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Question: Should Our Law Firm Pay Our Associates to Market?

Answer: Uh… No.

I answered this question on a listserv last week, posed by a 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.  

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 as a young litigator who was bonused to go out and market 30 years ago. 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. Babying them never improved my results.

Horse, Drinking WaterIf 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, and develop a realistic marketing plan to achieve their goals. Teach them to provide great client service and how to cross-sell existing clients.  Bring me in to train the crap out of them. Lead your little horses to the water.

The real motivation is simply showing them that success is actually possible. If they believe that, they’ll volunteer to do the hard work because they can see that they won’t be wasting their effort this time. Otherwise, they’ll just do specific tasks to earn a 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 bonused activities.  Particularly not the activities that could more easily and cheaply be done by an outside consultant. Allotting 12 hours for an associate to write a blog post (at ~$200/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.

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.

For example, every article 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 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 a bigger office, coveted sports tickets, and take them along to client meetings and new business competitions.

  • Offer exclusive “high performers” training.

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

They’re willing to devote the thankless time 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 horse to water.

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

Good luck!  

© 2021 Fishman MarketingNational Law Review, Volume VII, Number 38

About this Author

Ross Fishman legal marketing expert  Fishman Marketing

National Law Review Thought Leader 2018

Of Counsel magazine wrote: “Many people consider Ross to be the nation’s foremost expert on professional services marketing.” He uses powerful brands, websites, and marketing training to help lawyers and law firms dominate their markets and dramatically increase profits.

A former...