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Law Firm Management

2 Guiding Principles + 8 Management Practices for Boosting Employee Motivation at Your Firm

Diverse group of people in front of turning gears

At the Law Offices of James Scott Farrin (JSF), we recognize that we are only as good as our people. To achieve our goal of providing the highest quality legal services to individuals in the Carolinas, we need a team of outstanding people who are happy, motivated, and committed to their work. Studies have shown that happy employees are up to 20% more productive than unhappy employees. And happy employees are more loyal and motivated. These are the workers who do a better job of serving clients, which leads to higher client satisfaction and increased firm profits. So, pay close attention to employee loyalty and motivation. This past year, while many law firms struggled with declining intakes and reduced profits, my firm thrived, and I attribute much of this success to our loyal and motivated workforce.

Recently, we were awarded two distinctions that I believe are closely tied to motivation in the workplace. For the sixth consecutive year, JSF was named to the 2021 U.S. News – Best Lawyers® “Best Law Firms” list based on client and lawyer evaluations. Last year, the Triangle Business Journal recognized us as the #1 “Best Place to Work” in the Large Company category of North Carolina’s Research Triangle region based on employee surveys. I am proud of these awards, and I feel that both were won, in part, because of the high level of motivation of the 50+ attorneys and 150+ staff members at my firm. In this article, I will share with you the two main principles that have guided our efforts, as well as the eight practices we have put into place to maintain a motivated workforce.

You want, and need, to retain the best people at your firm. First, you must hire the right people. And then you must build them into great employees by training them and managing them well. But you must also invest in them as individuals … not just as employees. If you show them you care about their lives, their needs, and their desires, they will feel cared for. This helps build loyalty. When employees experience a sense of belonging and loyalty, they are motivated to stay and to succeed.

There are two main rules for creating and maintaining a loyal, motivated workforce: Hire well and manage well.

Hire Well

All the motivation in the world won’t work if you don’t have the right people. So, who are they? The right people are those who possess the skills you need and who fit your firm’s culture. The first part of this statement is a given, but the second part is equally important. Begin by defining your firm’s culture. At JSF, we identified 24 behaviors that constitute our culture. We included all the behaviors that are needed to fit in and thrive at the firm. When hiring, we seek out smart, passionate, achievement-oriented individuals who embody these behaviors – because that means they will fit our culture. These are the people who will be good teammates, as well as good employees. These are the people we know we’ll be able to motivate.

Define your culture first – carefully and purposefully. And then target your recruiting practices to seek out and hire people who will fit. These are the employees your firm will be able to motivate. And motivated employees can help turn the tide and effect change. Motivated employees are the ones who think outside-the-box and attack problems. So, if you are experiencing declining intakes or any other problems, you want – and need – motivated employees on your team.

Manage Well

Good management is motivating, and poor management is demotivating. But, what is good management? While every law firm has its own unique work customs, processes, and philosophy, the following eight management strategies can help to optimize attorney and paralegal loyalty and motivation.

3 various speech bubbles1. Communicate Clearly and Consistently

Communication is key. It’s important to ensure that your management is communicating to each attorney, paralegal, and staff member about their individual performance as well as about the bigger picture.

On an individual level, managers should schedule regular performance conversations and provide feedback so employees understand how they are doing – what they are doing well and what they need to work on – so they are informed and can then improve and advance. Always incorporate a heavy dose of positive reinforcement into these conversations. I, personally, recommend a minimum 3-to-1 ratio of positive to negative comments.

At JSF, our case management software’s productivity tool allows my managers to compare employee performance across different timeframes and compare employees with similar caseloads. They can also identify top performers and find out what these people are doing successfully and share these best practices with the rest of the team. We use objective data to benchmark against and motivate the entire staff.

It’s vital to keep what’s important to your firm front-and-center for all and to routinely communicate how the firm’s strategies and objectives help achieve the firm’s overall mission. Allow employees to see the meaning and impact behind what you are doing (helping clients) and try to keep this in focus. Explain how individual jobs (intake, marketing, operations, as well as paralegal and attorney) fit in with the big picture to add a sense of purpose to all tasks. Harvard Business Review performed a 2018 study which showed that nine out of ten people would be willing to earn less money for the opportunity to do more meaningful work.

Employees can also be motivated by your firm’s success, so be transparent about firm results. And remember that communication is a two-way street. Listen to your employees’ questions and concerns and provide answers when possible. This will help them feel respected and valued which, in turn, will help keep them motivated.

Two people figure talking to each other2. Listen and Adapt With the Times

Allow employees to make suggestions, and for those ideas with which you agree and can implement, great. Those are win-win situations. But for those suggestions that you don’t agree with, it’s still important to respond. Be adaptable and open-minded, and allow people to be heard. It’s demotivating to be shut down or not fully acknowledged. And when you disagree, be respectful and provide an explanation why. Being a part of the conversation and having input into decision-making can increase an employee’s sense of loyalty – even when they don’t get their way.

It’s no secret that the pandemic sped up the acceptance and viability of the remote workforce. Firms were forced to adapt to a new normal with paralegals, attorneys, and support staff working from home. As restrictions are removed, some employees will want to come back to the office, and others will not. Firm management should carefully evaluate these, and all sincere requests, since employee motivation will be impacted by these decisions.

