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Law Firm Office Culture Series: Offer Incentives and Rewards

Noel Peel

Written by

Noel Peel


November 27, 2019

Offering incentives and rewards to high performers in your office is a no-brainer. But many law firms aren’t sure about how to best implement incentive programs so that that they’re effective. Let’s take a look at what you should consider before creating your next incentives and rewards program.

Law Firm Goals

What do you want to accomplish with your incentives and rewards program? Your goal doesn’t need to have a singular focus, you can use incentives and rewards to accomplish multiple goals at once. Here are a few examples of important law firm goals:

  • Improve morale.
  • Retain high performing associates.
  • Motivate underperforming associates.
  • Reward good behavior.
  • Discourage non-productive behavior.

Really give this some time and marinate on what it is that you’re hoping to achieve with your incentives and rewards program. And once you have your law firm goals nailed down, you will be positioned to create a program that really serves your organization.


Getting the timing right for your incentives and rewards program is important. Depending on the reward, telling people exactly what the reward is may actually have a negative impact. People may begin to focus on the reward instead of focusing on the work that they are delivering for your clients. For example, you don’t want associates doing busy work just to bill more hours because they want to win the “the attorney with the most billable hours” award.  So here is what you should do:

  • Give rewards at unexpected times. There is nothing wrong with giving a reward during your annual review but consider also giving a reward when an associate or other staff person does something noteworthy. For example, maybe one of your attorneys decided to volunteer their legal services to low-income seniors. This positive behavior might be rewarded even if the annual review is six months away.
  • Give rewards often. Not that you need to hand out bonuses or other incentives on a daily or even weekly basis but your employees should be rewarded for their achievements throughout the year. Maybe this year you reward someone who has billed an unusually large amount of hours and then next month you rewards one of your secretaries for agreeing to stay late to finish up an important project. By rewarding employees throughout the year, you incentivize them to continue to do a good job.


It’s important that your rewards focus on reinforcing the values you want to encourage. This is why small rewards may be more impactful than large ones. Small rewards encourages the recipient to focus on the “why” of the reward instead of what they received. For example, you might consider giving out small gift certificates to support staff who consistently deliver very high results or who have gone above and beyond in their service to your attorneys. There are a few things you should do to ensure that your incentives and rewards programs has a powerful impact:

Clarify values. It’s important that you make clear to all staff what values and behaviors are most valued at your law firm. You can do this directly and indirectly. Include these values in your daily routine so that they are constantly reinforced. Print them on mugs, pin them to your walls and cubicles, put them in the signature of your emails. Constantly remind staff of your values.

Clarify expectations. It’s important that you keep employee expectations realistic regarding your rewards and incentives. In some cases, it may be preferable that you don’t let them know that you’re offering an actual reward for certain behavior but that you just make it part of your office culture—people should know that “sometimes people get rewards for certain behavior.”  You can even have “surprise rewards” every quarter so that people don’t know what the reward is or for what but they have an incentive to adhere to your firm’s most cherished values at all times.

Create an internal process. You want your rewards and incentives program to be fair and free of office politics, that’s why you need some kind of process for judging who should be rewarded. For example, may you know that a few times a year the top three performing attorneys will be rewarded and that your most dedicated administrative staff will also be rewarded—you should know what criteria will they need to meet. If you are using law firm management tools such as Smokeball to track attorney time and billing, it will be easy to follow and compare the progress and work habits of all your attorneys.

Reward Behavior

While it’s important to reward your associates who bill the most hours or deliver other specific financial outcomes, you should also reward other kinds of behavior. Consider rewarding the following if they align with your law firm values:

  • People who stay late often.
  • People who always come in early.
  • People who often take on extra work.
  • People who help others.
  • People willing to offer ideas to improve the law firm.
  • People who brought in the most valuable clients.
  • People who brought in the most challenging cases.

There are many ways to measure behavior that should be rewarded in your law firm so that it isn’t always the big billers getting all the “prizes.”  By rewarding a diversity of good behavior, you will encourage a healthier office culture at your law firm.

Reward Publically

It’s important that you reward your top employees publically. Everyone should know why they were rewarded and how they were rewarded.

Peer Rewards

Consider allowing your staff to reward each other. Think of it as a “people’s choice award.” For example, you might allow support staff nominate which of them is the most helpful in the office or which of them is willing to share their knowledge and expertise etc.

Non-Monetary Rewards

Not every reward needs to be (nor should be) money. Consider rewarding employees with something fun but non-monetary:

  • A certificate or trophy.
  • Free professional development class or workshop.
  • A glowing write-up in your newsletter or website.
  • Paid time-off from work.
  • Access to sought after but rare career opportunities.
  • Mentoring session with an accomplished professional such as a superstar lawyer.
  • A donation to a charity of their choice.

Non-monetary rewards can be just as satisfying and you avoid the problem of some employees going after the reward instead of simply servicing your clients to the best of their abilities.

If you want to leverage the power of incentives and rewards to build a strong office culture, be sure to reward a diversity of positive behavior while making the process fair for all your employees.

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