Can’t buy me motivation

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.

The legacy of work-life balance

I think we’ll soon be closing the book on one of the legal profession’s most-used and least-understood phrases of the last decade: “work-life balance.” It was still all the rage just a couple of years ago — new lawyers invoked it as a mantra, talent recruiters bandied it about, and many legal publications (including those I’m responsible for) frequently referenced it. But even before the economy fell off a cliff, you could see the pushback growing — and not just from cranky corner-office partners who felt the youngsters hadn’t paid their dues. The pushback came from a growing sense that “work-life balance” (WLB) was a meaningless phrase that obfuscated some real issues lawyers needed to grapple with.

Essentially, WLB was shorthand for the widespread sense that the demands of a legal career had outstripped the personal benefits it conferred — or, as my father used to say, “There’s not much point in earning a living if you can’t live the living you’re earning.” WLB was applied most frequently within the context of large law firms, where even jaded observers would admit that billable-hour targets had escaped any rational trajectory. Across all firm sizes, though, people looked at the law and saw a career where effort and satisfaction were headed in opposite directions. It was not irrational to think that this could stand some improvement.

(It’s important to recognize, by the way, that WLB was not exclusively a Millennial issue. Lawyers of all ages reported dissatisfaction with the perceived effort/reward ratio of their careers, especially in larger firms — though Gen Y was the most willing to talk about it, at length. Remember that WLB was also often used to describe the plight of older small-firm lawyers whose clients had come to demand legal services far more quickly and cheaply than before, catching the lawyer in a vise between ever more work and ever less time. Wherever legal work seemed to grow beyond the boundaries of “worth it,” we heard about WLB.)

Most lawyers seeking WLB were really seeking an answer to the question: “Does a legal career have to be all-consuming and exhausting?” As to that, I’ve written before that lawyers now work long hours thanks to a competitive economy and our own inefficiency, and that we’ll always have to run fast enough to keep up with our clients. But during the economic bubble, lawyers who asked that question often perceived that the answer was “no.” The demand for legal services sufficiently outstripped the supply of lawyers, such that lawyers could start to dictate the terms of their availability to employers and sometimes even to clients. The whole thing got wrapped up too often in buzzwords like “personal fulfillment,” “family time,” and WLB, but what it really came down to was lawyers’ rational response to market conditions. They had a chance to get more rewards for their time and effort — unfortunately, many of them chose those rewards in $160,000 annual packages.

Now, of course, the market has changed just a little. After 10,000 lawyer and staff layoffs at large US and UK firms, even the most active WLB boosters have toned down talk that might earn them the dreaded “entitlement” label. Articles and posts that reference the term “work-life balance” now do so in an environment of cold pragmatism: Ashby Jones at the WSJ Law Blog and Dawn Wagenaar at The Complete Lawyer provide good recent examples. Realist observers like Dan Hull and Scott Greenfield have gained the upper hand in the WLB discussion — check out this slam-bang debate at Legal OnRamp about “work-life balance” generational expectations.

Where proponents of “work-life balance” went off-track, to my mind, was that they argued the duty to ensure a satisfactory proportion between a lawyer’s work and the rest of her life was an institutional responsibility — that it was up to the law firm, basically. The  firms disagreed, and all they had to do was wait for the marketplace to turn their way to make that clear.

Law firms aren’t going to unilaterally change their business models for the sake of WLB. No law firm ever budged an inch on its billable quotas or offered associates more money and perks because its partners genuinely felt they should be nicer employers — appeals to conscience at partners’ meetings don’t have a roaring record of success. Firms change their working conditions as the talent market dictates. In a seller’s market like the one we’ve just had, they play nice; in a buyer’s market like this, they don’t. If almost every potential legal recruit said, “I’m not going to work at that firm — the demands are ridiculous and the benefits to my career aren’t nearly worth it,” and did so for several consecutive years, then you’d see the firm think about changing its business model. That didn’t even happen during the boom, and I doubt it’s going to happen now.

The thing is, “work-life balance” is a lawyer’s personal choice and responsibility. If money and “prestige” are that important to you, you’ll sign up to work 3,000 hours a year at a law firm, and you can reap the rewards and suffer the personal consequences accordingly. If keeping your work hours within a predictable box is important to you, you’ll be seeking out public-sector jobs or setting up a practice with just enough reasonable clients to pay the mortgage — and you’ll always have one eye on your bank statements. When we talk about “balance” in lawyers’ lives, we’re really talking about the tradeoff everyone has to make between compensation and lifestyle. If WLB stood for anything, it was for the fact that we all have the right and the obligation to make that tradeoff on the terms we want.

