Can’t buy me motivation

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I still remember the story told by a friend of mine who quit his job at a large national law firm. The income, of course, was great. But he had become increasingly unhappy with the work he was doing, the people he was doing it for, and the culture of the firm for which he was doing it. After a lot of internal debate and many discussions with his wife about their financial future, he finally made up his mind, secured a position in-house, and went — with some trepidation and perhaps still a touch of doubt — to have That Conversation with the practice group partner. After hearing the news, the first thing out of the partner’s mouth was: “Can we offer you more money?” There went any last doubt whether he’d made the right call.

I’ve seen this scenario repeated many times, not only in law firms but certainly with unusual frequency there. The instinct to solve a problem by throwing more money at it — or more accurately, to interpret dissatisfaction primarily as something more money can cure — emerges with remarkable ease and frequency within law firms. Hardly surprising, since virtually every internal and external metric of success for law firms, and almost every major decision about strategy and tactics, involves revenue in the here and now. Money motivates. Money galvanizes. Money is why we’re all here, why we show up every day. So if you want something done in the firm, if you want to maximize your chances of success, just add money. Not happy? Here’s more money.

Yet while this belief holds firm inside partnership meetings, and seems to constitute the philosophical foundation of a remarkable number of law firms, a somewhat different picture emerges when you step outside that hothouse environment. The American Lawyer‘s most recent associate satisfaction survey (which, by the way, recorded its lowest levels since 2004) does highlight associates’ desire for salaries to return to pre-recession levels. But as Northwestern’s Steven Harper points out, the higher-ranked firms scored very well on factors such as “relations with partners and other associates, interest in and satisfaction level of the work, training and guidance, policy on billable hours, [and] management’s openness about firm strategies and partnership chances.” Associate salary does not drive associate satisfaction; there’s more to it than money.

Move outside the law firm world altogether and the evidence becomes more compelling. A widely circulated study of multiple Gallup polls found that on average, an annual salary of $75,000 correlates with the high point of people’s “day-to-day contentment.” Salary increases beyond that point improved people’s broader satisfaction with their place in the world, but it had no effect on their daily emotional well-being. The actual figure can be debated — it would certainly be higher or lower in various cities or industries — but the fundamental takeaway is that past a certain point, compensation fails to move the needle on happiness. Throwing more money at unhappiness is a waste of good money.

Then there’s the work of Daniel Pink, whose new book Drive explores what motivates people to do their best. His TED presentation on this subject is a masterwork. He describes extensive studies showing that people desire workplaces that give or encourage autonomy over their work, mastery of their subject and higher purpose behind their efforts. And he demonstrates not only that these intrinsic motivators are more important than extrinsic motivators (including money), but also that for certain types of work, increasing monetary rewards actually reduces people’s effectiveness. What types of work? Pink describes them as “right-brain, creative, conceptual kinds of [tasks, where] the solution, if it exists at all, is surprising and non-obvious.” That describes, among other tasks, most legal work of value. Monetary rewards narrow people’s focus, which is ideal for straightforward, mechanistic tasks. For creative problems, where the solution is on the periphery, monetary motivation does more harm than good.

This all matters if your firm wants to be successful for its clients and be competitive for legal talent in the 21st century. The factors that keep lawyers satisfied and that positively affect their ability to do their jobs are changing as we speak. Law firms that continue to act as if everyone and everything has their price, and that money is the fuel that drives performance, are going to struggle to keep the best talent and deliver the best results, and they’ll wonder why.

Now, of course money plays a role in satisfaction; but in most cases, what matters to people is less how much they make and more whether they’re being treated fairly. We all like to complain about new lawyers in large firms pulling down six-figure salaries that they “don’t deserve.” You hear the same criticism of professional athletes, whose income is wildly disproportionate to their actual societal contribution. But the measure to look at isn’t the stand-alone denominator of salary, but its percentage of the overall profitability of the company or industry: when pro athletes complain, it’s because they see the overall pie growing to mammoth dimensions and they want a proportionate share. Similarly, associates know exactly how profitable their law firms are. But when they see colleagues laid off and their own workload doubled while watching multi-million-dollar partner profits grow, they start to have understandable doubts about whether the firm is dealing with them in good faith.

So compensate your lawyers fairly, in the context of their contribution and your profitability. But once you’ve done that, turn your attention to ways in which you can improve their performance, illuminate their career path, and increase opportunities for communication. Focus on intrinsic motivational drivers of the best performance and attitude. And learn to de-emphasize the role of money in your efforts to motivate and satisfy your lawyers — especially if they’ve just walked into your office for That Conversation.

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