MOTIVATING ATTORNEYS TO ACCOMPLISH OBJECTIVES

by Joel A. Rose
 

Among the more recent trends it would appear that the mid-size first generation law firms today are becoming increasingly aware of the need to develop an effective method of motivating their partners. Generally, these firms were established approximately 30 years ago by individuals who are still reasonably active in the daily affairs of the practice. As a rule, the founding partners were capable of attracting as well as producing client work. Their success resulted in additional work which required the recruitment of more lawyers and enabled the firm to expand. Typically, the individual attorneys were bright and competent, and for the most part recruited to produce the work that was being generated by the founding partners. Over a period of time, however, it became evident that these second tier attorneys were unable to attract new business and were unwilling to challenge the founders for leadership of the firm. It was also becoming apparent that the founding partners had bonded the firm to certain important clients by dint of their personality and skill. The founders' influence was particularly evident in relationships with the firm's entrepreneurial business-type and wealthy individual clients. Additionally, over a period of time a third and fourth tier of lawyers had been created with the hiring of more attorneys to produce the work and meet the firm's growing needs.

As the founding partners reached their early to mid-60's some decided to reduce their participation in the practice, others joined their clients in business operations and some accepted judicial or political appointments. While the founding partners were reducing their active involvement in the firm, the second-tier partners were invariably becoming the "new" first-tier partners. Although these partners had matured, most of them had not developed the requisite business-getting skills, or for that matter, were unable to retain the business from the hard-driving entrepreneurial type clients that had been attracted to the firm by the founders.

To further compound the situation, certain of the third and fourth tier attorneys who had joined the firm as lateral hires with their own business, or had matured and progressed through the firm's career development program, now found themselves in a unique position. Their ability to attract and retain clients and develop their own specialized expertise had provided them with a distinct advantage.

Today, many of these third and fourth tier lawyers are becoming increasingly aware of the availability of other opportunities. They perceive the "new" first tier lawyers as not being capable of advancing the firm to achieve the success established by the founders. Also, some of these third and fourth tier lawyers are being romanced by other law firms who recognize their current contributions and future potential. Absent the willingness or inability of the first tier partners to create an environment in which these blossoming attorneys can achieve their personal, professional and economic objectives, the likelihood is that these very attractive partners will leave to join other law firms.

The task now facing these mid-size firms is how to enable these attorneys to achieve and to perform. In effect, how to motivate the attorneys so that they will remain with the firm.

Under optimum conditions, the attorney is seeking a career with the law firm. The attorney's desire for a career includes the opportunity to make a contribution and increasingly to be able to put the knowledge to work, to apply the legal expertise that he or she is accumulating. Any attempt at motivation must focus on the individual with the aim being to enable the lawyer to develop strengths and abilities to the fullest and find individual achievement in the practice of law.

To enhance motivation, the demands must be clearly understood. In a law office environment motivation must be utilized as a management tool that will enhance the individual's ability to succeed in meeting his or her needs and desires. While each of us may be fairly certain that we know the "correct way" of motivating others, the basic fallacy of any approach is to consider it to be the way to motivate. It is a given that each of us may react differently, either positively or negatively, to the same stimulus depending upon a variety of factors. The individual's personal, professional and economic objectives, currently and over the longer term will affect his or her behavior.

To marshall these available resources, the underlying premise of any attempt by firm management to lead is the willingness to allow the individual differences in combination with the effort to collaborate. Lawyer management must strive to work with the attorneys to gain an understanding of what they want and how the firm can meet these objectives. The firm at a given point must emerge as an articulator and sponsor of the combined effort with the aim being to make the attorneys feel like contributors to its success while achieving their own goals. In the law firm context, we are attempting to motivate individuals who can generally be characterized as highly intelligent, somewhat egocentric, frequently contentious by virtue of training and probably personality, and functionally independent.

The dilemma for management is how to successfully corral these highly intelligent, egocentric, frequently contentious and functionally independent lawyers so that they are motivated to achieve. Whatever approach is enlisted must of necessity be subtle. Any deliberate attempt will be perceived as heavy-handed and contrived, and will be counterproductive. The "motivator" will most certainly encounter resistance and the effort will fail.

