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.

The Unhappy Lawyers Book Club, Drive edition

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

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—gasp—for businesses. In the Unhappy Lawyers Book Club and in my blog, we’ll explore why that is, and how you can bring intrinsic motivation to life in your own alternative legal career.

I got a lot out of Pink’s prior book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. It really changed the way I view what’s going on in the current economy, and gave me a useful lens to see many corporate policies through.

In Drive, Pink builds on his thesis that right-brained workers will rule the future economy, and delves into the science and research of human motivation to explain why. Pink may be, as he calls himself in his TED talk, a failed lawyer, but he is certainly a highly successful writer and thinker.

In his TED talk in 2009, Pink explains his approach:

It’s an approach built much more around intrinsic motivation. Around the desire to do things because they matter, because we like it, because they’re interesting, because they are part of something important. And to my mind, that new operating system for our businesses revolves around three elements: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

  • Autonomy, the urge to direct our own lives.
  • Mastery, the desire to get better and better at something that matters.
  • Purpose, the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

These are the building blocks of an entirely new operating system for our businesses.

Maybe it can also be the approach for a new operating system for your new career and life.

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, exceptin 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.

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 is 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
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, require conceptual knowledge, creative problem-solving, and application of knowledge to ever-changing situations (aka client problems—funny how they don’t closely resemble the cases we read).

The research Pink cites is fascinating. A couple highlights:

  • In one study, participants were asked to play several games, such as unscrambling anagrams, throwing a tennis ball at a target, or recalling a string of digits. One third could earn a small reward, like a day’s pay, if they reached the performance target. Another third could get 2 weeks’ pay. The remaining third could get about 5 months’ pay. The small- and medium-reward groups performed about the same. The large reward group? Their performance was significantly worse than the other groups.
  • In another study, visual artists submitted 10 commissioned pieces and 10 non-commissioned pieces to a neutral panel of experts. (Non-commissioned pieces were the ones that the artists did according to their own creative vision, to sell later.) The experts, who had no idea which pieces were commissioned, judged all the pieces on creative and technical skill. “The commissioned works were rated as significantly less creative than the non-commissioned works, yet they were not rated as different in technical quality,” Pink tells us.

Carrots and Sticks Sour Law Firm Environments

So let’s draw the conclusions here about law firm work, based on these studies. Law firms use the carrot of big bonuses and salary increases to motivate higher billable hours numbers. Yet billable hours are not really what law firms sell—they’ve just fooled themselves into thinking that their measurement system is their product.

What law firms sell is legal expertise and problem-solving. That’s what clients want. (Trust me, when I worked for the Association of Corporate Counsel, I heard a constant litany about the horrors of the evil billable hour, and how best to strike other kinds of payment deals with law firms.) But because of the blinders of Motivation 2.0, law firms are continually at odds with their clients over getting paid.

And by wearing the Motivation 2.0 blinders, law firms pressure everyone to do substandard, highly unsatisfying work. The pressure to bill, to produce a tangible product to bill for—like a letter, brief, or memo—means that time to engage in creative problem-solving for the client is about nil.

One part of the problem is the reluctance to bill for something like “thinking holistically and strategically about Client’s marketing program, its legal insufficiencies, and ethical ways to bring program into compliance.” But also, much of the lack of opportunity for legal problem-solving is due to the lack of mental downtime, thanks to the Crackberry and ridiculous billable hours expectations.

Motivation 2.0 Makes Lawyers Exhausted and Toxic

Tired, exhausted brains do not consistently produce high-caliber legal analysis and creative legal theories. For every person who pipes up, “but I came up with a super idea once at 3am,” I would say, “How nice for you. You beat the odds.” What you don’t see —or more accurately, partners don’t want to see—is all the times you failed to come up with something innovative, or how much longer fairly routine stuff takes, simply because you’re too tired. But the sleep deprivation studies don’t lie, and they are quite consistent.

Lawyers are already kind of challenged, as a group, on the emotional sensitivity front, what with their preference for logical thinking for solving problems, rather than relying at all on feelings. That preference gets exaggerated with lack of sleep; the end result is a very cold, unfeeling, inhumane atmosphere. In other words, it’s toxic.

But it isn’t just sleep deprivation and lawyer behavioral defaults alone that create the dysfunctional law firm environment (though those things are huge). It’s also the weird chemistry of the carrots themselves that create toxicity. In fact, the carrots create addict-like behaviors. More on that next time.

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. Not to alcohol or drugs, but to the incentive itself. As Pink puts it, “cash rewards and shiny trophies can provide a delicious jolt of pleasure at first, but the feeling soon dissipates—and to keep it alive, the recipient requires ever larger and more frequent doses.”

