Challenge, feedback are critical factors, say two headhunters


December 17, 1990|By Ellen L. James

Every year, Karen Williamson and Anne Neal interview hundreds of disgruntled lawyers. They're young attorneys, most of them, and they make good money -- usually $60,000 to $70,000 a year. But they're unhappy enough to leave their firms and search for greener pastures.

Most have lost their motivation to work at their old firms because of the way they were treated, says Ms. Williamson, founder of Williamson & Neal, a 6-year-old legal headhunting firm with offices in Baltimore and Washington. Poor communication practices are at fault in most cases, she says.

"Money is an important motivator. But it's still second to liking the firm -- unless you're grossly underpaid," Ms. Williamson says.

When young associates at a law firm lose their motivation, the firm loses a big investment, says Ms. Neal, a partner with Williamson & Neal.

"Because of competition for the best people, law firms spend hundreds of thousands of dollars recruiting new associates," she says. It's also costly to provide on-the-job training for young associates and if the associate leaves the firm in the early years, the investment is largely wasted, she points out.

Remarkably, many of these premature departures by young lawyers could have been avoided if partners at the law firm had taken steps to motivate their subordinates, according to Ms. Neal.

The motivational process must start with the person at the very beginning of the person's association with a firm or company, says Ms. Neal, noting that the lessons learned by law firms apply to other companies as well.

Based on her experience with disgruntled lawyers, she offers these pointers on how to motivate employees:

* Don't create false expectations in the recruiting and hiring process.

While courting young associates, some law firms tend to glamorize jobs, setting up recruits for disappointment after they have accepted positions. Instead, it's important to provide realistic in formation about hours, responsibilities and benefits.

"If you don't do this, the young attorneys' motivation just flies out the window as soon as they start the job. Instead of looking for ways to make things work, they start complaining about anything and everything and negative energy takes over," says Ms. Neal.

* Monitor an employee's workload.

"Nobody is totally self-directed," Ms. Neal observes. Giving an employee too little work can cause him self-doubt about his importance to the organization. On the other hand, heaping him with extra work may ultimately make him less rather than more productive. "He won't know where to start and may freeze or panic," she says.

* Provide personal feedback on major projects as soon as possible after they're completed.

Suppose a young lawyer completes a big written project for 1/8 1/8 TC partner at a law firm. Six weeks pass and he's heard nothing about the project. The situation is demoralizing, Ms. Neal says. "He starts saying to himself, 'I worked my fingers to the bone on that and for all I know it was never read.' "

The problem of delayed feedback is compounded if the critique is ultimately delivered to him in writing, with critical remarks scrawled in the margins of the text in red ink.

"No matter how busy a partner is in the firm, he has to make the investment in time to discuss the project with the young associate personally," Ms. Neal insists.

* Responsibilities should be increased whenever possible in order to keep motivation going.

One idea would be to include the new associate in meetings with clients, she suggests. Being included in a conference call placed to a client by a partner or being taken to lunch with the two could do a lot to help stimulate the lawyer's motivation and prepare him for added responsibility in the future, Ms. Neal says.

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