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Memo to Associates: "This Isn't a Gravy Train"

Vivia Chen

May 8, 2020

Online-5059831_1280In normal times, we probably wouldn’t be batting an eyelash at this stuff. Big Law partners often treat underlings poorly. That’s just how it goes.

But these are not normal times. So while no one expects partners to be warm or cuddly during the COVID-19 ordeal, we do expect a modicum of sensitivity.

Which is why this email apparently penned by a muckety-muck partner at Kirkland & Ellis popped out at us. Here’s what the memo says:


Just hung up with some of the restructuring SPs [senior partners]. There are some huge cases coming in and they have no staffing. Thanks to everyone for stepping up so far on cases.

For those that aren’t fully occupied right now, and are not on a single restructuring matter because they have been hiding, let me spell out reality for you real quick. I am seeing a ton of money being left on the table on the matters coming in and I have seen all of your hours today (from most junior associate through SP). Am pretty shocked and the math is not going to work out well for you at the end of the year.

[Names redacted] will continue to staff folks below SP over the coming days/weeks, I will be calling SPs personally. Given the market you should feel extremely lucky to be in an institution with too much work. That doesn’t mean you have an annuity here. If you get a call or don’t have enough to do, I suggest you grab a restructuring assignment ASAP and roll up your sleeves. If it was me in 2008 I would be pre-emptively calling [names redacted] after you read through the end of this note. This isn’t a gravy train where you can just chill and be along for the ride.


In case you missed it, here’s the message: There’s big money to be made at this time and you better get on the stick. And don’t think for a minute this is a “gravy train where you can just chill.” What’s conspicuously absent: the pandemic and how that’s altered the world.

If anything will reinforce the stereotype of lawyers as greedy and emotionally deficient, this memo, sent to me by a source, hits the nail. Despite all you hear about the profound impact of the coronavirus and how it’s making people more caring and compassionate, the tone and content of this memo suggest the opposite.

So who’s the author of this work? According to sources, it is Andy Calder, an energy partner at Kirkland’s Houston office and a member of the firm’s global management committee. One former Kirkland partner, who saw the email, said it was sent in early April, and it was directed to associates in Houston.

I asked Calder about the email and his immediate reply was: “We are not going to comment on internal matters.” However, he then went on to say, “Some of that sounds genuine; some not. It seems embellished. I think someone is playing you guys.”

Someone is “playing” us? What exactly does that mean? Is there a conspiracy at work? Who would bother to play this game? And to what end?

Those questions flashed in my head, but what really interested me was the effect of the memo—how recipients might find it upsetting and threatening to their careers. Calder said: ”We’ve done above and beyond what firms have done during coronavirus. Our people are well taken care of. We’ve taken care of our people and will continue to do so.”

(We also asked Kirkland for comment on the record, and it did not reply.)

Let me stop here and say that my goal is not to make Kirkland partners the poster children of boorish behavior during these extraordinary times. The firm has undoubtedly done good deeds during this crisis and throughout the year, and I’m sure it’s filled with good people.

Fact is, fair or not, the memo is out there—and it’s become a flash point that merits discussion. And though Calder says some of the memo is “genuine,” and “some not,” no one seems to be disputing the substance—and that, of course, is precisely the issue.

As memos of this sort go—reminding associates that they’re expendable if they don’t pump out billables—it’s almost a big nothing. As associates, many of us have seen and experienced worse. Yet, that’s precisely the problem. It’s troubling that there’s an acceptance that partners—particularly those deemed powerful—have license to behave like bullies and jerks, just as long as they keep the money flowing. But in this current climate, the question of why we continue to accept abusive behavior in this profession takes on new urgency.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing if someone would just level with us and say, it was an inappropriate, insensitive memo and we disavow it? Is that so hard?

Contact Vivia Chen at vchen@alm.com. On Twitter: @lawcareerist. 

Related post: Does the Am Law 100 Even Matter Right Now?


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Your problem with the memo, Ms. Chen, is that it's honest. That trait offends an utterly disingenuous person like yourself. For that reason, I'd much rather partner with Andy Calder on anything, than to partner with you. Mr. Calder is the type of guy to ask everyone to pull their weight when rowing a boat. You're the type of person to stab people in the back.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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