I am the owner of a law firm in the Chicago suburbs that specializes in estate planning. I started the firm twelve years ago. Over the years the firm has grown from just myself as a solo to a firm with myself and six associate attorneys. Prior to starting the firm I worked in several other firms as an associate and as a partner. I felt I was not being compensated for my hard work so I started my own firm. I have always worked hard, and in addition to managing the firm and bringing in all the clients, I bill 1,700 billable hours a year. My associates are a disappointment. They work the bare minimum, some are lazy, and none are even billing 1,400 hours a year. Some are not even billing 1,200 hours a year. I have tried bonus systems based on production of fees collected and they have had no effect. In my old firms this was not the case; everyone worked hard and was self-motivated. I am at a loss and I don’t know how to motivate these associates. I would appreciate any thoughts that you have regarding what I should do.
I suspect that you, as a founder, expect the same sort of work ethic and drive that you, as well as others, in your prior firms had over the years. Welcome to the new generation of workers and the era of work-life balance. This is not to say this generation of workers is lazy – their priorities in life are different and work is not the only priority in their lives as it may have been in yours. They may not also not have the drive and self-motivation that you had, and require direction. You can’t simply put them on autopilot – they require care and feeding in the form of:
- Performance expectations
- Consequences for not meeting expectations
- Performance reviews
Often a little care and feeding will go a long way to changing performance and often accomplishes more than formulaic bonus systems. Here is a prior blog on how to go about this.
I agree that 1,200 billable hours is unsatisfactory and you should be expecting 1,600 for your type of practice. Expectations need to be established if they aren’t. I think bonus systems such as yours are fine, but often do not accomplish desired results without some care and feeding. If you are unwilling to do some care and feeding, your other option is to fire your worst offenders and try to replace them with self-motivated associates that have a documented track record of performance. Getting the right people on the bus can be more productive than care and feeding beyond a certain point.
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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC
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