Boost Firm Performance With Intrinsic Motivation

March 29

Intrinsic_Motivation_Law_firmWhile the experience and skills of law firm staff and attorneys factor into how they perform at work, a law firm’s management effectiveness greatly influences overall workplace performance,  especially in the long term. 


A variety of behaviors and activities determine the performance levels of attorneys and staff members. These activities require motivation which can be categorized as extrinsic or intrinsic -  both of which should be fostered by the firm’s leadership style. While money is the most common tool used to encourage extrinsic motivation, a more thoughtful approach is required to support intrinsic motivation.  This post will propose a set of five principles for fostering intrinsic motivation to create a more productive and satisfying workplace. 


Intrinsic & Extrinsic Work Motivation

Widely known is Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” – a theory that indicates that we must satisfy each level of need before moving on to satisfy the next one: Physiological, safety, social, self-esteem & self-actualization. Humans strive to satisfy these needs; therefore, they perform certain behaviors (ex. work) to provide food, a home, to contribute to society, AND define their role in this world and pursue happiness.


Satisfaction of the needs described above is caused by external rewards  (salary, bonuses, praise, and promotions) and intrinsic rewards ( positive emotions triggered by the behavior or behavior for the enjoyment of the activity). While extrinsic motivation aims at satisfying the more basic needs, intrinsic motivation aims at self-esteem and self-actualization, which are more difficult to fulfill. Intrinsic motivation is much more powerful since it is controlled by the self and not by external factors.


Practicing law, researching legal documents, managing the office, running accounting software, etc. are all behaviors that require motivation. Assuming an individual has the necessary skill set to perform a job, his or her level of motivation determines the performance.  While compensation is the most common form of external motivation in law firms, intrinsic motivation leads to higher levels of job satisfaction.


Five management principles

The jobs of law firm attorneys and staff members are a significant part of their lives and contribute to their overall happiness, so law firm management (equity partners, experienced income partners, COOs, office managers, etc.) should continually foster motivation. Since intrinsic motivation cannot be controlled by external factors, it is important to combine supportive workplace conditions with a suitable leadership style. Focusing on law firm staff and young attorneys, we propose the following management principles to establish a work environment supportive of intrinsic motivation:


2. Value

3. Empowerment

4. Personalization

5. Team orientation


  1. Competence

Competence stands for an individual’s awareness of their capabilities. Aside from the regular tasks on an associate’s or staff member’s schedule, management should include more challenging tasks that fit their abilities. Management should also make sure employees receive sufficient training for skill development. Additionally, authentic performance feedback provides attorneys and staff with an honest reflection of their abilities. On the one hand, they understand what they need to improve, and on the other, strong performance and success are acknowledged and given credit. Even though this specific reward is an extrinsic one, it strengthens employees’ sense of competence. Hence, they develop intrinsic motivation because they believe in their skills and success.


  1. Value

The principle of value deals with the sense of meaningfulness. Management needs to identify attorneys and staff as valuable assets of the firm and communicate the firm’s vision and values. They can then draw a connection between their job and the firm’s vision to see how their work serves a valuable purpose not only to the firm but also to society.


  1. Empowerment

Empowerment deals with autonomy. Management should give both attorneys and staff members a certain degree of decision-making power for tasks that are within the range of their capabilities. These tasks should be challenging with formulated achievable goals.  The ability to work independently fosters feelings of competence and trustworthiness which supports intrinsic motivation.


  1. Personalization

The personalization principle highlights the importance of knowing how each attorney and staff member functions best.   Since employees are intrinsically motivated when they are performing the tasks they enjoy, managers should take the time to learn about these tasks.  Of course, employees need to do the work their job requires. But management can increase workplace satisfaction by designing work assignments to fit an employee’s specific approach (analytical, strategic, creative, competitive, etc.).


  1. Team Orientation

The team orientation principle aims to enhance trust and strengthen the relationships among employees. In this case, the firm management should make use of work- and non-work-related team strengthening activities. Employees are intrinsically motivated when their work performance contributes to the overall performance of a team they like and respect. 



By integrating these principles into attorney and staff management, the firm leadership establishes a work environment that fosters intrinsic motivation. Intrinsically motivated, employees work with more focus, effectiveness, and endurance because their work evokes positive emotional experiences. While work performance increases, the needs for esteem and self-actualization are satisfied. Consequently, job satisfaction and overall organizational performance also improve. Win-Win.


Read more articles on creating a more productive law firm work environment on our blog:  PerformLaw Blog Articles