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Why passion is a better motivator than money

Because billable hours are so central to the workings of the legal sector, it’s easy for law firms to underestimate the vision that leadership brings. But this dismissal is perhaps not as impactful as the inattention paid to one of most overlooked qualities in law: happiness. 

Motivation in law firms is usually dependent on monetary reward. It might also be accompanied by a desire to deliver technical excellence or to eventually make partner. But some of the softer drivers present in other sectors are often missing from law firms.

As a former Global Vice Chair and Global Client Partner of Dentons, the world’s largest law firm, Richard Macklin is well acquainted with the challenges of inspiring lawyers to new heights. But he’s also keenly aware of how passion can be a differentiator.

Happiness and profitability 

One of the top associates in Richard’s firm decided to leave the city so that they could specialise in working with music industry talent. That lawyer is now a partner of a very small firm, earning far less than they would if they had stayed in the city, but, Richard says, he’s never seen anyone happier. 

“The rest of us were like lab rats in a corridor by comparison,” says Richard. “There’s the old adage that if you love what you do, you’ll never do a day’s work in your life. Now, you can’t achieve that fully in a law firm, but you can move the dial.”

Reflecting that law firms once had a lot more fun in the corridor, Richard wishes the work wasn’t quite so driven by the need to maximise billable hours and appear productive. He laments the fact that the legal profession is known for having some of the most unhappy workers in the world. 

“The fear is, of course, that profits would go down if lawyers aren’t working 24/7,” says Richard, “And there is a risk – that’s what holds it back. But my theory is happier lawyers are more productive.”

If revenue is your driver, there’s a cap on your growth

Many millennials expect a better work-life balance these days, and the trend is even more pronounced in Generation Z. But while these expectations are beginning to find their way into law firm culture, most work-life balance is still stopped at the door.

The danger with this, Richard warns, is that most millennials end up working in other sectors. Those who remain in the legal sector are those who fit the mould, who know what a law firm is and embrace it regardless of the consequences to their wellbeing.

“The culture dictates itself after a while,” says Richard. “Law has become so much more specialised over the years that many firms recruit a very particular type of person. We’ve closed the filter to a different range of people, and we can see the consequences in a lack of cognitive diversity.”

This circular ecosystem has fewer opportunities for disruption when lawyers are led to be motivated by revenue generation rather than a strong vision set by leadership. In the pursuit of the next set of billable hours, each lawyer can become more and more self-contained. 

“When firms are measuring performance based on how much money individuals bring in, that’s when silos start to exist,” says Richard. “That’s when the sharp elbows come out and you close yourself off to collaboration because you want to grab as much potential to produce that revenue for yourself.”

Getting behind the greater picture

A study conducted by the Florida State University of Law showed that “the tendency of law students and young lawyers to place prestige or financial concerns before their desires to ‘make a difference’ or serve the good of others will undermine their ongoing happiness in life.”

Monetary motivation may be the trend and legacy practice of law firms, but that doesn’t mean it’s the inevitable or intrinsic way the legal sector should be. 

Clients are crying out for more value-based rather than time-based billing, and they’ve long held firms to a high standard on ESG matters and D&I issues. And, Richard notes, many law firms are very good at these, often even better than their clients.

Beyond that, law firms are good at pro bono work – and they have to be. But this requirement to make a difference could be pushed further into a desire to shape society, to be part of something greater, to be a core part of what law firms measure, recognise and reward.

You’d see the difference in the happiness of lawyers. And while it’s a risk, you’d likely see the increase in their productivity too. 

Looking to make an impact in your department or firm? Get in touch to find out how TPC can help. 

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