Performance reviews needn’t be an ordeal; rather, with the proper preparation and attitude, they can be an opportunity for mapping out your path to career success. Virtually all attorneys from junior associate to senior partner have some sort of evaluation, even if it is only part of the annual compensation-setting process. With the tight economy over the past few years, evaluations have been used by some firms to squeeze out under-utilized associates and underperforming partners, thus increasing pre-evaluation angst. Use the following four strategies to make the most of your performance review:
1. Understand the process. Determine the details for your particular firm: how often and when the reviews are performed, whose imput is considered, who will be conducting the review, and what criteria are considered. The best time to ask about performance reviews is when you first join an organization either as an entry-level or lateral hire. If you did not do so at the time, ask now. If your firm uses an evaluation form, request a copy.
Most reviews include both objective and subjective criteria. A typical evaluation might include scrutiny of billable hours, write-downs or write-offs, pro bono work, time spent and contribution to firm committees and administration, and outside professional or community activities. Quality and complexity of work (legal analysis, writing) the ability to handle major projects, organizational skills, demonstrated ability or potential to attract business, and special practice or technical expertise typically are evaluated. Subjective qualities such as leadership, management abilities, team skills, commitment to the firm, judgment, and partnership potential also are assessed. For associates, many firms have a formal or informal expectation that particular experience or skills will have been mastered by certain seniority milestones. Do your best to ascertain the firm’s expectations so that you can evaluate your own progress and proactively manage your career to meet and exceed them.
2. Keep a “me file”. Record your accomplishments, tasks and skills mastered, examples of your progress, published articles, presentations, any commendations or awards, and copies of previous performance reviews. For associates, after completing each major project, ask for written feedback if possible, not only for your file, but also so that you can constantly monitor your progress and make adjustments before any significant problems develop. Include any negative feedback or events in your file, as well, so that you can anticipate responses if they are brought up in your review.
Go through your file periodically, especially before your review, as part of an honest self-evaluation of your growth as an attorney. Write a statement of your strengths and weaknesses at this point in your career, comment on your progress since your last review evaluating how you met, missed, or exceeded the goals you set for yourself at that time, and what you would like to improve in the future. Do not either under- or over-state yourself. Also, assess how you compare with others at your level, especially those who are considered by the firm to be successful. Take your written self-evaluation and “me file” which should substantiate it, with you to your performance review.
3. Listen carefully and objectively. During the review itself, if you do not understand any aspect of the evaluation, ask questions (non-defensively). Take notes. If, once you are absolutely clear about what your review says, you believe that the assessment is not entirely fair, take a deep breath and calmly state your belief that your performance should merit a different assessment. Do not deny or argue. Using your “me file”, ask whether they had taken all of your accomplishments into consideration. It may have been quite a while since your last formal review, and perhaps not every attorney with whom you worked since then had input into the evaluation. If you have available other specific information which you believe would lead to a more favorable conclusion, calmly state your case.
4. Create a personal development plan. If it is not already part of the review process, towards the end of the session, ask for assistance in devising a plan with specific goals and steps to achieve them by your next review. Write them down and have your reviewer sign it. The goal-setting step is important even if your review was excellent, and especially so if it was less than stellar. You want to demonstrate your commitment to developing further as a lawyer and contributing to the future success future of the firm. Once you have established specific goals or skills to acquire or improve upon, ask for the tools, training, and support you will need to accomplish them. If your review was not stellar, you might want to request an earlier re-review to ensure that you are on track. Demonstrating that you can take criticism well and turn it around is a very positive career statement.
Good or bad, your performance review is a learning opportunity. By monitoring your own progress vis-à-vis the goals established at your performance review, you can be confident that your career is progressing in accordance with the firm’s and your desires. If not, you will have the information necessary to plan your next move.