Instrinsic Motivation for Lawyers: All in One Place

Lawyer misery is depriving us of a lot of talent and energy that would be much better used to improve the world instead. Many bright, creative people are lawyers, and their gifts are not used in a typical BigLaw or Lawyerland setting. We as a nation and a planet have a whole heaping pile of problems in desperate need of innovative, creative solutions, and some of the people who could contribute ideas and energy are locked in the airless, pessimistic environment of law.

Man walking on bridge toward lightMuch of what is wrong with law firms and lawyers generally is the maniacal focus on money as a motivator. As I’ve discussed at (much) greater length and am reposting in a one-stop-shopping format below, using money as the main motivator results in poorer performance and ethically shaky behavior.

So other than change law firm culture—a long-term project for sure—what can you do? It’s deceptively simple: Do what lights you up, as often as possible.

Dan Pink in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us gives a nice list of tools you can try that will help you achieve a flow/autonomy/mastery state. Try some of them.

I particularly love his idea for using “brain bomb” cards for getting mentally unstuck when you’re unmotivated, panicked, or otherwise not connecting with your best self. These cards, called Oblique cards, contain a single, often bizzarre question or statement to jar you out of a rut. Like, “Your mistake was a hidden intention,” or “Don’t avoid what is easy.”

The cards were designed in 1975 by famed produced Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt, specifically to overcome the pressure-packed moments that go with deadlines. Sounds perfect for lawyers.

If you’re reading this blog on posting day, join me at 1:30 pm ET to discuss all these lawyer motivation issues–and probably lots more–at the Unhappy Lawyers Book Club. Here’s the skinny on that:

Unhappy Lawyers Book Club, Drive edition Details

Date: September 15, 2011

Time: 1:30 pm—2:00 pm ET

Format: Conference call

Call-in info: (209) 647-1000. The access code is 535240# (yes you need to enter the # sign).

Cost: Free!

Now, on to the one-stop-shopping collection of my posts about Drive and what it means for lawyers. Continue reading

The Bones of (Legal Career) Change

So, finally, it’s the end of summer. Which means the beginning of fall, and for me, that feeling of a time to start afresh. The bones of the academic calendar stay with us even when our last school, law school, is years or (for us middle-aged farts) decades ago.

skeleton striding forward

When you make intrinsically motivated changes, your bones feel like dancing forward.

Even if the academic calendar is no longer in your bones, the crispness of fall often wakes up heat-sapped desires to make changes. I’ve been on a decluttering tear lately, I think partly because my bones know that fall is about to blow in its clarity, and rid of us the fogginess that plagues us during the deep humidity of the South in summer.

What kinds of change do your weary lawyer bones want this fall? An alternative legal career? Better work-life balance? Less anxiety? More importantly, what can you do differently to make those changes lasting and sustainable?

To make sustainable change, you need to tap into you intrinsic motivation. As Dan Pink talks about in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, extrinsic motivation, like hitting targets, benchmarks, and getting bonuses, do very little to motivate us very well or in the long-term. In fact, reliance on extrinsic motivation Continue reading

Bonuses = Toxic Law Firms, Pt. 3: This Is Your Brain on Bonuses

So as I wrote about here and here, Dan Pink shows in his book Drive that carrot-and-stick motivation doesn’t produce better quality work from lawyers and other conceptual thinkers. Yikes.

Egg with face being cracked on frying pan

If-then monetary rewards, like law firm mega-bonuses, create the brain of a drug addict. Just what you went to law school for, to hang with the addicts, right?

Even more horrifying, if you live and die by the quest for money as your sole reward for work, are the findings that the if-then money carrot can (and often does) create incentives for some really bad behavior. You don’t even have to look at research to know this is true, because corporate history is littered with examples:

  • Enron’s lofty revenue goals precipitated a race to meet them by any means available, so employees took numerous ethical and accounting shortcuts;
  • The financial sector’s collapse of 2008, caused by chasing short-term gains and ignoring long-term market weaknesses;
  • Ford’s maniacal focus to produce a car at a specific price point, by a specific time, at a specific weight, led to omitting crucial safety checks, and gave us the Ford Pinto.

If-then financial incentives, like those outsized bonuses, can also create addiction. Seriously. Continue reading

Bonuses = Toxic Law Firms, Pt. 2: The Billable Road To Hell

“What the hell do you mean, carrots and sticks don’t get people to work?” The motivational power of carrots and sticks are a deeply enshrined belief not just in law firms and the rest of corporate America, but in our culture. Yet, as Dan Pink writes about in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, carrots and sticks only work in the long term in some fairly limited circumstances. (I talked about a few of the implications for lawyers here.)

Businessman holding money against background of flames

Sure, the money can be great in Hell.

In Drive, Pink focuses on the irony that carrots and sticks, which he calls Motivation 2.0, haven’t worked for a long time in business, roughly since the end of the manufacturing economy’s dominance. A manufacturing economy, with its rote work, is one of those perfect environments for Motivation 2.0. There’s not much decision to be made about how to turn a knob, lift a lever, or push a button.

