Motivating Lawyers to Stay with Your Firm

by Joel A. Rose 

Today’s medium-size first-generation law firms are increasingly aware of the need for an effective method of motivating their lawyers. The basic question facing these firms is how to enable lawyers to achieve - in effect, how to motivate lawyers so they will stay with the firm.

Why This Need Exists:

This need arises because of the way these firms traditionally developed. As a rule, the founding partners excelled at attracting as well as producing client work. As a result of the founders’ success, their firms recruited more lawyers. However, the founding partners, by dint of their personalities and skills, were the ones who bonded the firm to certain important clients, particularly to business entrepreneurs and wealthy individuals. Typically, the new second-tier lawyers were bright and competent, but, for the most part, were recruited to produce the work that the founding partners generated. Over time, it became evident that the second-tier lawyers were unable to attract new business and unwilling to challenge the founders for leadership of the firm. Eventually, as more layers were hired to meet the firm’s needs, a third and fourth tier of lawyers was created.

As the founding partners reached their 60s, some decided to reduce their participation in the practice, others joined their clients in business operations, and some accepted judicial or political appointments. As a consequence, the second-tier partners rose to become the new first-tier partners. Although these partners had matured, most had not developed the requisite rainmaking skills, nor could they keep the hard-driving business clients who had been attracted to the firm by its founders.

To compound matters further, some third and fourth-tier lawyers who had joined the firm as laterals with their own business, or had matured and progressed through the firm’s career development program, now found themselves at a distinct advantage because of their ability to attract and retain clients.

Today, many of these third and fourth-tier lawyers are becoming increasingly aware of opportunities outside the firm. Some are being romanced by other law firms. Absent the willingness or ability of first-tier partners to create an environment in which these blossoming lawyers can achieve their personal, professional and economic objectives, it is likely that these very attractive younger partners will soon be joining the competition. Firm management needs to stop the migration before it starts.

Focusing on Individuals:

Under optimum conditions, the lawyer is seeking a long-term career with the firm. That career should include the opportunity to make a contribution and increasingly to put one’s knowledge to work, to apply one’s legal expertise. Any attempt at motivation must focus on the individual, with the aim of enabling the lawyer to develop personal abilities to the fullest and to find individual achievement in the practice of law.

As part of its fundamental leadership approach, firm management must be willing to allow for individual differences, while ensuring that such differences do not interfere with collaboration at the firm. Management must strive to work with individual lawyers to gain an understanding of:

1. What they want and
2. How the firm can meet those objectives.

Management’s dilemma is in finding a way to successfully corral highly intelligent, egocentric, frequently contentious and functionally independent lawyers so that they are motivated to achieve. Whatever approach is enlisted must be subtle. Any deliberate attempt will be perceived as heavy-handed and contrived and will, therefore, be counterproductive. The “motivator” will most certainly encounter resistance and the effort will fail.

Why Traditional Motivators Don’t Work:

Traditionally, firms have tried to motivate lawyers through three types of approaches:

1. The “Big Stick”
2. Peer Evaluation
3. Money

While the “carry a big stick” approach to motivating lawyers was favored in the past, in today’s climate any “sticks” wielded by management can only address marginal issues. This approach will increase resentment and hostility - not motivation.

The peer evaluation process is a method that can have beneficial results. The opportunity for recognition and praise is of intrinsic value in reinforcing individual performance and accomplishment. However, the procedure may backfire if the occasion is viewed as an opportunity to criticize or complain about peers. For many firms, the annual performance review is a standard component in spurring achievement, as long as the evaluator is thoroughly familiar with the layer’s performance. If the evaluator has little interaction with the lawyers, merely completing forms because it is expected, the review will be of little benefit. More often than not, the evaluation process becomes a “necessary evil,” so its use as a motivational device is greatly diminished.

As to money, if the structure of a firm’s compensation system casts salary as a reward or penalty, the results will not always be favorable. While money can be a considerable factor in prompting performance, it should not be viewed as an end in itself. Certainly money is a component in measuring success, but it is not necessarily the critical factor that motivates lawyers to succeed.

