Tom Wallerstein

Does this type of email look familiar?

“I’m delighted to announce that our firm, Dewey Cheatem & Howe, has just reached a settlement of a longstanding class action on behalf of our beloved client Evilem Pire Insurance Corp. (‘EPIC’). Due to our tireless efforts reviewing documents and engaging in discovery motion practice, EPIC was able to settle the case for only $1 trillion dollars, a mere fraction of the many quadrillions sought by the plaintiffs . . . .”

If you are a lawyer in a firm, then you probably have seen a similar email more than once in your career. The victory email is a tradition at many firms, even when the result can only barely qualify as a victory. Because I think it behooves lawyers to always consider the purpose of any communication, we might wonder why victory emails are so prevalent….

One very practical reason for sending a firm-wide email is simply to communicate the results of major engagements to other members of the firm who might otherwise not know.

I remember when I was a law student on a call-back interview with a multi-national firm. The first partner with whom I was meeting spent several minutes giving the predictable spiel about how close-knit the firm was and how it had such a uniquely collegial firm culture. When that interview ended, he escorted me several floors away to meet with the next interviewer, another partner. I don’t think he appreciated the irony as I watched the two partners introduce themselves to each other before introducing me.

Especially in big firms with multiple offices, a victory email may be the simplest way for lawyers to learn about the outcomes of matters being handled by their colleagues.

Besides objectively communicating information, the sender of a victory email also has another, more personal agenda. Lawyers generally are not known to be especially modest, and when they win, they want to make sure as many people as possible know. And again, especially in a large firm with multiple offices, attorneys have a legitimate, vested interest in ensuring that other members of their firm understand and appreciate the value they bring above and beyond their billable hours or client originations.

Less selfishly, the victory email sometimes is used to give credit to more junior team members who contributed to the successful result. Saying “thank you” and giving credit to others when warranted is a way for partners in firms to provide tremendous excess value to associates who already earn generous financial compensation.

Above the Law has spent the week engaged in its annual ritual of tracking Biglaw bonuses. Firms which consider themselves top tier take pains to ensure that their bonus compensation is competitive with known market leaders like Cravath. It amazes me that more partners don’t take advantage of the significant benefits of expressing their appreciation and giving a “thank you” to associates because it is entirely cost-free.

Associates who are slaving away with insane hours obviously expect to be fairly compensated. But I have long believed that they also want a simple acknowledgement of the sacrifices they are making, and the value they are contributing.

Associates who are already making two or three hundred thousand dollars a year might value this recognition even more than they value a little extra cash. It’s not easy to consistently work twelve or more hours a day. And it’s much harder when you feel your effort is not appreciated, and that the partner who spent the day on the golf course (presumably trying to generate further business) is not grateful and will ultimately claim all the credit for any good result.

I suspect that remembering to give a semi-public “thank you” on an institutional level can go a long way toward helping with associate retention. Publicly praising team members also has the same good effects on a more individual level. You don’t need a degree in psychology to understand that a partner who routinely acknowledges the good work of his associates will engender more loyal associates who inevitably will work harder for that partner than they do for others.

Beyond expressing gratitude internally, partners should also consider letting their clients know about the real value added by associates above and beyond the raw number of hours worked.

I recently was talking to Jerry G., a friend of mine who is a senior associate in Biglaw. Jerry had worked long hours on a motion for summary judgment. He also did the lion’s share of the legal research and was responsible for conceiving of the legal theories underlying the motion. His work product was excellent, and the partner in charge did very little work on the brief other than make minor comments and suggestions.

The motion was granted and the client was elated. The client’s general counsel hosted a celebration dinner for the entire legal team consisting of partner, senior associate, and several midlevel and junior associates. At dinner, the client asked the partner, only half-jokingly, “So, who really wrote the winning brief?” My friend lit up; this was his moment. He waited expectantly for his well-deserved kudos.

The partner laughed and changed the subject, but it was an awkward moment. All the lawyers at the table knew the answer, but not one spoke up. I think the partner missed an easy opportunity to gain life-long loyalty from his senior associate.

I don’t know why that particular partner declined to take the opportunity to credit his associate in the eyes of his client. Doing so would have allowed the associate to not only feel appreciated, but also to believe that his own career goals were being advanced. He would have believed that his hard work was not only earning him a generous salary, but also furthering his own network and business development efforts.

This is especially striking because giving this acknowledgement to the associate would not have cost the partner a thing. The client already knows that the associate will be doing the lion’s share of the work. And he expects that; he doesn’t want to pay partner rates except for the high-level overview. It’s extremely unlikely that the client is going to bypass the relationship partner and go straight to the associate the next time he needs help.

It’s always fun to win a case and earn the right to draft a victory email. It serves an important purpose of communicating your success to those who might not otherwise know. But don’t overlook the collateral benefits of giving credit where credit is due, and don’t be afraid to share the glory.


Tom Wallerstein lives in San Francisco and is a partner with Colt Wallerstein LLP, a Silicon Valley litigation boutique. The firm’s practice focuses on high tech trade secret, employment, and general complex-commercial litigation. He can be reached at tomwallerstein@coltwallerstein.com.


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