In a few weeks, one of the partner groups I am coaching will be discussing motivation: Partners, Associates and legal assistants. I want to share my thoughts and what I have read about motivation.

There was a time in my old firm where the bonus structure for associates could not have been more clear and objective, An associate was expected to record 1950 billable hours so that generated no bonus. At 2050 billable hours the associate got a bonus. At each hundred hour interval above that (2150, 2250, 2350, 2450) the bonus increased. While it wasn’t stated this way, recording 2550 and above qualified the associate for sainthood. 

When I was made responsible for attorney development, I made an interesting, but not unexpected discovery. I had an assistant prepare a graph with number of associates on the X axis and billable hours on the Y axis. I was not surprised when I discovered that the number spiked at 1950, 2050 and each 100 hours above that. In each case the number quickly fell at 1960, 2060 and each 100 hours above that. 

It did not take Sherlock Holmes to figure out our associates were working to the grid. Some of our firm management thought this bonus system was a great motivator. I didn’t. We had associates who billed lots of hours in big document and email reviews. They hated the work, but it was an easy way to get hours. We had other associates who billed lots of hours because they did not know what they were doing. Our associates who were developing their skills and were way more efficient felt penalized for being efficient.

Studies show that rewards like our bonus system are actually de-motivators. Take a look at How Rewards Can Backfire and Reduce Motivation. You will see that the reward reduces intrinsic motivation. It makes law practice more of a factory piece work compensation system. That is not what motivated your best lawyers to go to law school.


  • Christina Bost Seaton

    Have you read Drive by Daniel Pink? I am reading it now, and it has some very interesting insights into motivation and law firm culture…

  • Anon

    How about this scenario: An associate is ahead in hours, such that if she billed the monthly-minimum she would be 300 hours ahead at the end of the billing year (which ends in four months). Her backlog could support working more than the minimum. Her firm does not pay hours-based bonuses.
    Why should she work even the minimum? Doesn’t it benefit the firm greatly for her to keep working at the rate her backlog will allow? An hours bonus may not motivate her, but it would keep her from feeling like she has wasted a significant amount of time on work for which she will never be paid.