You know instinctively this is true, if you work in BigLaw. Once you’ve gotten a bonus or two, you start expecting it, and stop appreciating it. The only thing that grabs your attention is an even bigger bonus. The problem, of course, is that to give huge bonuses, firms have to get the money from somewhere. And it ain’t gonna be from the partner’s pockets if they can wring yet more hours out of associates. There is no shortage of associates who will play this game, at least for another year, right?

Bonuses Act Like Crack on Lawyer Brains

Here’s the addiction part, and it’s fascinating. Neuroscientist Brian Knutson scanned the brains of healthy volunteers with a functional MRI, which captures images of bodily structures as they work. (So cool!) When participants knew they had a chance to win some cash, a part of brain called the nucleus accumbens was showered with dopamine.

The fascinating part is that the same physiological process, showering the nucleus accumbens with dopamine, happens in drug addicts. As Pink says, “if we watch how people’s brains respond, promising them monetary rewards and giving them cocaine, nicotine, or amphetamines look disturbingly similar.”

We all know that addicts make crazy short- and long-term decisions. Knutson also showed that with if-then rewards, activating the nucleus accumbens predicts “both risky choices and risk-seeking mistakes.” I love Pink’s take on it:

In short, while that dangled carrot isn’t all bad in all circumstances, in some instances it operates similar to the rock of crack cocaine and can induce behavior similar to that found around the craps table or roulette wheel—not exactly what we hope to achieve when we “motivate” our teammates and coworkers.

So it is actually true that as a lawyer, you are often dealing with crazy, dysfunctional behavior, whether or not your colleague has a drug or drinking problem. If they are motivated chiefly by money, they behave like an addict.

Yeah, just the way we all want to spend our days, right?

So What Can Possibly Replace Bonuses? (Hint: Not Money)

At this point, many of you are probably aghast, and wondering how on earth lawyers can be motivated to work if not for the money. And I’m betting you would laugh hysterically if I suggested that law firms drop their bonus plans, lower their salaries, and instead:

  • Give meaningful, timely and useful feedback;
  • Institute useful training and mentoring;
  • Insist on civility between all lawyers at the firm, as well as in lawyer-staff interactions, and fire those who consistently don’t behave well;
  • Give associates actual say in which projects they are assigned;
  • Prohibit calling lawyers into the office on weekends and expecting Crackberry responses except for life-and-death (or maybe jail) emergencies; and most radically
  • Penalize lawyers who bill more than 2,000 hours annually, and also penalize their supervising partners.

Let’s call it A Modest Proposal for Lawyers.

What do you think? What would be the single most useful, instrinsically motivating change that law firms could make?

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 your 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 can create some pretty dysfunctional, toxic behavior.

So if you’re looking to change your career, and your life, you need to figure out just what your instrinsic movitators are. You may know; but usually lawyers, with their decades-long reliance on grades and salary as motivators, are completely out of touch with what truly motivates them.

So here are some things to try over the long weekend that will can help reconnect with your true self, and get you going on the road to change:

  • Do a digital fast. One of the best mental decluttering tricks I know.
  • Take yourself out for several fun dates (more ideas here), to connect with what lights you up.
  • Physically declutter the space you use most frequently. Ask yourself what dreams, ideas or emotions you’re hanging on to that are represented by various bits of clutter. Or, ask yourself what you’re avoiding by letting it all pile up.
  • Connect with the truly important people in your life. As Brene Brown says, connection is why we’re here on Earth.
  • Be mindful of everyday joys, like having an air-conditioned space to live in (did I mention I was tired of summer heat?), enough wealth to buy food, the wondrous taste of that food, the freely given love of a pet or a child, the beauty of a garden or building, the amazing variety of interesting people that inhabit the Earth, or whatever else you stop noticing when you get too busy. Savor it, enjoy it, appreciate it as it happens.

If you incorporate some of these ideas into the bones of your life this fall, you will experience change. I promise.

Flowing Into Legal Career Change

What in your work, unhappy lawyers, do you actually enjoy? What about other parts of your life? And by “enjoy,” I mean something that you undertake not out of obligation or to achieve a particular objective, to paraphrase Dan Pink from his book Drive. Something that is, yanno, fun. Doesn’t have to be knock-your-socks-off fun. Even something like customizing the color scheme of your browser or word processor could count.

jumping happy woman with laptop
Once you commit to adding flow to your lawyer life, your work really can make you leap for joy.

Fun, as it turns out, is not optional if you want to stay out of the loony bin. That’s what psychology research has discovered in the last 40 years. Yet most lawyers and business people haven’t caught on. Especially in our current climate of economic fear and dread, many people think that the only approach to law and business is to eliminate fun and grind more.

