Publications Banner
The Nuggets Blog: Bite-Size Insight and Intelligence for Law Firm Leaders.

NuggetsBite-Size Insight and Intelligence for Law Firm Leaders.

Carrots and Sticks are for Asses

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

(Or why law firm reward schemes don’t work).

In the first two editions of this blog, I’ve discussed the essence of what works in business development for law firms. The principles are not difficult to understand. Implementing them is harder. I have never met a firm leader who doesn’t yearn for more rainmakers. Yet we continue to take the same approaches to solving the problem, regardless of how often results fall short.

Partners are exhorted to bring in more business, for the good of the firm and their own careers. Mostly, appeals are to their pocket. If you do better, the firm will make more money, and as a consequence, so will you. Fail to produce the goods and your star will fall, with corporate and personal consequences.

Sometimes, though not always, training is offered. In my experience, results are mixed. People who are enthusiastic about winning new work, and get a buzz out of the process, respond well and may become more accomplished. But when people undertake training because they think it would be politically unwise to say no, rather than from conviction, performance rarely improves.

Does the way we incentivise have a basic design flaw? In one episode of the celebrated political satire, The Thick of It, Peter Capaldi, who plays the Prime Minister’s enforcer, Malcolm Tucker, is seen striding across Westminster Bridge to a meeting with a minister. ‘I’m going to try the stick and carrot approach”, he muses. “First, I’m going to shove a carrot up his arse, then a stick, then an even rougher carrot”.

Maybe it works for politicians. This appeared to be the view of Dominic Cummings, a latter-day Tucker (and no, that’s not a misspelling). But the fact that last week, instead of thinking outside the box, he was seen leaving 10 Downing Street with a cardboard one containing his personal effects, suggests it has limitations. There is no reliable evidence that conventional sticks and carrots, based entirely on money and status, work any better for professionals.

“Do you love what you do, or mostly do it for the money? Survey evidence suggests that professionals truly love what they do less than fifty per cent of the time. They’ll be conscientious, and do the best job they can for their clients, but often they do it from a sense of obligation, and because they need to earn a living, rather than enthusiasm. Clients often complain that their lawyers take a transactional view and invest little or nothing in the relationship, beyond the minimum it takes to get the job done. But if the survey evidence is right, that is logical. If you don’t care for your clients, as distinct from caring for their cash, why would you spend any more time on them than absolutely necessary?

Offering money, or threatening to take it away, has little effect on such a mindset. In his influential book, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble With Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, As, Praise and Other Bribes, Alfie Kohn sets out to debunk the conventional approach to incentives and rewards. He says, “Loving what you do is a more powerful motivator than any goody, including money. Pay people well. Pay people fairly. Then do everything possible to take money (rewards) off people’s minds. Incentives, bonuses, pay-for-performance-plans, and other reward systems violate this principle by their very nature”.

Law firm leaders are good at asking outcome-driven questions: What’s your or your team’s fee income this year? What new clients have you won? How much business have you introduced to colleagues? The assumption is that for enough cash, people will bend to the will of the organisation. It’s much rarer that they ask: What gets you excited? What leaves you most fulfilled? What are you truly passionate about? How can we harness that excitement and passion, so that you live your best professional life, for the best benefit of the firm?

The exhortation to “do what you love”, is not a hippy dream. Of course, the needs of the firm and the individual desires of its people need to be aligned. Sometimes, compromise is necessary. If what excites and motivates us is the dream of opening a bakery, that isn’t going to be achieved in a law firm. I wouldn’t suggest otherwise. Nor do I suggest that money doesn’t matter. It matters a lot. But I am suggesting that to get the very best out of professionals, conventional carrots and sticks are blunt instruments. Using only financial measures to influence behaviour and performance is a doomed enterprise.

The culture created by poorly designed incentive and reward schemes contaminates firms’ relations with clients and prospects. It makes winning work harder. Being sold to by someone who is full of pride and passion for what they do, feels entirely different to someone scrabbling to make target.

Professionals are thoroughbreds, not donkeys. The goals that matter most to us are these: Learn as much as we can. Master our subject. Be the best we can be at what we do. It’s a happy consequence that though they don’t mention money directly, they are also the surest possible route to a healthy, growing bottom line.


Thank you for reading, I hope it's been enjoyable and helpful. If you have not subscribed and would like to, please see the subscribe form at the bottom of this page.

I was the founder and senior partner of a multi-award winning law firm that became a UK leader in its sectors. Today, I work as a consultant and non-exec with leading law firms throughout the UK and in Ireland. You can read testimonials here: you would like to link with me on LinkedIn, you’ll find me here :