The global pandemic upended the way law firms and corporate legal departments did business in 2020. Many firms furloughed employees and/or cut pay in order to navigate what became an immediate crisis to business. Most firms have been able to withstand these economic pressures with many now offering their associates bonuses this fall as a way to replace income that may have been lost due to cost cutting measures imposed due to COVID-19, and/or as a way to thank associates for staying on board. As firms and legal organizations look to next year and beyond, much is being written about the competition for lawyer talent, with many firms and related articles focused on money as a way to retain talent and inspire loyalty.
What the legal profession continues to miss, though, is that money, while a key component of any compensation package, isn’t what inspires loyalty, happiness, or well-being in law (or within the workplace generally). It may be commonly thought that money motivates (reward an activity and you’ll get more of it), but the research shows that the relationship between external rewards, like money, and motivation is far more complex. In fact, extrinsic incentives can actually lead to counterintuitive consequences, turning interesting tasks into a grind, play into work, and upending performance and creativity (e.g. in a series of different studies, incentivized groups took much longer to come up with solutions to a task; for tasks that required problem-solving and innovative thinking, rewards killed creativity; and people who were paid to give blood actually donated less because it interfered with their basic desire to just do something because it felt good). Other research also shows very little correlation between pay and job satisfaction. Why? Humans are notoriously bad at predicting how long something will make us happy, when in fact, people adapt to their level of income pretty quickly. Those raises and bonuses do make us happy, but the thrill is only temporary.
So, if the use of external rewards is murky at best when it comes to motivation and morale, what does work?
One of my favorite studies on lawyer motivation and well-being was published several years ago by Kennon Sheldon and Larry Krieger. They discovered that the things that lawyers think will make them happy in the profession (e.g., money, prestige, making partner, status) are exactly the opposite of what actually does lead to well-being in the law, and scientifically, have little to no correlation with happiness (including attorney income, which they found had a very weak correlation of .19 with motivation and well-being). Instead, the study revealed that autonomy, belonging and competence were most strongly correlated with motivation and well-being- all of which have been called into sharper focus by the pandemic. I call these your ABC Needs:
Autonomy. You feel like you have some choice as to how and when you perform the various tasks that make up your job and in how you execute your daily responsibilities; you have a say in the way things are done; and you can take initiative and make decisions about your work. Autonomy does not mean going it alone or individualism. One of the positives to come from the pandemic is that it showed leaders that you really can do good work from anywhere, and this flexibility is crucial to well-being. Take this short quiz to see how you rate (answer yes or no to each statement):
- I feel like I have some choice in how I execute my day-to-day responsibilities.
- I have a say in the way my day-to-day work gets done.
- I am part of the decision-making process on changes that impact me and my work.
- I have the necessary skills and support to improve my day-to-day work.
Leaders can create the perception of autonomy in those they lead by clarifying responsibilities, explaining requests (particularly ones that require lawyers to do things like give up part of a vacation or work over a holiday last minute), asking open-ended questions, and encouraging self-initiation. For those of you focused on the bottom line, businesses that supported an autonomous environment (versus top-down direction) grew at four times the rate of control-oriented companies and had one-third the turnover.
Belonging. This is your desire to feel connected to others; to feel like you belong to groups that are important and significant to you; you feel cared for by others; and you value creating high-quality relationships. Lawyers already suffer from high rates of loneliness, and the pandemic has not helped in this regard. Sheldon and Krieger’s study further clarifies that relationships, in all forms (to self, others, work, community, and to your direct partner/supervisor) are the ultimate key to lasting satisfaction in the legal profession. Small attentive courtesies, what I call “You Matter” cues, are an important way to develop this need. Making eye contact, calling a person by name when they join a Zoom meeting, saying thank you, being accessible and approachable, and limiting side conversations and gossip are all important (and easy) “You Matter” cues that convey belonging.
Competence. You do feel like you’re getting better at goals that matter to you; you feel effective in your work role and you want to continue to grow and develop as a professional and master new skills. Leaders can develop this need with broad information sharing. Never before has transparency been more important as everyone seeks to navigate a pandemic without an end date. Transparency gives your lawyers the information and knowledge they need to make good decisions.
In-time feedback and access to professional development opportunities, giving lawyers greater responsibility for hiring, pro bono, and other activities (with real leadership roles), asking associates to develop new training, giving all lawyers hours credit for training, creating programming with clients, and providing lawyers with more opportunities to write, speak and otherwise represent the firm are all ways to continue to develop ABC Needs.
In addition, recognition is also critical because it builds both competence and belonging. One thing that truly matters to people at work is how much respect and admiration they receive from their peers. Recognition is the ultimate sign of belonging, and when you feel like you are accepted, you experience less stress, sleep better, and recover more quickly when you’re sick. And being recognized for a job well done makes you want to continue to grow and develop in your role.
I have the good fortune of speaking for an organization that develops leaders in the legal profession – lawyers who have been practicing on average eight to fourteen years. This year I had a chance to interview several members of the group about their work, and these lawyers didn’t just like their work, they LOVED it. You’ll notice ABC Needs themes in their responses.
- “I really do like my job, and deeply enjoy utilizing the skills I’ve developed as an attorney to advocate in my job, in my community and personally” (competence)
- “I get deep satisfaction from the belief that my industry is one of the most impactful industries in the lives of Americans” (belonging)
- “We have a tremendously caring and inspirational General Counsel who is building an amazing community in our legal department. It is energizing to help him create an environment where our team is doing great work, is fully engaged and feels like we can fulfill our professional goals” (autonomy support, belonging, competence)
- “One thing that contributes to my satisfaction is recognition and encouragement from my leadership” (autonomy support; belonging)
In summary, here are important sources of motivation, happiness, and well-being for lawyers, separate and apart from money, that are much more likely to inspire loyalty:
- Flexibility – having a choice and say in how you execute the tasks you need to complete and where and how you work
- Being part of a high-quality team that both expects hard work but is made up of good people who you want to work with every day (working with good people is one of the top job resources people cite when I talk about burnout prevention)
- Leaders who create an autonomous environment so that lawyers can work in the way that makes sense for them
- “You Matter” cues
- Faster track to partnership
- Broad information sharing & transparency
- In-time feedback
- Access to professional development opportunities
- Being given greater responsibility for hiring, pro bono activities, and other tasks that are both visible and important to the firm or organization
- Opportunities to lead or develop new programs/training/affinity groups
- Opportunities to speak, write, or otherwise represent the firm or organization
- Recognition & respect
- Opportunities to do more work that is personally meaningful
- Just ask! Ask your lawyers what matters most to them and what is personally motivating. When you do, you will likely hear other very important ways you can tap into sources of intrinsic motivation.
It’s not wrong to reward people financially for hard work. It’s actually quite important. Just know that external rewards, by themselves, likely aren’t going to motivate talented professionals to stay at your organization. People need to know now, more than ever, that you care, and leaders in law have a great opportunity to pivot toward inclusion of these types of resources – will they take it?