But here’s the caveat, and here’s where “work-life balance” proponents were right —  most lawyers in their first several years of practice don’t really have that choice. There are two institutional flaws in our system that hurt our newest colleagues. First, there’s the unspoken symbiosis between law schools and law firms — the former charge students huge amounts of money and provide little practical lawyer training, allowing the latter to hire low-skilled and heavily indebted graduates to fill virtually the only positions lucrative enough to pay off their loans. And secondly, billable-hour targets for associates at more than a few firms simply can’t be achieved without damage to one’s health or ethics, or both. These problems are neither natural nor inevitable — they result from our neglect of the system, and they annually damage our profession’s standards and morale.

In the heyday of WLB, we were at least starting to talk about these things, and the whole debate should have shined a light directly on them. What we were groping towards, under the banner of WLB, was the gnawing sense that most everyone starts their legal career behind the eight-ball for no particularly good reason. Now that the moment has passed, I worry that WLB will be relegated to the status of a mere generational quarrel during a freak economy. We need to do better than that. There are still some serious institutional problems for our profession to resolve — dealing with them openly and effectively would be the kind of legacy “work-life balance” deserves.

Trading money for time in your legal career

One of the unexpected benefits of this blog for me is the correspondence I’ve received from people who’ve read something I’ve written and have struck up a conversation about it. Recently, I received an email from a reader in the western US, and I thought you might be interested in both his question and my reply — especially if you disagree with my conclusions. Here’s the letter:

I was wondering if you have any suggestions for me. I graduated with a degree in accounting and had worked in a Big 4 accounting firm for a year before I quit. It’s not that the work was especially terrible, but working 60-90 hours a week, 6-7 days a week, I just didn’t have time for anything else.

While I’m finishing up my accounting licensing requirements, I’m contemplating going to law school, because I have always had quite an interest in legal work. However, I want to enter a career where I am not working over 60 hours and get the majority of weekends off, even if it means less money.

Are there any sectors of law where lawyers have these kinds of hours on a consistent basis (with a comfortable and reasonable salary) or does becoming a lawyer come with the implied recognition that there is no semblance of a “9-5”?

Here’s my response: Continue Reading

What are you afraid of?

I spent several hours, Sunday before last, co-presenting a media training session for a group of in-house counsel. Among the many standard warnings we give to lawyers in these sessions is to proceed with caution around reporters, reminding trainees of the two ineluctable rules of the media:

1. Journalists are not your friends.

2. Nothing is ever off the record.

Now, that does tend to exaggerate the point for effect, and we did talk about the importance and benefits of developing a solid relationship of trust with selected reporters. But overall, we went heavier on the stick than the carrot. It’s better that lawyers be overcautious than undercautious when the microphone is live.

But afterwards, I admit, I found myself wondering if we tend to go too heavy with the warnings about dealing with reporters. Some are untrustworthy and will twist your words to get a juicier story and a better shot at publication, it’s true. But many of them are just doing their jobs, the same as lawyers, and needn’t be approached as the enemy. An abundance of caution can easily creep over the line into fear, defensiveness and aggression, none of which serve your purposes very well.

I was reminded of this when I read a thought-provoking article in Texas Lawyer, written by professional coach and psychotherapist James Dolan, about the role of fear in the legal profession. His thesis is that lawyers live in fear — as his patient puts it at the start of his article:

“Hell, the whole profession is about fear. Fear of not billing hours, fear of not bringing in business, fear of losing business. Fear of not making partner. Fear of being in trouble with my wife for working too much, and, of course, fear of being in trouble with the partnership for not working enough.” He stopped for a moment, letting his own words sink in. “And it started in law school. The whole thing runs on fear. I’m sick of being afraid all the time.”

I think this is an important point, and one that we don’t talk about enough in the law. Much of the normal activity in our professional lives is powered by fear: of the client, of the partners, of the billable hour target, and of failure, to name just the biggest ones. Continue Reading

There’s no such thing as work/life balance

There are a lot of reasons to dislike the term “work/life balance.” It’s grammatically absurd, for one thing, implying that work and life are two equal sides of a coin, which is a far more disturbing concept than any 2,500-hour billable target: work is part of life, not its opposite number. “Work/life balance” has also come to represent the great generational struggle between Boomer law firm partners and their Generation X/Y juniors, an oversimplification that reinforces labels and stereotypes when we need a better understanding of this far more complex dynamic.

But I think my primary difficulty with the term became clear to me after reading (with a hat tip to Legal Blog Watch for the link) this American Lawyer article by Denise Howell on work/life balance. There’s a lot of good stuff in the story, including the harsh reality behind producing even 1,800 billable hours a year (which at some firms these days is considered part-time work) and the gyrations large law firms now put themselves through to show their commitment to work/life balance (and the young lawyer attrition rates that demonstrate how these efforts continually fall short).

Denise also suggests that lawyers had work/life balance figured out pretty well in the 1970s, when a law firm lawyer could take an entire month off to go river-rafting with his family. My sense, though, is that law wasn’t the only line of work where saner hours prevailed nigh on 40 years ago.