Fostering Self-Motivation:

In most law firms, the under- and over-achievers are obvious. High achievers will stand out from the pack without much ceremony or interference by management. Given the opportunity, the majority of lawyers, if treated with respect and consideration, will perform effectively, sometimes extraordinarily. More often than not, the key is self-motivation. To motivate high performance, the firm must create an environment that supports the lawyer’s professional expectations. The freedom and flexibility to perform, from an administrative and professional standpoint, will ensure positive results.

The firm may encourage the lawyer 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 so lawyers can measure their projected performances against the firm’s assessments. The lawyers’ self-motivation and performance will be positive if they believe that they will improve themselves personally, professionally and economically by improving the firm. Lawyers must feel that they have a role in determining the firm’s current and long-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:

1. Adequate training
2. Evaluations
3. Career development programs

For example, work assignments should be clearly delineated, with adequate opportunity for developing specialties in a given area. Administrative staff functions should be supportive of lawyers’ needs, providing the appropriate quality and availability of high level support personnel, equipment and facilities.

Compensation is an important element in motivating lawyers and should acknowledge and reinforce a lawyer’s total contribution to the firm. The compensation system must be fully understood and agreed to by the lawyers, who should have some say in determining criteria. Lawyers must feel that they are being paid what they are worth. The dollars should not be a lawyer’s only goal, however. Beware of creating a compensation policy that overemphasizes personal performance and is counterproductive to firm goals. Higher compensation as the primary reward for an individual’s performance will reinforce the “me” rather than the “we” attitude, thereby disassociating a lawyer’s personal and professional goals from those of the firm.

Creating the Right Environment:

To ensure that lawyers develop the skills and professional acumen they need to be successful, firm’s must do the following:

1. Delegate authority on client matters as early in a lawyer’s career as feasible.

2. Make ongoing training and professional growth part of the firm’s ethic. Use in-house training or outside CLE programs and bar activities that relate to the individual’s and the firm’s long-range goals.

3. Encourage participation in civic, public service and related activities because they enhance both the firm’s and the lawyer’s image.

4. Develop policies on activities such as pro bono work, business development, client relations and firm administration. For example, firm policy should recognize the effort required for administrative activities, such as supervising other lawyers and staff, and should enable lawyers to perform these activities without jeopardizing their ability to meet the firm’s billable hour requirements.

To enhance the administrative aspect of firm life, lawyers need to become involved in various committees (e.g., administrative, financial or recruitment). Management should encourage them to participate in activities such as drafting the firm manual, planning technology upgrades, or developing policies on topics such as maternity leave, part-time employment or the partnership track. When lawyer are actively involved in the issues that affect their day-to-day existence, a dual purpose is served. First, lawyers keep informed about the activities surrounding firm policies and procedures. Second, because they have a voice in firm operations, they feel that they are a crucial part of the organization, essential to and responsible for its proper functioning. In short, lawyers will take to heart the policies they have helped decide and the goals they have helped set.

All for One and One for All

Firm management’s collective attitude toward lawyers is a critical motivator, for better or worse. An attitude that recognizes the individual lawyers’ effectiveness can be an insurmountable mode of ensuring excellence. A well-timed “great job!” For a good performance is a much more effective motivator than a kick in the pants when things go poorly. Mistakes are an essential part of the learning process, and they develop skills that enable the lawyer to do the job better the next time. When a mistake becomes the occasion for management to exercise its hierarchical prerogative, however, the energy will be woefully misspent and largely misdirected. The lawyer, more than likely, is fully aware of the error. The proper remedial action is to focus on how to improve and succeed in the future. The lawyer’s need to prove his or her ability will ensure a better result the next time.

Finally, firm management must make it clear that, while individually, the lawyers have free rein to excel, collectively they are the keepers of the firm’s future. The firm will grow if it permits its lawyers to perform for their individual benefit and for the firm’s. Management’s function is to provide an environment in which both will thrive.

©1999-2014 Joel A. Rose & Associates