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Perks That Work: Maintaining High Morale In The Law Office

From flex-time to monthly office birthday parties, there are all sorts of ways you might try to keep employees and lawyers happy in your law firm. But have you ever wondered which perks really work – and which ones just aren’t worth the extra time, paperwork or effort?
According to consultants Robert Denney of Robert Denney Associates, Inc., in Wayne, Pa., and Dustin Cole of Attorneys Master Class in Longwood, Fla., here’s a look at what works – and what doesn’t – when it comes to maintaining high morale around the office.

Perks That Work

  • Flexible work arrangements.
    Not surprisingly, any kind of flexibility with work time is very well received by attorneys and employees alike. People are interested in anything from flexible work hours to part-time work to working from home, Denney said.
    “Firms are accepting this more than they used to,” he said. “And some firms are now providing lawyers with laptops or computers at home so they can be productive even when they are not in the office.”

  • Pro bono work time.
    Attorneys also want more control of what they do with their work time, Denney said. More firms have been listening to the desires of lawyers – especially young lawyers – to have time to do pro bono work.
    “They want to give back to the community,” he said.

  • Reduced billable hour requirements.
    Some firms are “dropping” the number of required billable hours, which reduces pressure on attorneys and makes it easier to do community work as well. Denney said this might also include reducing the number of non-billable “firm work” hours.

  • Professional development.
    “It’s a retention perk,” said Cole. “Firms that don’t have it don’t keep people very long.”
    Young lawyers in particular are looking for “CLE courses and mentoring, to feel they are progressing as a lawyer and developing their expertise,” said Denney. “This is one place where a lawyer will accept a little less money if they feel they are getting excellent training and development.”
    Cole emphasized that professional development opportunities should not be limited to lawyers. Staffers have the same desire to build their professional expertise, he said.
    “[It breeds] a lot of resentment if attorneys get a lot of development but secretaries and paralegals don’t get any,” he said.

  • Easier road to partnership.
    According to Denney, more firms are allowing lawyers to become partner, but without all the traditional strings attached.
    “Some young lawyers don’t want to go out and market the firm and invest capital and extra time in the firm” as partners are generally required to do, he said.
    As a result, firms are allowing some lawyers to become “non-equity partners” – who receive a partner-level salary and are known as a partner in the community, but who don’t take the traditional partner profits of the firm or take on extra firm marketing work.
    “This keeps talented lawyers with the firm and avoids slicing the profit pie into additional pieces,” Denney said.

    Perks That Flop

  • Employee-of-the-Month programs.
    When it comes to employee-of-the-month recognition programs, Cole said most employees just turn up their noses because they would rather have a bonus.
    “Most people are a little more results-oriented, and something tangible is better than something intangible, like a mention in the company newsletter,” he said.

  • Group birthday parties.
    Monthly companywide birthday parties can “turn a good thing into a bad thing,” said Cole. “What employees resent is institutionalizing social things. It takes the personality out of buying a cake for someone’s birthday and it shows up to employees as the company wanting to stop them from wasting time” on individual people’s occasions.

  • Time off on short notice.
    “A firm I know will give their employees a half-day off before Christmas or New Years, but they don’t tell anyone it’s happening in advance,” said Cole. “No one can make any plans and they turn a benefit into resentment.”

  • Comp time without set standards.
    Despite a universal interest in more time off and flexible working time, Cole said allowing comp time can be dangerous if the policies that define it are unclear and some employees start to abuse it.
    For example, an employee might say, “I work through lunch and everyone else takes cigarette breaks and I don’t do that so I should have an extra day off this month,” something Cole noted would be likely to upset other employees.

  • Not keeping promises.
    What’s the biggest morale buster for a company? Giving lip service to certain perks – without keeping their promises.
    “Not really executing [perks and benefits] is the worst thing a firm can do,” said Denney. “If they talk about professional development or flex time and they don’t follow through, it boomerangs and that word gets out to law schools.”
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