It seems to me that North American business and industry in general led relatively uncomplicated lives back then in terms of pressure and competition, and so could proceed at what we now view as a somewhat leisurely pace. Right up until the early 1970s, North Americans could work about as hard they felt like and still rule the economic roost.

Then came oil shocks, Asian competition, the rise of the microcomputer, free-trade agreements, labour mobility, technology explosions, globalization, and the Internet. And within the space of a few decades, our work culture changed from moderate to frenetic. Continue Reading

Give up on anything but yourself

A thought-provoking post by Seth Godin today that isn’t really about politics, even though it asks whether Hillary Clinton should quit the Democratic race. What it’s really about is quitting, which Seth endorses in a book (that I endorse) called The Dip, and the danger of changing who you are in order to achieve your goal. Here’s the ending:

For a long time, we’ve created a myth in our culture that it’s worth any price to reach your goal, especially if your ego tells you that you’re the best solution. We’ve created legends of people and organizations that pursued transformative long shots to achieve great results.

I need to be really clear: pushing through the Dip and becoming the best in the world at what you do is in fact the key to success. But (and it’s a big but), if you’re required to become someone you’re not, or required to mutate your brand into one that’s ultimately a failure in order to do so, you’re way better off quitting instead.

This got me thinking about lawyers. Many lawyers are happy with their working lives — or at least they’re content, having decided happiness was too high a target to aim for. But a lot of lawyers are unhappy, sometimes deeply, with their job or career. A lot of them talk about quitting, and a growing number of them do — either to find another job in a more fulfilling environment, or to keep looking until they eventually leave the profession altogether. Neither the law, nor every job in the law, is for everyone.

But many others stay where they are and grow more unhappy by the day. Some do it out of financial necessity, especially recent graduates with mountains of debt or a family to support. Some stick it out in the stubborn hope that things will improve, despite the absence of supporting evidence. Some convince themselves that the intangible benefits (social status, professional prestige, family pride) cancel out the misery. And some subscribe to the fallacy of “sunk costs,” that they’ve invested so much time, money and soul into a legal career that they can’t give up now.

One way or another, the unhappy lawyers in this second group are going to wind up in the same place as the unhappy ones in the first group: in a different job or out of the profession. They don’t have a strategy for finding fulfillment where they are, and they probably don’t have the motivation to execute such a strategy if they had one. Sooner or later, they’ll have to give it up; from my perspective, it might as well be sooner, and I recommend The Dip for more on that subject.

But there are worse things than being in a career that goes against your grain; there’s changing your grain to go with your career. Continue Reading

Beyond work/life balance

Seth Godin, whom you’ll see linked fairly often in this space, writes about the new workaholic, the person who’s motivated not by fear but by passion: “The passionate worker doesn’t show up because she’s afraid of getting in trouble, she shows up because it’s a hobby that pays. …[T]he new face of work, at least for some people, opens up the possibility that work is the thing (much of the time) that you’d most like to do.”

I read that and thought of the survey of law firm associates that Hildebrandt issued a little while ago. Its findings caused something of a stir by flouting the conventional wisdom that associates, especially in large firms, were overworked, stressed and deeply unhappy. I won’t go into the nuts and bolts here, but among the findings was that satisfaction was much higher than expected and that there was no correlation between long hours and unhappiness — rather the opposite, in fact. I think these two items say something about today’s new lawyers that law firms need to understand.

I continue to be amazed by senior lawyers who complain long and loud about the current generation entering their firms: “no commitment,” “not willing to pay their dues,” “a sense of entitlement,” and occasionally, even “lazy” are among the apparent sins of the young. The people saying these things are very smart, very capable, often leaders of their firms, but I don’t think they’re grasping a critical point: by and large, today’s new lawyers have no qualms whatsoever about working long and hard. What they have serious qualms about is working long and hard on rote tasks, unfulfilling assignments, due diligence and similar kinds of docket-filler, with few opportunities for serious client contact, independent undertakings, or crunch-time appearances in dealrooms and courtrooms. Continue Reading

Waking the neighbours

Ten years ago, it was rare to see more than a passing mention of law practice management or legal business issues even in the legal press. Today, the legal press has finally caught up, but the mainstream media also seems to be warming to this topic. In recent weeks, we’ve seen prominent articles on lawyer job-hunting struggles in the Wall Street Journal, on the continuing bondage of the billable hour in Slate, and now on the decreasing appeal of legal careers in The New York Times (love that hip, timely photo of the cast of L.A. Law in the NYT story).

I’ll leave the articles for your perusal — they don’t say much that critics within the legal industry haven’t been saying for awhile –but it is interesting to see the MSM take an interest in the effects of the profession’s broken business model. One explanation could be the old anti-lawyer standby, that the media has always liked kicking lawyers around at any opportunity. But I don’t buy it in this case: the tone and approach of these articles is fair and at times downright sympathetic. The writers and editors behind these stories, I’m guessing, have friends and colleagues in the law and have been struck by their misery.

