Q: Should law firms pay associates to market?

Q: Should our law firm pay our associates to market?  

A: Uh… No.

I answered this question on a listserv recently, posed by a legal marketer whose firm was revamping its bonus schedule. The bonus was intended to motivate associates to undertake certain identified activities, e.g. writing articles, giving speeches, attending events, taking prospects out, etc.the basic marketing stuff that lawyers, accountants, consultants, and other professionals should undertake. 

This is actually quite common; feeling frustrated that their Millennials aren’t out hustling enough, many firms start dangling cash in front of them. I suggested that that I didn’t feel that it was the best approach.

Pay for success, not effort. 

I simply don’t believe in paying people to invest in themselves. And this opinion comes from 30 years’ experience—including when I was a young litigation associate who was bonused by my own firm to go market. These days, your young people know what they need to do to have a successful, autonomous career. I don’t pay them to brush their teeth twice a day either—they should do that because they’re responsible adults. I’m old school that way. I’ve tried, and I consistently found that babying them never improved my results.horses water pixaby free-1184987_960_720

If you want them to become rainmakers, give them marketing training. Teach them how to become successful. Teach them to network correctly, to focus on an industry group or specialty then develop a realistic marketing plan that they can see will achieve their goals. Teach them to provide great client service to keep clients coming back and how to cross-sell the clients they’re speaking with daily.  Lead your little horses to the water.

I’ve found that the real motivation is simply showing them that success is possible for them. Once they believe that, they’ll volunteer to do more of the hard work because they can see that this time they won’t be wasting their effort. Otherwise, they’ll just undertake the specific tasks that will earn them the bonus, like a rat getting a sugar pellet. 

You want them focused on forming the long-term relationships that will bring in business, not doing short-term cash-bonus activities. I especially don’t want to pay them to do the things that could more easily and cheaply be done by an outside consultant. For example, one firm rewarded their associates with up to 12 hours of credit to write a blog post (at ~$250/hour)? That’s a $2,400 article that a professional writer could have banged out for $500 at much higher quality. 

Support them when they try.The Ultimate Law Firm Associate’s Marketing Checklist_Book_6x9

Support them with higher-level associate or partner mentors who can give them occasional pep talks when they need it and answer strategic questions.  Give them each a copy of your favorite marketing book, so they can reinforce the training over time (for example, my “The Ultimate Law Firm Associate’s Marketing Checklist” book (https://goo.gl/HsrmbE), so they have a resource they can use to double-check their progress. But don’t pay them for effort like they’re ordering off of a menu. It’ll just create unintended prioritization and sneaky abuses. Associates are smart; they’ll work the compensation system, just like the partners do.

That is, you’ll find that every article or blog post will take precisely 12 hours to write, because that’s the maximum number of bonus hours they may receive under the firm’s comp system. And they’ll start taking their college and law school buddies (sorry, their “prospects”) out for meals and charging it to the firm because they get bonus credit. Etc.

Instead, (1) teach them how to market correctly, then (2) reward them for their success, just like firms have rewarded rainmakers for the past 100 years. For example:

  • Make them partners. 
  • Pay them more for bringing in the work. 
  • Don’t fire them during the next recession like you will the fungible Grinders.
  • Give them highly visible perks that’ll make the others jealous, like bigger offices, coveted sports tickets, and taking them along to client meetings and new business competitions.
  • Offer exclusive “high performers” marketing training.

Rainmakers will make rain, because that’s who they are.

They’re willing to devote the thankless hours it requires because they think long term and are disciplined in their efforts. They want more out of their careers. You can’t pay someone to be successful.

That is, I’ll lead the horses to water.

…but I won’t pay them a bonus for drinking it.

Good luck!  

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