Hard to draw clear lines for when someone in a law department should get a spot bonus

Spot bonuses of cash may be a wishful gleam in the eye for most, but some law departments have programs to reward members with an immediate check effort above and beyond the norm (See my post of Nov. 8, 2007: on-the-spot awards.). Such seemingly beneficent programs bump into many nettles.

One risk is that the bonuses go too often to lawyers who work on high-visibility projects, a distortion that treats unfairly those who steadily do yeomen’s duty on less glamorous needs. Another is that awards go disproportionately to senior people, since it is harder to identify when a person at a lower level has significantly outperformed his or her peers. A third complexity arises when the company – above the level of the legal department – doles out rewards for multi-disciplinary teams of employees who made a major contribution, such as a merger team, and a lawyer was on that team. Warning bells ought to go off, furthermore, if one senior lawyer tends to hog the spot awards for that lawyer’s reports. At a deeper level, every time you favor someone, someone else probably feels slighted.

To recognize exemplary contributions with cash – or vacation days or dining out certificates, for that matter – earns you a rose, but issues of complexity, equity, consistency and consequences may prick you.

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