I suspect what we’re seeing here is the sharpening of the crisis within the profession — the tension rising to a pitch high enough to be heard outside our cloistered walls. This is, in the long run, a good thing — it’s like when an addict’s friends arrange an intervention; it lets the addict know that there really is something seriously wrong. I look forward to seeing a segment on the billable hour on a future 60 Minutes — and that’s not as outlandish as it would have sounded even a couple of years ago.

A long look in the mirror

I don’t have much to say about “the Maclean’s cover” that hasn’t already been said, eloquently and accurately, by the CBA’s current and past presidents. The CBA was right to defend lawyers’ good name against an offensive piece of hack journalism. The less said about that article and the book that inspired it, the better.

But here’s the problem. Look beneath those shallow and cynical diatribes against our professional conduct, and you’ll find a few uncomfortable truths. Read the more legitimate but equally disturbing article about large firm life in the September 2007 Toronto Life. Hear the speakers at the CBA’s Canadian Legal Conference last month describe women lawyers who hide serious illnesses in order to protect their careers.

We damage our profession when we pretend that everything’s just fine in the practice of law. I’ve spoken informally with any number of lawyers and heard countless stories of frustration, worry, heartache and exhaustion. Big firm or small, urban or rural, many lawyers suffer from ineffective business models, uncompetitive practices, unfulfilling tasks, punishing workloads, and unacceptable behaviour by colleagues and bosses.

None of these issues has anything to do with the fundamental nature of being a lawyer — we’re no more susceptible to these sorts of problems than are accountants, architects or investment bankers. So much for the lie that lawyers are inherently unprincipled or miserable.

What these problems do have in common is a broken business culture. Compared to today’s successful organizations, the way lawyers structure their businesses, sell their services, treat their employees, market their practices and relate to their clients is obsolete and harmful. The poor workplace culture that afflicts many law offices can be traced to our outmoded approach to business — and our refusal to admit it.

National has been exploring these business and cultural problems for years. But the stories we’ve published are outnumbered by the ones we’ve had to abandon, because we couldn’t get enough lawyers to talk on the record.

Those lawyers who shared their stories with me informally were adamant that they would not be interviewed on these topics, not even under assumed names. They’re afraid to speak the truth, afraid for their jobs and reputations — and that’s as damning an indictment of the current system as I can think of.

We can summon the courage and honesty to address these problems ourselves — or we can continue to hide behind our professional walls and wait for more outside attacks to bring them down altogether. Which sounds like a better option to you?

This post first appeared as the editorial in the October 2007 issue of National magazine.

Mom and Dad, Esq.

Somebody asked me, after I returned to the office following three months’ parental leave, “Did you enjoy your time off?”

“I enjoyed the last three months immensely,” I said. “But trust me, ‘time off’ does not in any way describe it.”

If you’ve spent more than a few weeks raising a child hands-on, you’ll probably get that. If you haven’t, you might have a hard time understanding how parenting can be more work than the toughest law job — and can be more rewarding than the greatest law job, too. Similarly, I think most legal employers these days are either clued in to helping their lawyers be parents, or they’re not.

It’s been heartening to hear and read the stories of law firms that do get it: they accommodate within their work structures lawyers’ decisions to have kids. They understand not only the business advantages to that approach — retention, recruitment, and more (set out below) — but also that a law firm community that respects its employees’ personal lives is a triumph of professionalism.

And some firms don’t get it. Their business models can’t maximize production from young parents, and so they accept high turnover rates and the exodus of women lawyers as a tolerable cost of success. What strikes me, even more so than before I spent three months as a full-time dad, is how it’s the firms who are missing out here, not the lawyers. What sensible law firm wouldn’t want to employ a parent?

Parents are the ultimate multi-taskers, simultaneously juggling numerous duties — all urgent priorities and all mandatory — through hard work, organization and efficiency. That’s not valuable to firms trying to leverage the most work out of the fewest professionals?

Parents are tremendous dispute resolvers, balancing both the short-term demands and long-term interests of parties with deeply self-interested viewpoints, usually in high-stress situations. That’s not useful for clients who need conflicts settled quickly and calmly?

Parents are great listeners, reading between the lines of what they’re told and figuring out what someone really needs, earning their trust in the process. That’s not the very heart of effective client relations and marketing?

Parents function on much less sleep than they need. That’s not a survival skill in the modern law firm?

The business case for law firms to recruit and retain lawyers who are parents is clear. The business case for the billable-hour regime and the work-‘em-till-they-drop culture of many firms, which drive away these valuable professionals, remains a mystery to me.

This post first appeared as the editorial in the July/August 2007 issue of National magazine.