Biglaw, In-House Counsel, Money, Partner Issues

It’s Not All About The Money

Alright, alright: At one level, it is about the money.

If you’re saddled with $100,000 in student debt and you’re unemployed, some money would help.

But if you’re making $160,000 in your first year out of law school, it’s not about the money.

When I entered the legal workforce, the “going rate” and terms of employment varied regionally in the United States. I chose to work in San Francisco — earning less than the going rate in New York and being entitled to only three weeks of vacation each year, instead of the four offered elsewhere — because I preferred San Francisco to New York. It wasn’t all about the money.

I chose to work at a small firm (I was the 21st lawyer at the joint) — knowing full well that my annual raises would be less at my small firm than they would have been at a large one — because I wanted real responsibility early in my career. It wasn’t all about the money.

When I later moved to one of the biggest firms in the world, it still wasn’t all about the money . . . .

As a senior associate at one of the world’s largest firms, I would happily have paid the firm cash back in return for experience. I would have gladly forfeited $5,000 in pay for the chance to argue before the United States Supreme Court. I probably would have paid an equal amount to be first chair at a jury trial. It wasn’t all about the money.

As a partner at one of the world’s largest firms, I went jogging every lunchtime (when I was in town and weather permitted) with one or more other partners who were basically of my vintage and thus content with my miserably slow pace. And it still wasn’t all about the money. Some of us could have moved laterally to other firms and made more money. We didn’t, either out of loyalty to our firm or because we weren’t going to uproot school-aged kids and move them to a new city. Either way, it wasn’t all about the money.

Jogging with one of my partners one day, I told him that I thought our firm was terrible at ‘attaboys.

“Huh?”

“When I worked at a small firm, everyone knew what you were doing, and many people thanked you for your efforts. ‘Hey, Mark, I saw that you published an article in the state bar magazine. That was an interesting thesis. Good work. We all try to raise our collective profile, and we appreciate that you’re helping us out.’ Or: ‘Summary judgment in the Polonius case! That’s great! What a wonderful result for an important client! Congratulations!’

“But no one does anything like that at this firm. You bring in a new matter or a new client; no one says a word. You publish an article in a law review; not a peep. You chair a judicial committee re-writing the local appellate rules, getting a fair amount of press along the way; no one cares. You win a big case; silence. This place sucks at ‘attaboys.”

“What about the kudos memos?”

“Ha! A 15-page, single-spaced document, circulated once every few months, that says, in a single endless paragraph: ‘Congratulations to Claudius on having won summary judgment for BigCo. Kudos to Horatio for winning a bench trial for LittleCo. Three cheers for Laertes and Polonius for winning a motion to dismiss for MediumCo.’ Most people throw the damn thing away unread. The egotists skim the memo to see if it mentions their names and their cases. No one actually feels as though they’ve been congratulated or thanked.”

“It’s true that I never read the kudos memo. Maybe we just figure that we’re all big boys. At this point in your professional career, you shouldn’t need people congratulating and thanking you all the time.”

“Of course that’s true; no one needs to be congratulated. But if you’d like people to feel that they’re an important part of a collective enterprise, it can’t hurt to thank people occasionally for their efforts or congratulate them for a job well done.”

“Maybe you’re right. Shoot, Herrmann — I think we’ve picked up our pace by a step or two today. ‘attaboy!”

I’ve learned only now, after working in-house for a few years, that the concept that was troubling me is not actually known as “‘attaboys,” but as “employee engagement.” Job satisfaction turns in part on feeling that your work is appreciated, which means that someone has noticed and commented on what you’ve done. At some law firms, you’ll feel in your gut the absence of that appreciation. At most corporations, management strives to improve employee engagement, which increases productivity, reduces turnover, and minimizes the cost of recruiting and training new employees.

As I said at the start: It’s not all about the money.


Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at inhouse@abovethelaw.com.

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