Working Smart: Early Steps to Take for a Better End-of-Year Review

Working Smart: Early Steps to Take for a Better End-of-Year Review

by Valerie Fontaine
Special to
May 2, 2011

Time flies when you're having fun! The first four months of 2011 have flown by and, if you're working smarter rather than just harder, you should be having more fun. This series began with New Year's resolutions for whipping your career into better shape. Did you keep them? Or, like most people, have you fallen off the wagon? The close of the first quarter is a good time for a mini-review and adjustment, if necessary, before the year slips away. First, we'll flesh out the last two resolutions: how you can prepare for your end-of-year performance and compensation evaluation to maximize the return on your efforts, and writing a personal development plan to keep moving ahead. Then, we'll check your progress so far with those pesky resolutions.


Performance reviews needn't be an ordeal; rather, with proper preparation and attitude, they can be an opportunity for mapping your path to career success. Virtually all attorneys -- from junior associate to senior partner -- have some sort of evaluation, even if it's only part of the annual compensation-setting process. In a tight economy, some firms use these reviews to squeeze out underutilized associates and underperforming partners, thus increasing pre-evaluation angst.

1. Understand the process. Determine the procedure at your particular firm: when, how often, who has input, what criteria is used, who conducts the review and which behaviors earn rewards when it's time to adjust compensation. The best time to ask these questions is when you first join an organization either as an entry-level or lateral hire. If you didn't 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, contribution to firm committees and administration, and outside professional or community activities. Also considered are quality and complexity of work performed (legal analysis, writing), the ability to handle major projects, organizational skills, demonstrated ability or potential to attract business and special practice or technical expertise. Subjective qualities often assessed include leadership, management abilities, team skills, commitment to the firm, judgment and partnership potential.

For associates, many firms have expectations -- whether formal or informal -- that associates obtain specific experience or master particular skills based on milestones. In fact, some law firms abandoned traditional lock-step class year designations for compensation and partnership consideration. Rather, associates divide into "bands" depending on their "core competencies." Do your best to ascertain your firm's expectations so you can evaluate your progress and proactively manage your career to meet and exceed them.

2. Review your "me file." Go through your personal portfolio 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, noting progress since your last review. Evaluate how you met, missed or exceeded the goals you and the firm set for yourself, and what you would like to improve in the future. Pay special attention to any negative feedback and steps you have taken to address it, as well, so you can anticipate responses if the previous feedback is brought up in your review. Don't under- or over-state yourself. Also, assess how you compare with others at your level, especially those considered successful by the firm. Bring your written self-evaluation, and selected items from your "me file" that substantiate the self-evaluation, to your performance review.

3. Listen carefully and objectively. During the review itself, if you don't understand any aspect of the evaluation, ask questions (non-defensively). Take notes. If, once you are clear about what your review says, you believe that the assessment is not entirely fair, calmly state your belief that your performance should merit a different assessment. Don't deny or argue. Using your "me file," ask whether they took 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 has weighed in on the evaluation.

Good or bad, your performance review and compensation evaluation is a learning opportunity. If it was positive, you can be confident your career is progressing in accordance with the firm's and your desires. If not, you'll have the information necessary to plan your next move.


If it's not already part of the review process, toward the end of the session, ask for assistance in devising a plan with specific goals and steps to achieve them by your next review. The goal-setting step is important even if your evaluation 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 of the firm. Once you establish specific goals or skills to acquire or improve upon, ask for the tools, training and support needed to accomplish them. If your review wasn't stellar, request an earlier re-review to ensure you're on track. Demonstrating you can take criticism and turn it around is a positive career statement.


How you are doing so far with the New Year's resolutions we suggested in January?

1. Maximize your hours worked -- are you spending your time and effort when and where it matters most?

2. Create a niche -- have you developed a specialization to differentiate yourself from the pack?

3. Promote yourself -- are you marketing yourself and your skills within your organization to demonstrate and articulate why you are an indispensable team member?

4. Manage perceptions -- have you taken responsibility for shaping the positive perceptions you want others to have about you?

5. Boost your business acumen -- do you have what it takes to think like a businessperson, in addition to thinking like a lawyer?

6. Fine-tune your people skills -- can you get along and communicate with clients, superiors, colleagues, junior attorneys, paralegals and others in order to attract new business and be someone people want to work with and for?

7. Build a mentor network -- do you have a variety of mentors, with a range of backgrounds and strengths so that you can call upon the right person at the right time, as well as a sponsor to advocate for your career advancement?

8. Create a "me file" -- are the materials to document your skills and development saved and organized for easy access?

9. Ace your performance or compensation review -- are you and the firm on the same wavelength regarding your progress and rewards?

10. Write your personal development plan -- do you know where you want to go and how to get there? By monitoring your own progress vis-a-vis the goals established at your performance review, writing a personal development plan and doing your best to keep all of your New Year's resolutions, you'll whip your career into shape.

Read other articles in the "Working Smart" series:

  1. Working Smart: Resolve to Work Smarter, Not Harder, This Year
  2. Working Smart: Finding Your Niche
  3. Working Smart: Promote Yourself
  4. Working Smart: Managing Perceptions and Your Reputation
  5. Working Smart: Boosting Your Business Acumen
  6. Working Smart: Playing Well With Others
  7. Working Smart: Create a Mentor Network
  8. Working Smart: It's All About a 'Me File'
  9. Working Smart: Early Steps to Take for a Better End-of-Year Review