Making the Most Out of Attorney Performance Reviews

Every law firm or legal organization conducts performance reviews, albeit differently.  Some have formal evaluations and many actually offer informal evaluations, but you have to be proactive and ask.  However, I have many lawyer friends who don’t have any such system at their respective organizations or they are really on their own in terms of tracking their performance.  Regardless of your organization’s way of evaluating employees, carving out some time regularly to assess your work performance is definitely a best practice for any lawyer. 

Some lawyers find that their own firm’s annual performance review doesn’t help them or fails to inform them about the areas where they are doing a good job or what to work on.  For example, some firms simply provide printouts of your billing and your team’s billing performance and that is the extent of your review.  Other times, your management team will assess your client contacts, writing, personality, morale, and constructive feedback in a certain department or practice area goals.  Despite these opportunities, I have many lawyer friends in the profession who do not have formal or informal evaluations at their respective organizations or are on their own in terms of tracking their performance. 

Here are six tips for making the most out of attorney performance reviews.  If your organization lacks a formal system, you can still use these tips if you are asking your supervisor(s) for a one-on-one, or do your own assessment.  

One - Pulse Check

At my present place of employment, I speak to one of the founding law firm partners almost daily.  These meetings are not really long conversations; they last about 2-3 minutes.  He makes rounds and stops by my office to ask me whether I need anything.  It is always an informal “pulse check.” He does this not only with me, but with other lawyers in our particular office location.  I usually also tell him what type of work I am doing and he will sometimes ask to take a look at my work product.  While he does this, I also tell him what my goals are.  I don’t give him a running list, but I ensure that he knows that I am looking to get more work with X client or work with X partner on various projects.  Although not a formal performance review, frequent check-ins like these ensure that the law firm partner and their employees are maintaining an open and consistent dialogue.  An open line of communication ensures that employees are on the same page and can assist them with identifying any problems as they arise. 

Some firms have pulse checks in the form of a survey. These surveys tend to focus on a few key areas that a department or the entire firm wants to get feedback on.  For example, recently, pulse surveys were sent out to get employee feedback regarding return-to-work plans. Another survey may focus on morale, business development, and/or diversity, equity, and inclusion.   

However, if your office does not have a pulse check or similar engagement assessment, you can easily do this on your own without a survey. Get a feel of what is driving or hindering your department’s or team’s workflow. What are some issues that may need to be addressed? For example, do you feel that the firm may benefit from a morale boost or creative ways for business development? If so, send a quick email to colleagues about an upcoming networking event or bar association meeting. Sometimes just engaging your own co-workers will also help you and the firm.  Another example might be to stop by a partner’s office or a colleague’s office to briefly get a sense of anything that may be needed from you or the group.     

Two - Ask for Specific Feedback with Examples

Whether a formal or informal review, take your supervisor’s critiques and schedule a follow-up meeting after a few months. This is another opportunity for a pulse check after the performance review.  At the review, ask for specific feedback with examples. If your employer cannot recall, follow-up with them in the next meeting. You can also specifically ask, “I would like your thoughts on _________ assignment.  What are some things that went well and what could I have done better?” Or, if you are working remotely, send this in a short email or through your instant messaging program.  

Three - Track Your Assignments and What You Have Accomplished

Some offices have a self-assessment system where you are to give yourself a score or evaluate your own performance.  This is really an exercise for you to become self-aware and mindful of areas where you can improve, but also where you have strengths. A self-aware attorney knows how to grow in their career.  This skill takes time but with some practice and consistency, it will become more manageable. 

Although my particular firm does not have a self-assessment system, I have previously worked at firms that did.  The best way to develop better self-awareness is to track your assignments and what you have accomplished.  If any feedback comes up in your daily work, take note and reflect on this information when you’re preparing to complete your self-assessment.   For example, I usually keep a running excel spreadsheet of the assignments I worked on or that I am currently working on.  I write down whether it was a writing assignment or speaking engagement such as a presentation, oral argument, or deposition. Here is a sample template of how I keep track of the assignments and you may modify the template in a way that works for you and your practice.  I use the color green to emphasize positive outcomes.  This is for your own personal use and can easily be referenced for a formal assessment but also may be beneficial when you decide to update your resume. 

Four - Communicate Your Goals to Management

When I was a brand new lawyer, I attended a women lawyer’s event with other lawyers who have become partners and equity partners at their respective firms.  I recall that one partner emphasized the importance of associates, mid-career lawyers, and non-equity partners to communicate their goals for partnership or another leadership role.  One partner told a story of one associate in her eighth year of practice at that particular firm who did excellent work but did not give management any insight into whether she wanted partnership or not.  This particular lawyer did not communicate her goals during performance reviews or did not share how she felt about her future at the firm.  This partner stressed how you have to “sell yourself” in every stage of your career and do it at the appropriate moments.  

As a new lawyer, your focus is on doing good work as often as you can.  However, as you continue to grow in your career, you can show that you are interested in advancement, whether that is through leadership at the firm, organization, or partnership, by sharing your ideas or discussing which potential clients or clients you have provided to the firm.  For example, in any performance reviews, remind management of the clients and types of cases that you successfully worked on or the ones that you brought to the firm or organization.  

Five - Give Your Employer/Supervisor Feedback

Performance reviews are a two-way street.  This time allows you to give feedback to your employer.  For example, are you getting enough work from the department?  Is there another partner who you work with more outside of your team who you want to continue to work with? Also, let your employer know if you want to form a committee at the firm or discuss how your employer can communicate with you if that is lacking. 

Six - Listen and Think Big Picture

Focus on your opportunities for growth throughout the process.  This is the chance for you to be introspective about your career path.  What are your current goals at your firm?  Do you have any?  If not, is it time to look for another company to work for?  Are you meeting the needs of your organization and are they meeting your needs?  Perhaps you would like to hang your own shingle?  Do you feel that it is time to do so?

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