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 in highly limited situations. (Motivation 1.0 covers survival needs like food and shelter, the bottom rung of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.)

Bonus Carrots Don’t Work to Improve Performance

The big problem with Motivation 2.0, says Pink, is that it assumes that human beings (yes I am including lawyers in that category) aren’t much different than, say, donkeys: The only way to get humans to do work is to dangle carrots in front of them, or swing a stick at them. Mind you, there are legions of lawyers out there who believe this is true of all humanity.

Yet as far back as the 1950s, psychologists started theorizing and then eventually researching other motivators of human behavior. For example, Frederick Herzberg, a psychologist-turned-management professor, theorized that workers were satisfied in two ways. First, by “hygiene” factors, such as sufficient pay, job security, and working conditions. The presence of hygiene factors didn’t actually motivate performance, but the absence of them bred dissatisfaction.

Once hygiene factors were met, what motivated performance among workers were things like enjoyment of the work itself, genuine (i.e., meaningful) achievement, and personal growth. In fact, a contemporary of Herzberg, W. Edwards Deming, argued that the route to quality work product and continual improvement was intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, motivation.

Extrinsic motivation includes those U.S. corporate staples of bonuses, incentive plans, and forced rankings. Companies have haltingly worked some aspects of intrinsic motivation into their culture, but it’s a patch job. Relaxed dress codes and flexible schedules give some autonomy, don’t make up for all the other shortcomings of Motivation 2.0.

Bonuses Are De-Motivating

One of the most surprising areas of workplace motivation research is how de-motivating those extrinsic rewards can be. Edward Deci, in the 1970s, showed that paying people to complete tasks they were already intrinsically interested in produced poorer performance and less engagement in the task. Whoa. His findings run completely counter to what we would expect.

In fact, lots of other research has found that if-then financial incentives—if you hit this benchmark, then you will get more money—usually result in either the same level of performance, or worse performance. Rarely do incentives improve performance in the long term.

Motivation 2.0 does work, Pink explains, when the path to a solution or a goal is clear, i.e., no significant decisions about how to do the task need to be made. For example, stuffing envelopes.

Yet the work of today’s workforce, from marketing department interns to app developers to, even, yes, lawyers, requires a great deal of choice about how to accomplish tasks. Even the loathsome task of document review requires a smidgen of judgment. Legal research requires a bit more analytic and creative skill, though increasingly that work can be and is outsourced to India. But the core of what lawyers do—apply the law to a client’s situation, recommend a course of action, and see that course of action through—is not anything close to a rote task. It’s highly conceptual work, the antithesis of rote.

So What Works?

What 40 years of research finds actually does work to motivate workers, at all levels, is:

  • Giving people autonomy,
  • Letting them master their work, and
  • Ensuring that they work on projects that have meaning to them.

Yeah, that goes on in law firms every day, doesn’t it? The lack just might account for the insanely high levels of dissatisfaction in the profession. I’m just sayin’.

Next time, we’ll delve into how law firms are not just unsatisfying places to work, but some of what makes them toxic.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who helps unhappy attorneys to see why their job situation is driving them crazy, and helps them figure out what to do about that. Join Jennifer on Sept. 15, 2011 for the Unhappy Lawyers Book Club: Drive edition. Contact her at for details, or to get a discounted sample coaching session. 

17 thoughts on “Bonuses = Toxic Law Firms, Pt. 1: Carrots Don’t Work

  1. Jenny, thank you for this post.

    I find posts such as this to be valuable, if for no other reason than as a reminder of how unpleasant BigLaw work is.

    All too often, I find myself thinking that this work really isn’t so bad. It must be my attitude that is causing me so much unhappines with this work. Maybe if I can change my perspective, or improve my work habits, or do something else to change my relationship with my job, then I’ll be happy.

    It’s easy to lose perspective. My work habits COULD use improvement, for example. But ultimately, it’s factors inherent in the BigLaw model that cause most of my unhappiness – billable hours (the system and the requirements), blackberry, thin staffing on deals, lack of control with regard to work load and working hours, unpredictable (but typically all-consuming) work hours, ‘up-or-out’ combined with no interest in developing my own clients in a business model I don’t believe in.

    It’s good to be reminded that work doesn’t have to be like this.

    • “combined with no interest in developing my own clients in a business model I don’t believe in.”

