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Developing productive associates: Why the traditional annual review gets a FAIL!

If the goal is to develop the associates into productive—and profitable—attorneys, the traditional annual review is not enough. There need to be formal reviews twice during the year. And more, there needs to be continuous feedback in the meantime.

Many firms have moved away from the lockstep approach of pushing associates up the partnership ladder based on years of service. The focus has shifted to showing the associates how to develop their careers.

Two are far better than one

A single annual review does nothing but leave the associates hung out to dry for the rest of the year. Worse, it can leave the firm with people unknowingly doing unacceptable work. Change that to a formal review every six months that shows the associates where they need improvement as well as where they excel. What gets covered depends to a great extent on the practice area, but the overall areas to evaluate are these.

• General legal skills. Look at the work the associate has done in terms of whether it is organized and sufficiently detailed and whether it covers the arguments adequately. Evaluate too the quality of the research. For the more senior associates, look at their ability to supervise the work of junior associates.

• Skill in the practice area. This covers the written and oral mastery of the area of law. Does the associate stay on top of developments in the area? Is there practical application of the law to the clients’ situations?

• Interpersonal and behavioral skills. What counts here is the interaction with the partners and senior associates as well as with the clients, expert witnesses, and opposing counsel. Review how well the attorney accepts feedback and is willing to make recommended changes. Cover too whether the associate takes the initiative to do more than just the work assigned.

• Networking and marketing skills. With networking, look at how well the associate is developing business contacts and referral sources and whether those sources are sending client prospects. With marketing, review how often the associate is writing articles, getting quoted in publications, speaking at conferences, and participating in seminars. Along with that, make sure the associate is bringing in the types of clients the firm wants to represent.

Plus report cards in-between

Between the six-month reviews, there need to be interim reviews at the completion of each significant assignment. They are informal but guided discussions with the attorney in charge of the assignment or with the associate’s mentor. They can take place over the phone, in the office, or even driving back from the courthouse. Instead of rattling off an evaluation of the performance on the assignment, the attorney asks questions such as

  • What did you learn from this assignment?
  • How do you think it went?
  • What do you think you did well?
  • What do you think you can do better next time?

Then the attorney answers the same questions, and the two discuss whatever differences appear. Those interim reviews are what develop the associates into the type of attorneys the firm wants. They also make the formal evaluations fair, because they show the associates their mistakes and weaknesses and give them an opportunity to improve.

A sentence, not a number

You can consider making three more breaks with tradition. The first is to make the six-month review written and subjective, not a numbers game. Too many evaluations are just a matter of checking off boxes and getting papers off the desk, and all the employee gets is a number rating. To benefit from its associates, the firm has to give them guidance.

The associates need to see in writing what the firm thinks of their work and what changes it wants to see. If the reviewing partner doesn’t have time to write that out, his advice is for the practice area leader or the associate’s mentor to talk with the partner about the review findings and write down the details.

Not a partnership indicator

The second break from tradition is to separate the reviews from the partnership path. Make it clear to the associates that the reviews are being given to help them develop into top attorneys, not to show them where they stand on the ladder to partnership. With partnership-focused reviews, the calendar turns and the associates know they are moving up to the next level. But far more profitable to the firm is a partnership path that requires performance, not time. Tying the reviews to partnership kicks out the associates who aren’t partnership material but who nevertheless do good work and can benefit the firm. Neither does it do anything to benefit the associates who don’t have any desire to be partners.

An unusual beginning

The third recommendation for non-tradition is to start the review process by asking the associates for advice – ask them what they need from the firm to be successful. Talk with them as a group or set up a committee to discuss the issue and make recommendations. Ask if the kind of work they are getting will help their performance three to five years hence. Ask if they feel adequately trained in their practice areas. Ask if they are getting good mentoring. Unless the firm knows where its own guidance is lacking, it can scarcely expect them to fall into the model of what it considers good performance.

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