At my firm, the viability of a remote workforce was quickly realized due to a committed staff and our stellar case management software. GrowPath’s cloud-based software enabled almost all of our firm to work from home during the pandemic. Its all-in-one platform gave attorneys and paralegals the ability to manage their cases remotely, allowed managers to monitor performance and caseloads, and let me identify and solve problems before they spiraled out of control. That led to better results and peace of mind for all – and a profitable year, in spite of the pandemic.

Two hands supporting 3 employees3. Support Your Staff

Nurture a caring community within your firm where employees at all levels help teammates in need – inside and outside of work – and your firm will become more cohesive and committed. I have found that you can make a powerful impact on someone just by showing you care about them as a person. A sincere gesture, offer of assistance, or interest in someone’s personal life can inspire loyalty and commitment that can’t be bought.  And since loyalty is intrinsically tied to motivation, this type of supportive environment results in a more productive work environment.

At my firm, we have captured examples of this support in a booklet called Carin’ at Farrin that illustrates the many ways employees have reached out and helped co-workers at all levels when “life happens.”  It’s understood that helping out when we can is our thing. And we value and celebrate this support.

Flow chart with scissors on a computer desktop4. Update Your Processes and Tools

Unmotivated employees can hurt client service and firm productivity. Major contributors to workplace apathy are unnecessary processes. Look at your processes, and cut out the fat. Unnecessary steps and tasks are obvious to all and can kill the spirit, enthusiasm, and motivation of even the most earnest employee. At JSF, we embrace the “Lean” management philosophy which focuses on the firm as a system and prioritizes waste elimination, client focus, and continuous process improvement. By eliminating unnecessary steps, we enable and motivate our team. For more information on how we did this, read this article: How to Tighten Your Law Firm Processes and “Lean” Into Increased Income in 4 Simple Steps.

Inferior or outdated technology is another motivation killer. Your case management system should be helping, not hindering, workflow. Do the people handling your intake calls have smart scripts that prompt them with additional questions based on responses input? Are your paralegals having to look up client contact information in a separate system every time they want to reach out to a client? Do your attorneys receive smart prompts when critical deadlines loom? GrowPath provides these capabilities and much more.

5. Promote Personal Learning and Development

It’s been my experience that most people have an innate desire to learn and grow. If you can facilitate this

Stack of book with "never stop learning" title

personal learning and development at your firm, you can build loyalty while your employees experience personal growth and become more capable, confident people. And I am not just talking about developing technical or professional skills. I recommend that you provide opportunities that focus on caring for the whole person.

For example, at my firm our Farrin Fit lunch-and-learn sessions are wildly popular. Nowadays, these are online lunchtime sessions with experts on topics of health and well-being. Pre-pandemic, we had free nutritional counseling and health screenings. Now we are also currently offering virtual yoga and mindfulness training sessions to the team. The firm’s book club is another personal development activity that many employees take advantage of – and one that combines learning and camaraderie.

You want to retain good people, and your employees will appreciate these types of personal growth opportunities. Personal development promotes resilience, a can-do attitude, and confidence. And as an individual puts time and effort into personal growth, the positive impact bleeds over into their professional growth as well, strengthening motivation and drive.

Two hands with hearts on their palms6. Encourage Volunteering and Community Involvement

Providing volunteering opportunities improves employee self-esteem, strengthens bonds amongst co-workers, enhances good will, and brings the firm together. And it’s the right thing to do. All of these factors contribute toward employee happiness. At JSF, we sponsor fund-raising runs and events in our local community. We also have a dedicated internal social services organization and a Latino outreach organization that both focus on how our firm can help our neighbors.

Award ribbon prize7. Recognize Individual and Firm Achievement

It’s human nature to want others to acknowledge and recognize your contributions. Employee recognition helps create an emotional connection to the firm. Employees are motivated to work hard for this recognition whether it be a shout-out, monetary award, promotion, or private pat on the back.

I have found that peer recognition can be an even more powerful motivator. Teammates, more often than supervisors, see exactly what goes into individual work efforts so having your performance recognized by a peer can be extremely rewarding. In addition to performance reviews, internal email announcements, and external social media posts calling out individual and firm achievements, we instituted a peer recognition system at my firm. Teammates are encouraged to nominate their co-workers for demonstrating one of the 24 JSF behaviors, and nominated employees have their names written on a ping pong ball. The nomination is announced company-wide, and periodically, there is a ping pong ball drawing with prizes awarded to those employees whose ping pong balls are drawn.

Celebrate firm achievements in addition to individual ones. Create social media posts, firm-wide emails, press releases, and website notices about firm awards and milestones to strengthen firm pride and motivate all to continue with the efforts that achieved them.

8. Cultivate Firm Culture

Diverse group of people

Firm culture can play a major role in driving employee motivation. Research by Deloitte shows that there is a strong correlation between employees who claim to feel happy and valued at work and those who regard their organization as having a strong culture. Additionally, a culture that is not diverse and inclusive can be demotivating. Conversely, feeling welcome and accepted may be particularly impactful for people who have experienced discrimination.

During the pandemic, my firm had to think of new and creative ways to keep our firm culture at the forefront. Instead of in-person team meetings, we instituted weekly departmental video conference calls, and we continued with virtual versions of our team brown bag lunches, holiday parties, and contests. Firm-wide emails kept everyone apprised of employee birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, births, and other meaningful occasions. I also published a daily blog featuring my thoughts (and those of guest posters) on firm news and matters of importance.

In today’s new normal, I encourage you to maintain a focus on hiring well and managing well – and to utilize these eight management practices to ensure that your firm employees are happy, loyal, and motivated.

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