Different law firms have varying bonus policies for their attorneys and staff. Some firms offer lockstep bonuses based on the years of experience each attorney has, and other firms offer discretionary bonuses based on the level of work that attorney produced in a given year. Still other firms base bonuses on the number of billable hours an associate billed over a period of time. However, more law firms should consider offering bonuses based on factors other than direct productivity or profitability for a firm.
I was recently talking to a contact who works in the financial sector. This person said that during the annual review process, the employer asked all employees to nominate people to receive a bonus based on how much that person fostered team spirit and morale around the office. Indeed, I think the company may have even set aside a certain amount of the bonus pool to such discretionary bonuses. This bonus generally went to people who arranged social events for people outside of the office or for folks who had organized events for people’s birthdays. This type of bonus was really interesting to me since I had never heard of it when I worked at other firms before starting my own practice.
Law firms can benefit from people getting rewarded for building morale around an office. As many of us know from firsthand experience, law firm work can be quite the grind. Legal work comes with tons of conflict, stress, and tension as people need to fight for the rights of their clients to the exclusion of benefits that might go to other parties.
In addition, law firm office life is usually not the best. Associates typically need to fight for work opportunities, billable hours, and assignments in order to advance in their careers. Very few associates end up making partner, and in order to obtain this credential, people usually need to put in long hours and compete against their peers for extended periods. Moreover, law firm offices usually have the same level of monotony as any other workplace, and now that law firms are forcing people to return to offices, lawyers need to experience this discomfort like they did before the pandemic.
Teambuilding bonuses might help ameliorate the grind that exists at many offices. The ability to earn bonuses would at least partly be taken out of the hands of the partners and returned to associates. Of course, this is not entirety a popularity contest, since associates would need to describe the efforts of an associate to build team morale and why another attorney deserved a bonus. However, such bonuses could positively impact the environment of an office.
When I worked as an associate attorney at various law firms, it was difficult to arrange associate social events and focus on team morale. I had all of my assignments to complete, and this took up all of the brain space I might have used to plan events and focus on teambuilding. Moreover, since bonuses are usually based on billable hours, people are incentivized to spend any free time churning out billables more than anything else. However, if people had the ability to earn bonus money for something other than logging more hours, it would incentivize people to focus more on teambuilding.
Moreover, offering teambuilding bonuses is just the right thing to do in order to reward those people who contribute to a law firm in nontraditional ways. For instance, I worked at a law firm that had a seasoned associate who worked there for ages who we called “the Godfather.” Whenever we had a question about New York procedure or substantive law, we would usually ask this associate the query since he had a wealth of knowledge about our area of the law. Sometimes, this person would basically hold court and just teach associates about various legal concepts that were helpful to all of us.
This associate was not paid particularly well, and I am sure that all of the time that this person spent on tutelage detracted from the amount of time that he had to bill hours. But the efforts of this associate helped develop many of the newer associates and added to the fabric of the firm. A teambuilding bonus would have not only rewarded someone like this person but would have made it more likely that this person stayed with the firm since he knew that he was getting recognized for his efforts.
Of course, law firms have limited bonus pools, and it is sometimes difficult for law firms to change how they compensate people. Nevertheless, more law firms should consider teambuilding bonuses to help build the fabric of a law firm and reward those people who go out of their way to positively impact morale at a shop.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.