Motivate Your Employees!!
A Paradox of Productivity at Law Firms

by Joel A. Rose

Is a law firm “unmanageable?” Must attorneys and staff personnel be left to their own devices in the hope and expectation that everything will work out?

To a surprisingly large extent, this is correct. The personality of the type of person who becomes associated with a mid- or large-size law firm makes it so.

In order to determine what motivates a being, the nature of the beast must first be evaluated. Lawyers, for instance, are contentious. Not because they are lawyers, but because contentious people tend to become lawyers. It should surprise no one to recognize that lawyers have massive egos. Again, not because they are lawyers, but because people with massive egos often become lawyers. The typical support staff in a law office is clearly superior in terms of intelligence and skill when compared to the typical support staff in the office of the average manufacturing company, department store or insurance company. Lawyers tend to surround themselves with people of superior intelligence and ability. Those who do not meet these criteria quickly fall by the wayside.

The question then becomes how do you motivate contentious, egotistical, highly intelligent and functionally effective personnel? The answer is that to a large extent they are self-motivating - deliberate attempts at motivation are immediately perceived as and often are counterproductive. Self-motivation, however, works more often than not. Management’s function is to avoid interference with the self-motivational potential while allowing its fullest expression, avoid only the potential hazards that over-aggressiveness might bring. It is sometimes more necessary to temper motivation than to stimulate it. Clearly, these generalizations will not apply to everyone. Some lawyers are lazy. Some associates are strictly “nine-to-five” people. Some staff members get away with everything they can, including 45-minute coffee breaks ending in time to leave for an early lunch. These, however, are the exceptions and become immediately obvious.

The vast majority of those around us, if treated with consideration and respect, will perform effectively and sometimes extraordinarily when merely given the opportunity to do so.

What about the report card? What function does periodic evaluation, performance review, promotion, or ascension to partnership serve in a law office? In fact, each of these is extremely important as they tie into the ego demands of the type of personality at hand. However, rather than using a carrot-and-stick attitude toward staff, the attitude and approach ought to be one of professional expectation in an environment that permits as much freedom and latitude as is possible. This allows for self-motivated achievement.

What, then , is the function of the “boss” in a law firm? How does he or she use such tools as promotion, distribution, salary adjustment or perks to motivate? Should people be rewarded only after they have achieved a particular level of success, or can the rewards be a device to actually permit the achievement?

I believe that self-motivation is the most compelling phenomenon affecting an individual’s contribution to the success of a large law firm - and management’s task is to allow that self-motivation to be effective.

In order to accomplish this, I suggest the following:

1. Goals

If lawyers are basically self-motivating, their motivation will be positive to the extent that they identify their goals and the firm’s goals as coincident. This must be the prime objective: Create an atmosphere and attitude where each person believes they better themselves by bettering the firm. Call it morale or emotional attachment, the need is basic. In the absence of such conviction, nothing else will work.

2. Security

Professionals perform more effectively in a secure, rather than insecure, environment. Threats and coercion are usually counterproductive. Lawyers will think and lawyer better if they are not worrying about the next promotion or report card.

3. Allow for Individuality

Individuals like those at issue are not likely to fit a pre-established mold. Some are early risers, others are late sleepers. Some work best in the morning, while others do better starting at 10 a.m. or after and working until 7:30 p.m. People who are family oriented and eager to get home for dinner, should be able to do so. Allowing for idiosyncrasies or self-expression in terms of hours, dress and lifestyle allows the basic self-motivation to be effective. Self-motivated individuals will “get the job done” and get it done better without the confines of external discipline.

4. Recognition

This does not mean the award of gold stars or brownie points. It means public expressions of appreciation and an attitude of open acknowledgment of one’ s effectiveness. To a lawyer, a pat on the back is far more effective as a motivational tool than a smack on the hand.

5. Distribution, Promotion, Ascension to Partnership

This is, of course, the ultimate goal, the key to the executive washroom. Yet it ought not be used primarily as an incentive tool. The fact is many attorneys become more effective after they have been promoted. Their level of self-confidence often is the result of, not the cause of, success. Recognizing that the obviously ineffective should have fallen by the wayside by the time decision day arrives, more can be accomplished by promoting the potentially successful and effective person than by waiting to measure their level of effectiveness before promotion.

Using raises or differences in distribution solely as a reward for accomplishment may be, in fact, often counterproductive. Such an attitude, if it pervades the firm, will more often stimulate negative internal competition than it will benefit the firm. Such an atmosphere tends to disassociate self-motivation from a firm-directed goal. The emphasis is even more on the “me” rather than on the “we.” Additionally, and after the fact, the individuals involved are likely to regard their “rewards” as inadequate in comparison with the benefits others have received. Focusing attention on the reward exacerbates these problems.

Some of you may be appalled by these suggestions. You may want to point to the potential of someone taking advantage of the system, someone riding through a career without ever fully extending themselves, or someone recognizing the firm is a “soft touch” and potentially exploitable.

These types exist and may have to be culled, but more often than not the basic self-motivation that exists in the heart and soul of almost everyone associated with a law firm will stimulate that individual to perform most effectively for themselves and the firm - as long as the atmosphere is one in which the goals of the firm and the employee point in the same direction.

©1999-2015 Joel A. Rose & Associates