As Justice Brandeis famously observed, “[s]unlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” A certain amount of transparency keeps organizations honest and ethical. Alas, it seems that some law firms, like vampires, have a lower tolerance for sunlight than others.
In late August, we ran an offer rate open thread. There were over 550 comments, and some of the ones about WilmerHale were a little disturbing. They came to our attention when an individual weighing offers from WilmerHale and other top law firms sent us this message:
Could you follow up on all of the negative comments re: WilmerHale in your Summer Offer Rate Open Thread? I’m considering an offer from this firm, and there seem to be a ton of disgruntled associates there. The whole thing seems to center around an internal memo warning associates not to send tips to ATL. This deserves some investigation. Thanks for running an excellent blog.
So we took a closer look at the WH comments on the thread. Like this one:
The firm has made it abundantly clear that no one should provide tips to ATL or post comments. The clear message is that if caught, you’ll be fired. I, however, have already been “transitioned out”, so I have nothing to worry about other than feeding my family.
And this one:
Didn’t you just love the scathing internal memo meant to scare the living &*^$ out of those who were even thinking about tipping ATL? Apparently it worked, because it didn’t end up here (though it should have). I guess the few that were spared from the bloodbath are shaking in their boots.
We haven’t received the memo itself — yet — but we certainly received an awful lot of detail about it.
More reactions to the memo, plus comment from the firm, after the jump.
Many commenters, primarily from WilmerHale itself, expressed disapproval of the memo and its scare tactics:
231: “So let me get this straight, the [folks] at Wilmer had an internal memo to scare those who were even thinking about tipping ATL or post comments? What a bunch of spineless [people]!”
315: “[T]he Wilmer memo was scary. It came from the managing partners and it said don’t ever do that again…. What is most surprising to me is the partnership’s lack of confidence in the firm, so much that they are continually worried about ATL posts.”
317: “No one should be surprised by the Wilmer partners’ actions with regard to ATL. They base their firing and promotion decisions on internal politics and rumors. There are so many good lawyers at the firm that they have to weed them out somehow, so the[y] do it based on ‘so and so said that associate up for partner did a poor job on a memo as a first year associate’ or ‘I heard that associate is a bitch’ or ‘that associate is great, he’s a red sox fan.’”
One commenter had this suggestion for us:
319: “Why don’t you do an open thread on Wilmer scare tactics so the whole story can come out? No one is going to send in tips. Just make sure you leave it open long enough for the Wilmer people to go home and comment since everyone is too scared to comment at work.”
Thanks for the idea. Here’s the thread you’ve requested (which we plan to leave at the top of the page overnight, barring any breaking news, so people will see it and comment from their home computers).
WilmerHale has confirmed that management sent around a memo trying to keep its associates quiet. A spokesperson for the firm told Above the Law:
From time to time leaders of the firm communicate to employees that we have an obligation to protect the confidentiality of firm business and matters. This is nothing more than a general reminder of our obligation.
Wilmer makes it sound like management just sent around a gentle reminder about attorney-client privilege. But something tells us attorneys are already well aware of their ethical obligations to clients. Our tipsters report that the memo was directed at associates who might be talking about their jobs to their friends, their families, and sometimes ATL.
Obviously we at ATL don’t see the problem with somebody telling us “I just got fired,” or “my friend just got fired.” People are allowed to talk about their jobs and, more generally, their lives. This is America.
But we have to wonder why the folks at WilmerHale, as well as certain other firms, strive so mightily to keep people in the dark about what’s going on in their workplaces. Well-run institutions shouldn’t be afraid of a little added transparency.
How much a firm pays its associates or how many secretaries it has laid off isn’t a trade secret like the Coca-Cola formula. In the internet age, reasonable firms need to accept a certain amount of “leakage” as a fact of life (and smart firms communicate openly about their operations, to reduce the rumor-mongering and anxiety).
Even if a firm refuses to accept the reality of heightened transparency, do scare tactics like the WH memo even work? Or do they just generate more fodder for complaint, as well as disgruntlement and fresh gossip?
Some observers suggest that such crackdowns, which often come across as heavy-handed and Kremlinesque, are counterproductive. They alienate current employees, as well as potential future recruits (like the person who brought the WH comments to our attention). From the comments:
323: “How can Wilmer think that scaring associates shitless is going to improve loyalty to the firm? Morale has been low since at least the beginning of the year in the office I’m in. Most seem to agree that the atmosphere has completely changed, and it’s not about a lack of work, because at least in litigation and securities there is more than enough. Cutting upward evaluations (likely forever) did not help because that is the one way associates feel like they can get back at the partners who are mean and reward those who are great. If the firm wants loyalty they should improve morale, not threaten us.”
336: “[Partners] don’t understand why associates post anything to ATL – they stupidly think associates have as much stake in the firm as they do, yet they give us no reason to be loyal. Their efforts to develop loyalty and increase morale are completely misguided….
And can large law firms, in this age of multi-platform communication, truly track which of their employees, numbering in the hundreds or even thousands, are talking to ATL? Or talking to friends or family, who in turn talk to ATL?
Our email account, firstname.lastname@example.org, is an excellent way to reach us. Many people email this account from their Gmail accounts (or from dummy Gmail accounts), using their personal handheld devices or home computers (to be on the safe side). Emails sent in to tips go to Lat, Elie, and Kash.
But email is far from the only way we receive information. We receive tips via the following methods:
- in-person contact (e.g., when we speak at conferences);
- Facebook message (Lat here, Elie here, and Kash here);
- Twitter direct message (Lat here, Elie here, and Kash here);
- text message;
- instant messenger (AIM or Gchat — see our Facebook profiles for screen names); and
- the telephone (212-334-1871, ext. 3 for Elie or ext. 9 for Lat).
As you know, unless a shout-out is requested, we keep our tipsters anonymous (and might even do some jail time to protect a source — it would be good publicity for ATL).
If you think your firm even has the ability to monitor every communication that you send — including calls, texts and emails sent from your personal cellphone — then you’ve been reading too many John Grisham novels. As for your work computer, if your firm monitors everything you do on it — using a key capture program to every keystroke you type, then reviewing said keystrokes — your firm probably isn’t a very nice place to work (and needs more real work for its IT people, so they don’t have time for cyber-witch hunts).
We live in an environment where people are terrified of losing their jobs. But we don’t (yet) live in a totalitarian universe where people are being actively prevented from talking about their work and their lives.
Fear has always been only a temporary substitute for loyalty. Thanks to all the tipsters who contributed to this story.
Earlier: Departures from WilmerHale: An Interesting Internal Memo
Summer Offer Rate Open Thread: Here Come The No Offers