Maintaining Motivation For Attorneys in a Law Firm

by Joel A. Rose

Many lawyers are contentious, not because they are lawyers but because many contentious people tend to become lawyers. Most lawyers have massive egos, not because they are lawyers but because people with massive egos tend to become lawyers.

As such, the challenge for managing partners becomes how to motivate contentious, egotistical, highly intelligent and functionally effective professionals. The answer is to a large extent that they are self-motivated. Because of these personality characteristics, deliberate attempts at motivation by the managing partner are immediately perceived and are oftentimes counterproductive.

It has been the author's experience that self-motivation will work more often than not, and that the managing partner's function is to avoid interfering with the self-motivational potential while allowing its fullest expression, avoiding only the potential hazards that over-aggressiveness might bring to the firm. Hence, it is sometimes more necessary to temper motivation than to stimulate it.

It is obvious that some attorneys are lazy and others are "9-to-5" people. These, however, are the exceptions and become immediately obvious. The vast majority of lawyers, if treated with consideration and respect, will perform effectively and sometimes extraordinarily when merely given the opportunity to do so.

Periodic performance evaluations of lawyers - partner and associates - are very important because they tie into the ego demands of the type of individual that a lawyer is, and with whom the managing partner must deal.

It has been my thesis that rather than adopting a carrot-and-stick attitude toward attorneys, the attitude ought to be one of professional expectation in an environment that permits as much freedom and latitude as is possible so as to allow for, as distinguished from attempting to stimulate, self-motivated achievement.

Recently, I consulted with a large law firm in Philadelphia in which the managing partner said that he has stimulated the success of the firm by the development of systems and computer printouts (even though the managing partner admitted that some of the systems may have been counterproductive.) In fact, this managing partner attributed the firm's success to how little he got in the way.

Further, it is the belief of this managing partner (and the author) that there is a far more direct relationship between the talent of the attorneys and the success of the firm than there is between the extent of management and the success of the firm.

What then is the function of the managing partner in the law firm? How does he or she use the various management tools available, i.e., promotion, increased salary, bonuses, recognition and status, etc., to motivate? Should attorneys be rewarded only after they have achieved a particular level of success, or can the rewards be a device to encourage/permit achievement?

It is my opinion that self-motivation is the most compelling phenomenon that affects an attorney's contribution to the success of the firm, and the managing partner's role is to allow the self-motivation to be effective. In order to accomplish this, the following suggestions are offered:

Goals. The direction of a lawyer's motivation will be positive to the extent they identify their goals and the firm's goals as being coincident. This should be the prime objective: to create an atmosphere and attitude where each attorney believes that he or she betters themselves by bettering the firm. Attorneys frequently refer to this concept as, "high tide raises all ships."

Security. Attorneys perform more effectively in a secure environment than in an insecure environment. Threats and coercion are usually counterproductive in a law firm atmosphere.

Allow for individuality. Attorneys of the type we are discussing are not likely to fir into a pre-established mold. Allowing for or self-expression (or idiosyncrasies) in terms of hours, dress and lifestyles allow the basic self-motivation to be effective. Most self-motivated attorneys will get the job done better without the confines of external discipline.

Recognition. This means public expression of appreciation and an attitude of open acknowledgment of effectiveness. To an attorney, a pat on the back is far more effective as a motivational tool than a smack on the behind (although the latter may be required on occasion.)

Compensation, promotion and progression to partnership. This, of course, is the ultimate goal. However, it should not necessarily be used primarily as an incentive tool. Many attorneys try harder after they become partners. They try harder to justify the confidence that has been reposed in them. Their level of self-confidence is often the result of, not the cause of, success.

Using compensation as the sole reward for accomplishment may be counterproductive. Such an atmosphere, if it pervades the firm, may stimulate more negative internal competition than it will benefit the firm. It tends to disassociate self-motivation from a firm-directed goal, creating more of a "me" environment than a "we" environment.

It has been my experience that there are going to be situations where some attorneys take advantage of the situation, and for the good of the firm, may have to be culled. But, more often than not, the basic self-motivation that exists in almost everyone associated with a law firm will stimulate that attorney to perform most effectively for the benefit of himself, herself and the firm, so long as the atmosphere that is presented is an atmosphere in which the firm's goals and the self-motivation of the individual point in the same direction.

©1999-2017 Joel A. Rose & Associates