      This is one of the major problems I had. Well, not so much the “business model” part as the “legal services” part.

      I have no interest in legal services. I learned this after I got out of law school and started practicing law.

      “Hey, this is of no interest to me,” I said. And boy did it show. It’s hard to work when you have no interest in (1) work in general and (2) legal work specifically.

      Now, I could sell something I believed in. Like the Grizzly Short Fund (GRZZX). I only believe in it during bear markets, though.

      Nothing improves my mood more than a bear market in stocks when I’m actually in a short fund.

      Sadly, it could all end next week when Dr. Bernake announces QE III.

  2. “All too often, I find myself thinking that this work really isn’t so bad. It must be my attitude that is causing me so much unhappines with this work. Maybe if I can change my perspective, or improve my work habits, or do something else to change my relationship with my job, then I’ll be happy.”

    Tell me about it, bro (or sis). Tell me about it. I know this feeling too well. “But someone seems to be happy, why can’t I force myself to be happy too?”

    Of course, now I suspect that the people who seem happy are just on really, really strong drugs…

  3. Despite how much I dog law firms and the legal environment generally (and deservedly), I really do think some people can be quite satisfied working as lawyers. BUT, they are the ones who find meaning (their own definition of meaning) in the work they are doing. Maybe it’s a feeling of saving the world from unsafe products, or getting people out of bad marriages as quickly and fairly as possible, or putting criminals in jail. Lots of possibilities. Then, they need to have some decent training so they can gain mastery.

    Of course, most folks who come hang out here don’t find meaning in practicing law, and many never will, because the things that have meaning and purpose for them are not about law, but about art, building stuff, communicating with others, teaching, fighting poverty, etc.

    • Jennifer, I agree with you. I have worked with partners who clearly have a passion for their work. Because of their passion, they are incredibly skilled and knowledgeable. I admire these attorneys greatly. Firm practice suits them.

      I have also met another breed of partner that seems to be miserable in their work. I can’t figure out why they persevered through the law career gauntlet, beyond the fear of change.

      Within a few months of starting firm practice, I knew that the firm model wasn’t for me. Determination to pay off student debt kept me going for many years. Now, the ugly economy (yes, that lizard brain) feeds my hesitation. But I can still see the second type of partner, and I know that I want to get out before the same happens to me.

      • Part of partners staying might be resource accumulation.

        I figured out early in life that you needed tens of millions of dollars before you can make any meaningful alterations to the structure of society.

        Unless you want to use a mercenary army. I thought about that, too. They tend to pillage and be difficult to control once they start looting.

      • Some of it might have to do with the idea that “even though I despise this, I can endure this because it will eventually end.”

        That’s how I got though college and law school.

        And in the workplace, if you save enough money and work long enough on the right career track, you can eventually retire and the pain will stop.

  4. Pingback: Bonuses = Toxic Law Firms, Pt. 2: The Billable Road To Hell « Leaving the Law

    • By grassroots change, I’m talking about changing hearts and minds, and thus eventually the structure of society, one person, one neighborhood, one community at a time. Probably wouldn’t take as long to accomplish as amassing $$millions to impose those meaningful alterations. I’ve noticed that changes imposed from the top don’t seem to last, whether in companies or elsewhere.

      • Yeah. Plus the fact that the Fed and FedGov have smashed all financial returns to about 2%, all of my forward projections for financial returns are completely shot.

        Amassing $$millions would seem to be out.

        Naturally, this completely shreds my long term 20-30 year forward projections. I’m working on a new one.

        I’ve noticed that most people don’t try to create long-term strategic plans and tend to live more “in the moment” or “day to day”.

      • Also, I’m not good at the individual-small group interaction level, so I need something that plays to my strenthgs.

        If you’re talking “one person”, “one neighborhood”, “one community”, I’m going to be in trouble. I’m a macro guy, not a micro guy.

        Large group/civilizational dynamics? Sure.

        Twenty-year waves? Sure.

        Two thousand year civilizational waves? Sure.

        Planatary system formation? Sure.

        Day to day? Month to month? Uh, no. Boring.

  5. Pingback: Bonuses = Toxic Law Firms, Pt. 3: This Is Your Brain on Bonuses « Leaving the Law

  6. Pingback: The Bones of (Legal Career) Change « Leaving the Law

  7. Pingback: Instrinsic Motivation for Lawyers: All in One Place « Leaving the Law

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