First, a stand-up comedy routine; then, my point.
In the early 1980s, Robin Williams performed in a nightclub. His performance was taped and later broadcast by HBO. During the performance, Williams spied on-stage a wine glass filled with a clear liquid (which was, in fact, water), and Williams was off and running:
“There are white wines. There are red wines. Why are there no black wines?
“Reggie wine! It’s a m*therf*cker! Goes with meat; goes with fish; goes with any damn thing it wants to.
“I like my wine like I like my women — ready to pass out.
“We’ll get Mean Joe Green to advertise the stuff: ‘Reggie wine! Drink this sh*t or I’ll nail your ass to a tree.'”
After HBO broadcast the performance, an African-American winemaker named David Rege (pronounced “Reggie”) sued Williams and others in California state court, claiming that Williams had damaged Rege’s reputation and adversely affected the sales of his wine. (You knew there was a lawsuit tucked in here someplace, didn’t you?)
Retained by the defendants, my colleagues and I filed a demurrer, which we lost. We took a writ (basically an interlocutory appeal from the denial of a motion to dismiss — a quirky and long-shot procedural maneuver), and we won: The California Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s ruling on demurrer and ordered the case dismissed. Here’s proof that my ATL columns are as true as the day is long: Polygram Records v. Superior Court, 170 Cal. App. 3d 543 (1985). (I recreated the comedy routine above the way I remember it today; if it’s reprinted in the opinion in a slightly different form, that’s what 27 years will do to a fellow’s memory.)
A week or two later, the lawyers who worked on the case each received a large package by mail. The boxes contained mixed cases of wine — six bottles of white and six of red. The accompanying (unsigned) notes said only: “There are red wines. There are white wines. . . .”
Someone said “thank you”! And that happens so infrequently that I remember it today, nearly three decades later.
Shouldn’t that tell us something?
For lawyers at firms: If you’re a partner, and an associate puts in unusual effort or achieves an exceptional result, say thank you! If the associate likes coffee, buy the associate a pound of coffee. That’ll run you ten bucks, and the associate may be repeating the story on a blog in the year 2039.
If you’re an associate, and your secretary puts in unusual effort or achieves an exceptional result, say thank you! If you can’t spring for the whole pound of coffee, go for a half pound.
If you work in-house and your outside counsel runs through walls for you, or wins summary judgment and thus eliminates the biggest risk facing your company, or convinces twelve men good and true of the rightness of your cause, say thank you!
It’s not that hard to do. You’ll feel good about it. The recipient will appreciate it. The recipient will be delighted to work hard for you in the future. And the world will be a better place.
I feel better simply having written this post. I think I’ll go have a glass of wine.
Mark Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law (affiliate link) and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.