suggesting he should "emigrate."

Baker & McKenzie management commented that it was aware of the exchange, which it described as a "private matter [not anymore] between two members of staff that clearly got out of hand. We are investigating so as to resolve it as amicably as we can." The BBC contacted someone it called a "commercial anthropologist" for comment. He said he thought the associate had chosen to email his request for the money because email has become the "de facto messaging medium" for business and because people find it easier to use email to say uncomfortable things, like asking a secretary to pay for what she has spilt upon your trousers.

He also opined—calling on all his skill in commercial anthropology—that Phillips might be regretting having used email. "Emails have a long memory," he said.