Innovations Fresh Thoughts For Managing

Build a Culture of Engagement

Most law firms acknowledge the need to improve associate engagement, yet struggle to identify specific tangible methods and appropriate metrics to tackle and measure this goal. It isn’t for lack of trying. A quick Google search of “improve associate engagement at law firms” generates more than 60 million hits. What makes the solution to this problem so elusive?

Kathleen Brady, PCC

In What Makes Lawyers Happy? A Data-Driven Prescription to Redefine Professional Success, the research indicates that “a happy life as a lawyer is … about finding work that is interesting, engaging, personally meaningful, and focused on providing needed help to others.” Yet the same research also shows that lawyers “have been found to turn away from internally motivated careers, often in favor of more lucrative or prestigious positions.”

These seemingly contradictory findings suggest that while they may be driven by internal motivators, lawyers are also mindful of external definitions of success within the profession and the negative impact of straying too far from the norm.

The legal industry operates on the assumption that those who excel are happy, despite research indicating that 28% of licensed, employed lawyers suffer with depression, 19% have symptoms of anxiety and 21% are problem drinkers. The pressure to be available 24/7 and always be the best compels high-achieving, competitive people to work harder chasing the external definition of success at the expense of doing things to care for themselves like eating well, sleeping and maintaining social relationships.

The legal industry also operates on the assumption that law firm culture promotes and rewards needless sacrifices in the name of client service. Attorneys unquestioningly accept this perceived norm and tend to treat every simple client request as a client crisis. Cultures that do prize such behavior inhibit the ability to foster employee engagement, satisfaction and well-being.

In a competitive market, law firms, despite their best intentions, can become consumed by compensating productivity. As a result, they fail to reward other equally important behaviors that contribute to employee engagement.

According to The Rhythm of Life: Living Every Day with Passion and Purpose, organizations that can align compensation strategies with the true personal motivators of “interesting, engaging, personally meaningful” work are destined to be the most successful. This will create cultures that enable their lawyers to develop to their true potential and become the best versions of themselves. It may be counterintuitive, but by putting talent before profits, profits will increase.

A workforce of “engaged employees,” defined by Gallup as “those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace” have the energy and excitement to give more than is required of them. This is precisely what is needed in a client service-driven profession.

At its most fundamental level, compensation rewards institutional values — sometimes affirmatively stated, but many times not. Work billed and paid for typically heads the list of important values, a fact that deserves no apologies.

But in a competitive market, law firms, despite their best intentions, can become consumed by compensating productivity. As a result, they fail to reward other equally important behaviors that contribute to employee engagement like positive interactions with partners and peers, control over their time, training and mentoring, and recognition of their humanity.

However, assuming firm leadership is motivated purely by greed is unfair. As self-serving as profits per partner (PPP) may appear on face value, it’s an important indicator of a firm’s success. Much like individual attorneys are concerned about the optics of compensation as an indicator of success, PPP is a gauge of a firm’s importance within the industry. It enables the firm to position itself as a leader to clients, and to attract lateral partners with complimentary books of business as well as recruit and retain up and coming superstars.

That said, high marks on AmLaw’s Best Places to Work survey or the ABA’s Diversity Scorecard likely accomplish similar objectives. How much weight are they given in comparison to the PPP metric when designing compensation and bonus models?


The only way to combat the impact of culture on employee engagement is to evaluate it honestly. While the massive amount of articles from a Google search may offer some ideas and frameworks, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for every institution. The answer hinges on two key questions: 1) How does this organization define success? and 2) How does this organization reward/penalize those behaviors necessary for success? It isn’t that complicated.

Engagement is an outcome, not a program or list of headline-grabbing benefits. It should be governed by flexibility to meet the needs of both the firm and the individual associates. This does not mean a firm must cater to every feel-good-whimsical demand, but rather work with individuals to identify the business imperative for granting a request, offering a benefit or creating a program. After all, a law firm filled with associates who are the best-versions-of-themselves is destined to become the best version of itself, too.