One Simple Ingredient for a Happier Workplace

Sandra asked the team of legal support staff she manages what would contribute to their motivation at work. They all told her “appreciation – being thanked when we do a good job.”

Mark , a young associate, is unhappy at his firm. One of the things bothering him about the culture is the lack of appreciation for people’s efforts.

Chelsea and her close colleagues laugh at themselves for being foolish: after all their years of practice they still hanker after an appreciative word from their partners for taking on some of the essential but non-billable work critical to the firm’s business. The word of thanks never comes.

Over the past few weeks numerous lawyers from law firms around the country have shared the same thought about appreciation with me – it goes something like this:

 I don’t work for the money. Yes, money is essential, but the real satisfaction comes from helping people. And what I long for are a few words of appreciation when I go the extra mile for someone.

In law firms around the country it seems that one of the hardest things to come by is a kind word from someone for a job well done.

Legal work is often tough work. Clients can be demanding and unappreciative. But that doesn’t mean we need to be that way. In fact it calls for all of us who work in law to make an effort to be more appreciative than the norm. Right now, given what I hear from lawyers in my coaching practice, I would give many law firms across the country a failing grade in Appreciation 101. If your firm has a culture of appreciation I would love to hear about it, and celebrate it. Please write and let me know.

When we appreciate people it has a significant impact. It makes people feel good about themselves, about you, and about their work. It takes almost no time. It doesn’t cost anything. And its impact is big.

Building a Culture of Appreciation at Your Firm

It starts with you. Make a commitment to extend your thanks and appreciation at least once a day as a start. Here are some opportunities for delivering some appreciation:

  • When office services takes care of that courier delivery for you swiftly and with a smile.
  • When your assistant takes a moment to bring you that helpful reminder.
  • When your colleague takes on a non-billable task for the practice group such as writing an article.

As you can see from the above you don’t have to wait for a “big accomplishment” to give thanks. Look instead for the simple opportunities around you every day.

Do you disagree? Think acknowledging such small things is unnecessary or even wrong? Let me then turn to the four most common misconceptions about appreciation.

Common Misconceptions

  1. Appreciation needs to be saved for the really big deal. “When she has successfully completed negotiations on that 500 million dollar project I will congratulate her.“
    Wrong. Appreciation is best used every day. Get in the habit of noticing the small things, and when someone really does something extraordinary simply increase your expression of appreciation appropriately.
  2.  “He’s paid to handle that, I expect him to do a good job. If he didn’t he wouldn’t have a job.”
    Incorrect. If law firms invested just one percent of the time they currently spend on figuring out associate bonuses on daily expressions of appreciation the work culture would improve significantly.
  3. “If I give someone appreciation and thanks for small things they are going to get an inflated sense of their own worth.”
    Not so. In law firms we don’t have a problem of people thinking too highly of themselves. For every arrogant lawyer I will show you twenty people in the firm who are too hard on themselves and who don’t see their own strengths and abilities.
  4. To appreciate someone you need to make a public declaration, such as an email sent to a large group of people.
    Not usually. In most day-to-day situations people prefer to be quietly thanked and acknowledged. Putting an achievement under the spotlight can be very uncomfortable for people. Public appreciation and acknowledgement of success is best saved for the big accomplishments.

Best Practices

Start with paying attention. Instead of: “Thanks for the help!” Make your remarks more specific: “I appreciate you taking time out from the mail run to help me hang that painting. I’ve wanted to get that painting off the floor and onto the wall for ages. Thanks so much!”

Check in with yourself daily. If you aren’t in the habit of expressing appreciation then in the beginning track your progress. At the end of each day ask yourself if you acknowledged anyone’s actions over the day. If you didn’t, that’s ok, start again tomorrow.

When bigger thanks are in order, loop some other people in. This isn’t a big broadcast thank you such as the type I mention above. It is making the person’s contribution known within a small circle of people who matter to the person. For example, a lawyer friend I will call “Dave” (to protect his confidentiality) recently delegated a hearing preparation assignment to an associate he hadn’t worked with before. Not only did the associate get the work back to Dave on time, it was very well written. Dave had to do very little in the way of revisions and got to take Saturday off instead of working on corrections. Dave emailed the associate to thank him for getting the work in on time and for doing such an excellent job of the writing. Then Dave emailed his partner, cc’ed the associate, and told him about the strong writing skills the associate demonstrated in his most recent piece of work. Needless to say the associate was most appreciative of having the praise passed on to another partner. And kudos to Dave for handling the acknowledgment so ably.

It Is So Simple

Appreciating our colleagues is a very simple way to contribute to a happier workplace. Why then is it so scarce in our law firms? I think that under the pressures of legal practices simple things such as appreciation are forgotten. This article is the call to remember, and take steps to make this a part of your daily practice.

I agree with leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith who says: “When it comes to gratitude, I am a radical fundamentalist.” Join with me in developing a culture of appreciation within our law firms.


  1. IMHO get rid of the e-cards and get back to the handwritten paper cards sent by snail mail – clients will appreciate it.