A Survival Guide for Legal Practice Managers

A Survival Guide for Legal Practice Managers

What Truly Motivates Your Team

Monday, April 22, 2019

By Linda Murray, Executive Coach, Athena Coaching


ALPMA Blog

If I were to ask you what motivates your team, allow you to answer and then separately ask your team the same question, do you think your answers would match? How well do you think you know what your team really wants?

It’s a tough question to answer, but one thing is for sure. It’s never just about the money. Sure money is a motivator, but people are always about more than just a pay packet.

Lawyers particularly have some unique factors that impact upon the importance of understanding motivation for the longevity of tenure. These factors sit a little outside the typical employee motivation model and should be considered by you as practice managers when thinking about the factors that may best work for your team.   

The most critical of these distinguishing factors is that the goal of a law firm, indeed its entire business model if structured as a tiered partnership, is to get a certain proportion of lawyers to want to stay to become partners. To get them to want to take equity in the firm - to make them want to “buy in”, literally. To do that, they have to see a long term future with the firm and have their needs met consistently year in, year out. 

Which is not the norm these days. 

As the workforce undergoes radical change, values are shifting, attrition is rising and as each generation steps away from this more traditional structure, it is no mean feat to keep their motivation to stay at high levels. Especially for long periods of time.   

It’s especially interesting when you look at the typical life cycle of a lawyer; it takes 10-15 years to make it from graduate positions to partner as you know. This is longer than most marriages in this day and age and few industries have a slower rate of succession than law. This is a unique factor that makes law firms quite unlike most other industries, in that the whole model is predicated on people wanting to stay in their firm/job/career for really long periods of time. It also requires you as practice managers to really understand the intricacies of what’s required to really motivate your non-equity partners, lawyers and non-legal staff. 

The thing many leaders don’t understand is that a team is a collective of individuals who have different and indeed incredibly diverse, motivators. Mostly, they are not what you would expect. Many are non-fiscal. Some people want admiration or adoration, others want to change the world, yet others want to prove themselves in some way, and some just want to be seen at a very basic human level. Identifying these factors is half the battle, but there is also what you do with this information once you have worked it out.  

Lawyers are especially unusual in that they are taught that they are “different” from other professionals and are deserving of “more”. This comes from outside and inside the profession. 

Therefore, the dilemma for legal management is how to successfully corral these highly intellectual, frequently contentious and functionally independent lawyers so that they are motivated to achieve.  What do they really want? It really bears discussing this with them one on one, as they are all incredibly different. What works for one, will not work for another. Some want fast-track to partner, some want to be seen and praised consistently for their particular skill-set, some want consistent access to more education, some want to blow out their budget and be rewarded with bonuses, and some just love the intellectual rigour of more and more challenging work. 

The options are endless really: so take the chance to speak with them one to one and make your offering to them bespoke.

One thing I would suggest, learned through experience, is that whatever approach is enlisted though, must of necessity be subtle and deftly managed. Overt attempts to push anything onto a group of lawyers will likely be perceived as contrived and met with suspicion.  Gently does it, no need for sales techniques here, just tailored individual solutions that make them feel seen and heard as (somewhat competitive) individuals.  

So, more generally speaking, how do you pull all of these highly attuned human beings together to make a motivated and driven team?

Today we are going to talk about three overarching strategies that you can do to help your team motivate themselves to greatness, for one thing I know to be true, is that empowering people to want to achieve results is the only way to achieving meaningful results. 

1. Make sure everyone knows your vision and the organisation’s vision and why

It’s not so much the vision that’s the key here, although everyone needs to be on the same path, of course. It’s the why that matters. It’s not just millennials who want to make a difference; it’s almost everyone. The key to ensuring people are making a difference, is that they know how their contribution counts to achieving the vision. 


Let the vision be the unifying principle of these largely autonomously or siloed professional beings. It should be the framework in which they are contained, but with enough freedom to pursue their individual targets. The underlying premise of any attempt by firm management to lead is the willingness to allow the individual differences in combination with the effort to collaborate. 

The firm of course at a given point must emerge as an articulator and sponsor of the combined effort with the aim being to make the attorneys feel like contributors to its success while achieving their own goals. This is paramount in a system that praises lawyers for reaching individual billable/client targets and pushes them out for failure. 

In the law firm context, we are attempting to motivate individuals who can generally be characterised as highly intelligent, somewhat egocentric, frequently contentious by virtue of training and probably personality and functionally independent. Giving them a solid WHY is critical to success in this process.

2. Reward and recognition go a long way

When a team or team member does something good, praise them. Not just for reaching monthly targets, but for smaller things too. Many employees are used to being pulled up when they do something wrong but rarely hear positive feedback. When we have a success experience, we’re more likely to repeat it, so be loud and proud when it happens. 

In the face of what you perceive as failure, or as it is most commonly merely a misstep, don’t worry. Try not to turn it into a negative experience, for once it is wired in your brain as negative, it’s very easy to become averse to taking similar risks that in different circumstances may pay off. These are moments for coaching that can be really valuable, censuring them can be counter-effective. Lawyers are not typically minded towards being coached, but with the appropriate dexterity and approach, a feedback conversation can be an incredible place for them to learn and grow.

3. Let them do what they’re good at

Occasionally the best thing you can do is to let your team get on with it. Command control models are common in legal practices, it’s how they have always been.  However, the workforce is changing, and so must the old legal firm model. It’s time to try new things, and to encourage responsibility and autonomy without a helicopter-style overview approach.

Allow your team the freedom of proving that they can do it and trust yourself that you have led them to a pace of empowered decision making.

Step back and don’t get in the way. You don’t need to direct the process if it’s working smoothly, and the more autonomy your team has over the work, the more committed they will feel about it. You may be surprised at the degree of support team members show each other as they work as a self-managed unit, people usually feel good about helping others, because let's face it, a failure for one can mean a failure for all.

When you think about the ultimate goal for any leader of teams, you’re not really seeking to drive your team to greatness. You’re allowing the team to drive itself under your guidance; that’s authentic autonomy and true team work at play. There’s a powerfully motivating difference between the two and the former is far less empowering for your people than the latter. 

Stepping back and letting the team go isn’t always easy to do, and it’s just one aspect of leadership behaviour that may be covered in our Executive Coaching sessions. If you want to be a better leader and motivate your team to greatness with you, call me and we’ll work out the best way for you to move forward.

About our Guest Blogger

Linda Murray is the Founder, Facilitator, Speaker and Executive Coach at Athena Leadership Academy; the professional development hub for high performing and high potential leaders.

Linda ensures that your leaders and your teams are engaged, motivated and empowered to achieve the best results for your business.

Linda has run her own successful businesses since age 22, so understands what it takes to maximise the performance of yourself and those around you.

Connect with Linda on social media

LinkedIn - www.linkedin.com/in/lindamurrayathena/
Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/AthenaCoaching
Twitter – https://twitter.com/athena_coaching
YouTube - https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCPZWA24o0iohBl1O0LQxEkw



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