Key Strategies to Motivate and Engage Legal Professionals


“Motivation is the art of getting people to do what you want them to do because they want to do it.” — Dwight D. Eisenhower

Legal managers continue to address the challenge of retaining legal professionals in today’s legal marketplace. Recent research conducted by Robert Half Legal shows that nearly one-third of lawyers we polled said they’re concerned about losing top performers to other job opportunities. And when employees resign, office productivity and morale are among the first factors that are compromised.

So what’s the key to keeping employees satisfied and engaged? In my experience, the answer rests in large measure in a manager’s ability to motivate staff members to be interested in their work, personally invested in the organization’s success and inspired to perform to their highest level. And to do that, it’s important to recognize that what motivates one legal professional can be dramatically different from what inspires another worker.

Two important questions to ask employees

When I meet with team members, typically when assigned new staff or at review time, I ask some open-ended questions to gain insights into what encourages them in their work. And usually the first question I ask is for the employee to rank their job satisfaction on a scale of one to 10. This provides a good barometer regarding their interest in the job and its various components. If they don’t enjoy certain things about their job, then those are pretty clear markers that you, as a manager, need to address.

While the question regarding job satisfaction is designed to stimulate discussion about motivation, the next question I ask is for the employee to assign a letter grade to their personal job performance and achievement of objectives. Having staff members assess their overall accomplishments helps start a dialogue about areas where they believe they’re doing well and, importantly, where they may be struggling or believe they should be doing better — and why. You can then discuss possible developmental steps, offering an example or two if necessary. And the employee will leave the meeting with a clear idea of actions to pursue. With this approach, employees become engaged in the process and take ownership for tactics that can help strengthen their performance.

It’s important to keep in mind two principles about motivating employees:

  • First, one size doesn’t fit all. In one situation, I learned that my team disliked our weekly team calls, and their performance improved when we stopped having the calls — even though in the past employees had often found such calls helpful. But in this case, the team was motivated by less management — by the freedom to do their jobs. The situation reminded me of the importance of customizing your approach to encouraging employees based on what’s important to each individual.

  • And second, asking employees what’s important about their work and their performance is the most direct and effective way to get the answer. I never would have imagined that my staff was de-motivated by my weekly team calls. But once I asked the question — and responded to my staff's comments — their performance improved dramatically.

Also, remember that you can’t mandate motivation and employee engagement. The key is to ask employees how they feel about the job, what encourages them, where they can improve, and where they need support — and then respond by fostering a work environment where employees are enthusiastic about performing their best and contributing to the organization’s success.

What motivational strategies have worked for you? Please share your comments below.