Flow Is Not Optional

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (roughly, pronounced “chick-sent-me-high”) conducted some startling research in the 1970s. At the end of the experiment, the subjects exhibited the following symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, a mental illness afflicting about 3 percent of the population. It was like reading a joke that started, “You might be a lawyer if you have . . .“

  • Restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge,
  • Being easily fatigued,
  • Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank,
  • Irritability,
  • Muscle tension, and
  • Sleep disturbance.

What precipitated these symptoms? Being denied flow, or enjoyment, for a mere 48 hours. Here’s what the subjects were told to do:

“Beginning [in the morning] when you wake up and until 9 p.m., we would like you to act in a normal way, doing all the things you have to do, but not doing anything that is ‘play’ or ‘noninstrumental.’ ”

That meant that (assuming they liked these things), they were not doing the parts of their jobs they enjoyed, going for runs, practicing yoga, playing with the dog or kids, or stopping to look at a something that caught their eye. No listening to music, no TV, no reading the paper.

After the first day, the subjects started complaining of headaches, sluggishness, and difficulty concentrating—their thoughts started going in circles. Some couldn’t sleep.

After a second day, “the general deterioration in mood was so advanced that prolonging the experiment would have been inadvisable,” according to Csikszentmihalyi.

And my first thought was, well, that sounds like most attorneys I know or used to work with. It sounds like me when I was practicing law.

All this after 2 days?? Think of the weeks and months that many attorneys do nothing but grind away, and don’t let themselves have but a drop of flow now and again. What you get is what we have in BigLaw and other parts of Lawyerland: highly anxiety-ridden, toxic environments.

Having flow seems to be as important to adult humans as being held is to babies. Without touch, infants fail to grow. Without flow, adults fail to function.

No Flow, No Career Change

The lack of flow in your life represents the biggest barrier between you and your dream career and life. Without some flow, you literally cannot think straight. Without flow, you certainly have a hard time being resilient about your current situation, let alone being creative about a new one that encompasses things like happiness. The lack of flow sucks you dry, until you cannot imagine a life with flow can actually exist for you.

Csikszentmihalyi found that most people experience flow in their work, rather than in other parts of their life. But if you’ve chosen a career that is far, far from where your flow is, like, oh, say, LAW, it’s not going to help if I tell you to look for flow in your work.

You need to introduce flow in other spaces, so you can regain enough soul oxygen to start seeing possibilities for career flow, and start moving toward them.

That goes for those of you who are basically suited to work as a lawyer, too; so much of many legal work environments is toxic, you won’t be able to find a lot of flow in them.

“How do I find flow, when nearly all my waking hours are taken up by work?” I hear that chorus, unhappy, overworked lawyers, I do.

Putting Flow in Your Over-laywered Life

First, you have to stop kidding yourself that you are a machine whose 10th hour of work is the same quality as your 3rd. I don’t care what partners or bosses believe, every bit of evidence about human functioning shows that without sufficient rest and renewal, you are not efficient when you overwork. If you really must pull those 12-hour+ days, you must schedule some time around hour 5 or 6 to renew. Make it as non-negotiable as a potty break. I’d actually go so far as to say you need to do some mini-renewals every 3 hours or so. Your work quality and efficiency will improve that much more.

Second, realize that introducing flow isn’t a monolithic project. It’s modular. It can be as simple as leaving the office to walk around the block and look for something that pleases your eye or ear. At its base, flow takes you out of your scared self and into appreciation of something else. That something else can be the rhythm of words or sounds, the feeling of movement, the solving of a puzzle or a problem—the list is practically endless, for it encompasses the panoply of human endeavor.

Six ideas for flow moments during the day:

  • Go for a walk and try to find a fountain to listen to, then listen with rapt attention for 5 minutes;
  • Find some flowers to appreciate, either in your firm’s office, an office lobby, or even (gasp) at a street vendor, then pay close enough attention that you could draw their shapes and colors. You don’t necessarily have to draw them later (though that’s an excellent idea), but that’s the level of attention you need to pay;
  • Go in search of an exquisite piece of chocolate. Savor every single moment of eating it. Maybe even talk to the shop owner and find out about how it was made;
  • Get a coloring book of mandalas, geometric patterns, or buildings. Whatever appeals. Art stores and large, chain books stores carry them. And get an expansive set of colored pencils. Spend 10 minutes coloring.
  • Actually go to your yoga or exercise class. (If you need to sign up for a class, I’ve heard great things about Zumba);
  • Take your camera phone, and go look for interesting people or vignettes to snap. And yeah, then take the pictures.

Finally, I challenge you to spend an entire hour doing something fun and festive once weekly. It’s the best way I know to cultivate flow in your life.

Once you’ve got more flow, you’ll start thinking better. Then, you can use that energy for legal career change. Yahoo!

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who loves helping unhappy attorneys figure out their intrinsic motivation—i.e., what sets them on fire. If you’re having trouble figuring that out, schedule a discounted sample coaching session with Jennifer. Email for details.


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