Among some of the more traditional motivational devices which have been favored by law firm management in the past is an approach which is usually characterized as the "carry a big stick" method of encouragement. While this method may have its proponents, any "sticks" wielded by management can only address marginal issues, they cannot function to drive the individual. When wielded in this manner they will eventually de-motivate and increase resentment and hostility. For example, the firm that places undue emphasis on its annual billable hours requirement will discover that it has laid the groundwork for dissention among the lawyers. All attorneys are not created equal and one individual's billings are not the measure of another individual's worth.

The peer evaluation process is another method which may have some beneficial results since the opportunity for recognition and praise is of intrinsic value in reinforcing individual performance and accomplishment. However, the procedure may back-fire if the occasion is viewed by some as an opportunity to criticize or complain about their fellow attorneys. For many firms the annual performance review is a standard feature and may be a component in spurring achievement as long as the individual doing the evaluating is thoroughly familiar with the attorney's performance. While this requirement is basic to the process, there are situations where the evaluating partner has had very little interaction with the attorney being evaluated but completes the forms because that is what is expected. The cursory review will preempt any meaningful benefit for the attorney being evaluated and, more often than not, will begin to be viewed as a "necessary evil," thus diminishing its potential as a motivational device. The money issue is another device that may be counterproductive. When the firm's compensation system is structured in such a manner that salary is cast as a reward or penalty, the results will not always be favorable. While money may be a considerable factor in prompting performance, it cannot be viewed as an end in itself. It is a component in establishing success but not necessarily the critical factor in driving the attorney to succeed.

From one perspective, virtually any aspect of management may be seen as an opportunity to wield a "motivational" tool. As has been stated previously, this attitude will not prove effective. The over-involvement by lawyer management in most of the substantive and administrative activities of the firm will eventually demoralize the attorneys. The result will be factions that will engage in endless power plays and politicking instead of building firm unity and encouraging teamwork. The operative method is one that entails recognition, evaluation, setting of priorities and articulation of the firm's values in a day-by-day and layer-by-layer manner that acknowledges the attorney's presence and input as vital components in the process.

Typically, in the law firm environment, the under and over achievers are immediately obvious. They will emerge to stand out from the pack without much ceremony or interference by management. The vast majority of lawyers, if treated with respect and consideration, will perform effectively, sometimes extraordinarily, when given the opportunity to do so. More often than not, the key is self-motivation, and this is what will work when enhanced and supported by the firm. The environment that stimulates motivation will support the lawyer's professional expectations. The freedom and flexibility to perform, both administratively and professionally, will assure positive results.

There is a higher correlation between the talent and ability of attorneys and the success of the firm, than there is between administration and the success of the firm. The overly-administered firm will produce an admirable organization chart but little else of measurable value. Self-motivation is the most significant component of a lawyer's contribution to the success of the firm. Lawyer management's primary function is to limit any interference with the self-motivated potential, and step in only when the problem of over-aggressiveness might crop up maintaining an awareness that at times it may be more important to temper rather than stimulate motivation. The firm may encourage self-motivation by identifying work-generated gratification while compensating lawyers in relation to their total contribution, cash flow and client base permitting. Lawyer management can create an environment that leads to firm identification and allegiance by cultivating and enabling the attorney's active participation through involvement, input, responsibility, communication, and professional growth.

The firm may encourage the attorney to provide some assessment of his or her projected contribution to the firm in terms of billings, client development, outside activities, public relations and the like in an effort to establish a common meeting ground and basis for action. This can be done in combination with the annual performance review where the attorney can measure his or her own performance against the firm's assessment. The lawyers' self-motivation will be positive to the extent that their personal, professional and economic goals are similar to the firm's objectives. The attorneys will perform if they believe that they will improve themselves personally, professionally and economically by improving the firm. The lawyers must feel that they have a role in determining the firm's current and longer term goals and culture. Once management succeeds in establishing that there is a common work ethic and shared values among the partners and associates, the way would seem clear to meet the challenge of succeeding and obtaining the rewards.

The firm must make every effort to support the partners by recruiting and retaining the appropriate caliber and number of associates through adequate training, evaluation and career development programs. For example, work assignments should be clearly delineated with adequate opportunity for developing specialties within particular practice areas. The administrative staff function should be supportive of the attorneys' needs and requirements assuring the quality and availability of high level support personnel, equipment and facilities.

