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Dialing In Incentives for Associate Retention Is Easy -- Don't Do It

A friend shared a challenge with me a few weeks ago about growing and developing teams in a law firm when all the new hires -- associates and partners -- only want to work virtually. Are there ways to make it work? (Or are there ways to explain to these prospects that they've got expectations that run counter to what an effective law firm needs?) I'd initially planned to write a public letter to him suggesting a different approach, less either-or and a little more this-and. But as I sat down at the keyboard (after a long, fun, hectic, rewarding holiday season), I realized I wanted to address incentives instead.


Usually, the talk around incentives is focused on finding the right carrot or the right stick to motivate the desired behavior. That a fine metaphor for moving your ass. But if you want a metaphor to inspire growth in your business, something that is to endure, to sustain you and those who come after you, we need something else. We need to think about cultivation, about grooming the orchard that is your business, your law firm.


Beyond salary and bonuses, there was (for a time) a race among firms to provide the most lavish incentives possible. By 'lavish,' I mean, of course, those incentives that don't actually cost the firm much but have the appearance of comfort and exclusivity. What started as free coffee (in branded mugs, not paper cups!), soon became dinner accounts (for working late) and firm cafeterias (to keep you closer to your office). We pack as many necessities of life into the firm as we can (daycare, fitness center, health clinic) and hope that our new folks see these things as amazing perks rather than (cynically) as a way to keep you in the office longer.

Combined with robust salaries and bonuses, there are plenty of carrots to keep people moving in the firm's direction. But carrots don't create connections and loyalty.


Instead of moving beasts of burden from one case to another, some law firms approach their associates and partners like a field or orchard. By focusing on the environment that sets participants up for growth, the organization is working with an eye toward sustainable and sustaining growth. Creating a firm culture that inspires, enriches, and supports is, in many ways, just as easy as motivating movement. But putting attention on the environment -- the firm culture -- is an investment rather than a spend. What I mean is that money the firm puts toward culture creates a return. It is upskilling associates, generating opportunities for collaboration, and building interpersonal and professional connection. These are all factors associates and partners weigh when making decisions to leave a law firm. Feeding your staff carrots and threatening them with sticks makes it easy to leave. It's much tougher to leave a network of interconnected and mutually supporting roots within a supporting ecosystem.

The other nice thing about cultivation is that once your roots are established, you get to take a step back and watch things grow without your intervention. A carrot and stick always requires you to wield the incentive in order to get the desired action. But when you can see your role as one of setting conditions rather than of driving particular action, you create the opportunity for meeting your goals (growth, development) without your direct involvement. This approach empowers those around you, and instead of relying on you to set the direction with carrots and sticks, the associates and partners you bring into the fold can pursue the firm's goals and interests because it is what they have been empowered to do.


Stop trying to drive performance through incentives. Start cultivating your environment.

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