Law School Grads — Where Did Our Drive Go?


“I don’t expect to love my job. There’s a reason they call it ‘work.’ That’s why they pay me for it,” my friend said to me at lunch yesterday. She is a senior associate at a big San Francisco law firm, and like many in her position, she is overworked and stressed but doesn’t know how else she can support her family.

What has happened to all of those bright-eyed, eager law school graduates who were intellectually excited by their work, who wanted to make a difference, who loved the challenge and the puzzle of figuring things out? Far too many of them have given up on having a fulfilling career in law — either by quitting entirely (as I did), or by continuing to slog away at a job that is financially but not personally rewarding.

Those who have stayed have all too often lost their internal motivation and are mostly motived extrinsically — by money and the prospect of partnership that would mean still more money. But as Dan Pink notes in Drive, extrinsic motivation — carrots and sticks — can be a real buzz kill. After reviewing dozens of studies of motivation by psychologists and economists, Pink concludes that the science is clear: though effective at the outset and in very specific circumstances, carrots and sticks have what he identifies at “Seven Deadly Flaws” — “1. They can extinguish intrinsic motivation. 2. They can diminish performance. 3. They can crush creativity. 4. They can crowd out good behavior. 5. They can encourage cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behavior. 6. They can become addictive. 7. They can foster short-term thinking.”

The big firms depend heavily on extrinsic motivation among their associates, quite likely to their detriment. Add to that what is arguably an incentive to be time-inefficient — the out-sized minimum billable hours requirements and the macho face-time culture — and you have a recipe for unfulfilled employees who spend too much time at work and burn out.

But what if firms could tap into their employees’ intrinsic motivation — their drive to create, learn, grow? What if they gave associates greater independence? What if they valued creativity and problem-solving over billable hours? The science indicates that almost certainly their work product would improve, as would their satisfaction.

I can practically hear the eyes rolling at what to many practicing attorneys probably seems hopelessly naive. But, cock-eyed optimist that I am, I believe that sooner or later, business must and will to catch up with science.