Compensation is admittedly an important element to motivate lawyers and should serve as a management tool to acknowledge and reinforce a lawyer's total contribution to the firm. It is important that the compensation system be fully understood and agreed to by the attorneys. The attorneys should have some say in determination of criteria. They must feel that they are being paid what they are worth. However, any over-emphasis on personal performance will stimulate negative motivation and may be counterproductive. As indicated previously, dollars should not be a lawyer's only goal. Higher individual compensation as the primary reward for performance will reinforce the "me" rather than the "we" attitude, and can disassociate a lawyer's personal and professional goals from those of the firm.

To assist in developing the attorney's professional acumen, the firm should consider delegating more authority on client matters, as early on in a lawyers' career as he or she is capable of assuming responsibility. This will enable the attorney to gain the skills and experience that are required for the successful lawyer. Ongoing training and professional growth made part of the firm's ethic will result in the development of objective tools of the profession and business origination techniques. The use of in-house and professional outside CLE programs will support these activities. For example, the CLE and bar activities could be related to the firm's or department's long-range plans whereby the attorney benefits by enhancing his or her skills, and the firm acquires an individual with exposure to a certain specialty practice area.

The firm should establish policies regarding non-billable activity such as pro bono, business development and client relations, and firm administration. Participation in civic, public service and related activities should be fully encouraged both to enhance the firm's image and the reputation of the lawyer. The time and effort required for matters involving firm administration such as supervision of other attorneys and paralegals should also be recognized and supported by setting aside the requisite number of hours to enable attorneys to perform these activities without jeopardizing their ability to meet the firm's billable hours requirement.

To enhance the administrative aspect of firm life for the attorneys, the firm should enable them to become involved in various committees such as administrative, financial, recruitment, etc. Participation in the review and drafting of the firm manual, planning for automation requirements, development of firm policies that may concern such things as maternity leave, senior attorneys, part-time employment, partnership track, etc., and discussing office assignments or staff issues which have a critical impact on the day-to-day existence of all attorneys will serve a dual purpose. While keeping the attorneys informed about the events and planning regarding firm policies and procedures, their input to the process will give them an opportunity to have a voice in firm operations and enable them to feel that they are a crucial part of the organization and essential to its proper functioning.

Another vital motivating factor is firm culture. While the attorneys play a decidedly important role in determining the firm's overall atmosphere and general morale, management must do its share and make every effort to cultivate an environment that bespeaks openness and willingness to communicate while showing care and concern for the individual. The quality of life at the firm should reflect a humanistic and sensitive approach to the individual's needs with more than nodding recognition of the importance of family life to some attorneys. Within reason, idiosyncracies or modes of self-expression such as dress, hours, life-style, etc., should be a readily available avenue of expression for the attorney. A willingness on management's part to concede strict adherence to a rule requiring everyone to be in their offices at 8:30 a.m. will go a long way to encouraging the individual who works better later in the day to meet the firm's expectations. A congenial and pleasant atmosphere will result in a better place to work and better performance.

The importance of firm management's collective attitude toward attorneys as a motivational tool cannot be minimized. An attitude on the part of management that recognizes the individual attorney's effectiveness can be insurmountable as a mode of assuring excellence. A well-timed "great job" for good performance can be more of a motivational tool than a "kick in the butt" if something goes wrong. Mistakes are an essential part of the learning process and useful in developing the skills that will enable the attorney to do it better the next time. However, when a mistake on the attorney's part becomes the occasion for management to exercise its hierarchical prerogative, the energy will be woefully misspent and largely misdirected. The attorney, more than likely is fully aware of the error, and the proper remedial action is to focus on how to obtain a successful result in the future. The attorney's need to prove his or her ability will assure a better result the next time. The point being that it is advantageous to both the firm and the attorney to ensure the occasion for a next time, and avoid impediments to future successes.

In enabling the attorney's daily achievements, the firm must always balance today's effort against the requirements of the future. While keeping to the firm's long-range goals and plans, management must address the attorney's need for long-term security with adequate retirement plans and investment opportunities. In addition, the proper and orderly transfer of clients and reasonable longevity rewards will cultivate the attorney's sense of security and encourage institutional loyalty rather than an individual proprietary attitude.

It must be finally established that while the individual attorneys have free rein to excel, collectively they are keeper's of the firm's future. The firm will grow insofar as it permits the attorneys to perform for their individual benefit and the firm's. Lawyer management's function is to provide an environment in which the synergism between the lawyers and the firm encourages that to happen.

©1999-2017 Joel A. Rose & Associates