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‘Vacation bonus’ incentives unlikely to drive real change

While one international firm’s new “vacation bonus” initiative has made headlines across the globe, some have labelled it “superficial and one-dimensional” and called for meaningful change in the legal profession.

user iconLauren Croft 30 January 2023 Big Law
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This month, international law firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner (BCLP) launched new “vacation bonus” incentives, rewarding high performance with wellbeing initiatives. The global investment hours policy rewards lawyers with billable hours credit outside of client work for time spent on learning, diversity, wellbeing, knowledge and innovation.

In addition, high-performers at the firm will be rewarded with a “vacation bonus” to incentivise them to take more time off, something that BCLP global director of inclusion, diversity and recruitment Lloyd Stephenson said would “encourage a more holistic view of success”.

“We see this as a great opportunity to ensure that our lawyers are taking the necessary breaks in order to protect their mental health while also contributing to the culture and long-term success of the firm behaviour,” he said.


“Inclusion, diversity and wellbeing of our people remain priorities for the firm, and we see this policy as one that supports our ambitions on this front.”

In conversation with Lawyers Weekly, nrol director Jesse Shah said that a policy like this one could be beneficial for Australian firms and lawyers in a myriad of ways.

“By reducing burnout, the policy could lead to increased productivity and job satisfaction among the firm’s lawyers. In the wake of the COVID-19, many firms have had to adapt to remote work and other changes that have made it more difficult to maintain a healthy work/life balance. As a result, more firms may want to consider offering policies like this one to address these issues and support the wellbeing of their employees,” he said.

“Other potential benefits of schemes like this one include improved employee morale and retention, as well as a more positive reputation for the firm among potential clients and other stakeholders.”

BCLP’s policy allows lawyers to allocate up to 5 per cent of their billing time to endeavours outside client work, which contribute toward their bonus eligibility. This can include areas such as learning and development, innovation, inclusion and diversity, and wellbeing.

Additionally, once a BCLP lawyer reaches the first bonus eligibility level for their jurisdiction, they become eligible to receive billable hours credit for a week of vacation leave taken during the financial year. When a lawyer reaches the highest bonus eligibility target, BCLP will contribute a cash “vacation bonus” in a local currency equivalent.

A BCLP spokesperson told Lawyers Weekly that the new global investment hours policy was aimed at rewarding and balancing high performance with wellbeing.

“When a lawyer takes a week’s annual leave, they typically do not record any client billable time due to the absence. We have found for some lawyers, this is a disincentive to take vacation at all as they are not accruing billable time that counts towards their bonus,” BCLP said.

“Therefore, the new policy means that once a lawyer has met the minimum performance criteria, they are able to log a block of time as if they are working on client matters and thus still accruing to their next bonus level, whilst they are on vacation — billable hours credit for time spent on learning, diversity, wellbeing, knowledge and innovation.

“In addition, BCLP will reward high performance with new wellbeing initiatives or a ‘vacation bonus’ to incentivise time off. The vacation bonus is cash given to the lawyer to put towards a holiday when they hit the highest bonus level.”

But co-founders of legal coaching organisation Coaching Advocates Claire Bibby and Katie Gray expressed a number of doubts about the policy.

“The offer of extra holidays and cash when bonus targets are met by lawyers, coupled with a percentage of non-billables counting towards bonus eligibility, is arguably superficial and one-dimensional. Window dressing these types of initiatives as a way to help lawyers to ‘switch off whilst on holiday’ requires a stretch of the imagination, as the ‘reward’ of money ignores the underlying issues at hand.

“Regrettably, we see it running the risk of appearing shallow to lawyers when the buzz words of ‘switching off’ and ‘culture and community’ are bandied around to describe something that appears in the main to be financially driven, given bonus eligibility is at the core, rather than any sort of meaningful change,” the pair said.

“We’re seeing a huge uptick in lawyers, groups and teams pursuing professional coaching to enable them to change their mindset and learn how to practice law differently. By that, we mean through the creation of more sustainable and healthy work and team environments for staff, without compromising on the bottom line. Change in attitudes and behaviours has certainly come out of the COVID-19 pandemic, but these issues are not new to the current legal workforce.”

Mr Shah also outlined a number of initiatives Australian firms should be looking at for the sake of their staff — but maintained that the BCLP policy was still a “progressive step”.

“It is hard to say whether BCLP is leading the way as it depends on the context and the other firms. However, the offering of time off and bonuses to promote work/life balance is a progressive step that firms in Australia could consider,” he said.

“Firms should also consider offering flexible working hours, remote working options, mental health support and training, as well as providing opportunities for career development and professional growth. These benefits can make a meaningful difference in employee satisfaction, retention, and overall success.”

However, in terms of redefining success in the current legal market, Ms Bibby and Ms Gray said that the end result should not be driven towards achieving bonuses but by “creating change, such as developing more effective leaders, team and individuals who enjoy successful careers, making valuable contributions to organisations, and people having fulfilling lives both inside and outside the office”.

“We’re all for shaking up the practice of law from the inside, but for a policy to gain traction in the Australian market, we’d hope to see its genesis being more about the bigger picture for all the stakeholders and not just be at the level of the reward of more money or time off,” the pair said. 

“That’s not to say that financial rewards and metrics are not important — of course they are, and it would be naive to think otherwise — but if, for example, an extra week of holidays is given to a lawyer who has a tendency to work through their holidays in any event, or who is contacted by their clients or colleagues during vacation and expected to be available 24/7, or the individual themselves has the belief that they simply ‘can’t give this matter to anyone else to manage’ or holds any other deep-seated self-sabotaging behaviours, the root cause is not being addressed. 

“In our view, it’s questionable whether a lawyer (or a firm) who holds any of these beliefs would benefit from a policy when what they actually need is to change and foster a mindset shift.”

“Overall, it’s promising to learn that firms are taking steps to promote ‘switching off’. That said, there is no universal or cookie-cutter approach to reach a solution — a benefit or offering that is valuable to or needed by one practitioner may not necessarily be the same for the next practitioner, so a suite of options, linked to both financial and non-financial, professional and personal metrics, is likely to have a more far-reaching and sustainable effect to bring about real change.”

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