Yet despite the fact that we haven’t had a predominantly manufacturing economy in 30 years, carrots and sticks remain the primary motivational tools used in all types of business, even those that, like law, Continue reading

Bonuses = Toxic Law Firms, Pt. 1: Carrots Don’t Work

One thing that bugged the tar out of me when I was practicing was how law firms would just throw more money at associates when they complained about how unhappy they were at work. About 75% of the associates I knew just rolled their eyes at this tactic (but took the money), because the stuff they complained about was not compensation. What most associates complained about was working too much, especially on weekends, on boring, shit projects, with assholes. And the relentless pressure of the billable hours treadmill.

If we treated money solutions like this, the legal profession might be happier.

That was 20 years ago. Did I miss anything? Because from what I hear now, not much has changed. Except the advent of the Crackberry and really never being able to get away from the office mentally, which has upped the stress level for everyone exponentially.

I thought that bonuses were largely useless because they didn’t address the underlying problems. And I was right, according to Dan Pink in his latest book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. But what I didn’t realize until reading Drive was that bonuses actually increase the dysfunction and toxicity in law firms, and kill motivation among most associates and even partners. Awesome, huh?

Drive is a cool book. Pink’s basic premise is that psychology has known for 40 years that carrot-and-stick motivations, which Pink calls Motivation 2.0, don’t work to motivate workers, except Continue reading

Unhappy Lawyers Book Club, Fall 2011: Drive

One thing that unhappy lawyers often tell me is that they don’t want to do anything that looks like a job; they just want enough money to not have to show up at work and deal with all the crap. That’s a huge sign of burnout, and of being in a job that doesn’t offer you what you need in any way, shape, or form.

Cover of Drive

What if carrots and sticks don't actually work well to motivate you? Find out in the Unhappy Lawyers Book Club on Sept. 15, 2011.

So of course the next question is: What job would give me what I need? Regulars here at Leaving Law know (and newcomers will soon learn!) there is no cut-and-dried answer to that question, much as you might wish there were.

But the reason why is the best reason of all. It’s that every one of you unhappy lawyers is a wonderful individual, with your own unique talents, skills and experiences. Each one of you has something unique that you find meaningful and important. That is the place where you will do your best work, and your happiest, most engaged work. The work that hardly feels like work at all.

Many lawyers, if not most, harbor the belief that the only thing motivating people to work are carrots and sticks. The carrot of big-ass, ridiculous salaries and bonuses, and the sticks of failure, fear, ridicule, shame and disbarment. Most lawyers, maybe even you, don’t really believe in intrinsic motivation. Probably because the last time you experienced it was in grade school, before the credential-accumulating, resume-building lifestyle began in earnest.

Yet according to Daniel Pink, author of Drive, intrinsic motivation is completely where it’s at not only for individuals, but even Continue reading

Embrace Your Unique Gifts, Silly Lawyers

A lot of unhappy lawyers get stuck because they don’t think they have any unique skills or attributes. Rather than embracing what makes them different and using that to fuel an alternative legal career search, they work on ways to endure the pain of doing what they’re fundamentally unsuited to do, practice law. They work on conforming more, even though it’s killing them.

woman rock star with guitar

Embrace your gifts, and don't worry whether they'll make you a rock star. Photo courtesy stockvault.net.

I’m not judging that, because goodness knows I did it myself for a quite a while. And as thoughtful reader commented a few weeks ago on the Who Am I to Demand a Happy Job post, many of us “have trouble with this because it feels so conceited to say, ‘Gee, I have gifts that the world’s waiting for me to share!’ ”

Part of this self-doubt comes from being taught, in school and other places, that we are more valuable if we just conform and follow the rules—that getting the “A” is more important than the things that make us individual.

It’s the Industrial Revolution mentality, Continue reading

Reframing Your Lawyer Life, aka Gratitude Rantings

One of the keys to happiness, in life and career, is valuing what you have. Everyone in our society forgets this from time to time, but lawyers do seem to have a special knack for it. That’s because we lawyers are trained to deconstruct, to find the flaw, to figure out what is wrong.

burst of light inside head

Focus your mind on what you can be grateful for, and you'll have more to be grateful for.

That kind of mindset can make us lose sight of what’s good in our lives and work. Even if, to quote a friend of mine from law school,  your life feels like “a whirling, sucking vortex of despair,” there are still things about it to be sincerely grateful for. You might need to reframe a bit to see that.

I haven’t been in whirling-sucking-vortex mode for a while, and I’m deeply grateful for that. But I do let life’s annoyance and shortcomings get to me, and a post from a high school friend on Facebook reminded me of that (see #1 below, and thanks, T!).

So below, another completely random gratitude list. I know, you’re thinking all Oprah and dissing it, Continue reading

Recovering Lawyer, Having Fun: Outside the Comfort Zone

Sometimes, it takes doing something out of our comfort zone to feel alive. That’s true for life in general, and for an alternative legal career search. Taking a risk in life often feeds energy into your job search, via one of those maddening indirect paths.

drawing of daffodils and forsythia

What makes the sun shine for you? Take a risk and find out.

About those indirect paths: We think that we would love for our journeys to be very cause-and-effect. We long for a process in which we can take a step that produces a predictable result. Unfortunately, that kind of world exists only in the delusions of lawyers, engineers, accountants and their sort. What Daniel Pink calls the L-Directed Thinkers.

Like it or not, life ain’t nearly so straightforward; we all have a spiritual dimension that giggles Continue reading