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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

10% Pay Rise for All? Goodbye motivation!

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Law firm Gilbert + Tobin (just an aside – can we take a moment to appreciate how irritating it is to have to type a plus symbol when attempting to write articles?) recently announced it would be giving its lawyers all a 10% pay rise, and its support staff all a 3% pay rise.

So is this a stroke of amazing generosity, or a weird blend of a successful capitalist enterprise making profoundly socialist decisions?

First thing we should do is probably gloss over what the decision says about how the firm values its support staff. Then we can move right on into the fairly odd concept that all of G+T’s lawyers have somehow managed to earn precisely the same pay rise. Yep – even the ones who barely rummaged up the strength to care over the last 12 months.

Now don’t get me wrong – nobody is likely going to complain about a 10% pay rise, since that’s a fairly nice number.

But let’s pick a word straight out of G+T’s “flexcareers” page: meritocracy.

Gilbert + Tobin is an egalitarian, open-minded meritocracy committed to the growth and development of our people.

Meritocracy is a word that sprung up more in the couple of decades or so and is now basically a given when it comes to career advancement within a law firm.

Strictly it probably relates more to career advancement (promotion) than it does to pay rises. But in general the idea is that if you deserve some form of reward (promotion, money, partnership) based on your merit then you’ll get it irrespective of other qualities (nepotism, status, gender etc).

So here’s my question: how can we reconcile the concept of meritocracy to a flat 10% pay rise across the board? I’m not sure I can.

Irrespective of how high-performing a firm is, there are always some people who excel in their legal careers more than others.

And for them, surely at this point the question they are asking is: why bother?

Of course most lawyers don’t work just for the money (although some do), but the money your firm pays you is the major and most measurable way of determining whether your efforts are being valued.

So on the one hand we have Susan, who has constantly exceeded expectations in terms of productivity, billing, firm culture, marketing contribution and is generally awesome at everything.

On the other hand we have Beth, who generally manages to mostly meet expectations.

Both, apparently, are deserving here of precisely the same pay rise.

Irrespective of their merit.

You see, Susan isn’t an idiot – she’s well aware of the fact that she contributes way more to the firm then Beth. And she’s also well aware that despite the fact she went above and beyond over the last 12 months, Beth will be getting the same (percentage, at least) reward.

So if that’s the messaging, why wouldn’t Susan just start performing the same as Beth?

Is there not a risk that high performers will feel undervalued, and mediocre performers will feel no incentive to aspire to more success in their careers?

Of course G+T might have a plan to solve that later on with bonus considerations at the end of the financial year, or other methods that they think will reward their higher performing staff.

And perhaps, unlike most other firms, all of their lawyers are similar in terms of performance metrics.

But from the wide angle lens through which I’m looking, I can’t help but wonder whether some lawyers in the firm might be feeling a bit undervalued right about now.

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