Question: Our law firm has tried many different formats for performance reviews, but often we find we are doing reviews just to do reviews. In most cases, it’s merely a repeat of the year before. Do you feel annual reviews are worthwhile? What is the best format?
Michael S. Cohen: Performance appraisals do matter! I cannot emphasize enough the importance of continuing to conduct appraisals both for lawyers and staff. They give the firm many benefits, including:
- Providing another opportunity to establish expectations.
- Establishing benchmarks for subsequent distinctions (e.g., partnership, promotion).
- Communicating deficiencies in performance, attendance, behavior or attitude.
I find that the problem with appraisals lies not with the process itself, but rather with the implementation of the process. The firm must take the process seriously and require all of its “appraising” partners and managers to take the time and pay the attention necessary to provide thoughtful, helpful appraisals. Because the process is not necessarily intuitive to a law firm’s partners and managers, many firms train their appraisers. Training not only focuses on how to draft the documents, but also—as or more importantly—the benefits associated with drafting appraisals and the very real risks related to poorly drafted ones.
Some Common Pitfalls
There are some common pitfalls that can undermine the good the firm is trying to do with appraisals. Some of the most frequent mistakes I see include:
- Late evaluation (which tells the employee the firm doesn’t care).
- Over-evaluation (which devalues the excellence of good employees and reduces the likelihood of a poor performer’s improvement).
- Evaluation that focuses on the cause of deficiencies rather than the deficiencies themselves.
- Evaluation that focuses on intent rather than outcome.
Michael S. Cohen is a partner in the Employment, Labor, Benefits and Immigration Practice Group of Duane Morris’ Philadelphia office. Michael focuses his practice in the areas of training and counseling. He has conducted over 150 trainings in the last year and is a highly ranked ALA speaker. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Christine Hashemi: Annual reviews are indeed worthwhile. If nothing else, they remind you on a yearly basis that you should be providing your employees with essential feedback. The format should allow for true communication. I prefer fully defined levels of response. Instead of a standard grade curve of “Superior, Good, Average, Fair, Poor,” each category of the review should list three to five responses specifically designed for that category. For example, if the category is “Work Product Quality,” the available responses could be:
- Finished work product is always ready for client’s eyes.
- Work product is usually of high quality.
- Work product sometimes needs additional revisions.
- Work product often needs correction.
- Work product is rarely complete and requires multiple corrections.
By using specifically defined responses to categories, employees are able to get truly specific feedback rather than a vague “Good” check mark.
Even better than annual reviews, however, is an ongoing, year-round performance feedback process. I always recommend to our attorneys and managers that they engage in frequent “check-ins” with their employees about the job they’re doing. If they have constructive comments to aid staff in improving performance, supervisors should be sharing it as it comes up rather than waiting until months later, perhaps after bad habits have already been formed. In addition, employees should always be empowered to approach attorneys and managers with questions or concerns. These ongoing conversations can do a lot to assist the whole team in functioning with better cohesion and high-quality production.
Christine Hashemi is the Administrator for Pryor Johnson Carney Karr Nixon, P.C. in Greenwood Village, Colorado. She has worked in legal administration and human resources for 15 years, has been a member of the Mile High (Denver) Chapter of the Association of Legal Administrators for more than 10 years and currently serves as Vice President of the Chapter.
Renee Mahovsky: The debate over the real value of the annual law firm performance reviews and appraisals rages on. Human resources professionals will contend there is a need for a formal paper trail because documentation is critical when making employment decisions like promotions, demotions and terminations. I myself am not a big fan of the conventional “annual” review, yet I know there is more value in the process outside of the paper trail. The value is in the communication between the employee and manager. This dialogue, however, should be taking place more often than annually. Making time for more regular appraisals allows contributions to be recognized and ensures alignment with firm goals on the individual level.
Law firm performance reviews ideally should be ongoing and not a once-a-year event. Continuous feedback is important and preferred by employees. Everyone enjoys a pat on the back for a job well done and being recognized formally. Frankly, I think we also want to know when our performance is lacking. It may be hard to hear but that is how real growth happens, giving us the opportunity to improve. So focus on building employee strengths in addition to working on their weaknesses.
One alternative approach to the traditional review is the “360-degree review.” In this process, an employee or manager receives feedback about his or her competencies from peers, supervisors, direct reports and even external customers. Obtaining constructive feedback from multiple sources, in addition to the traditional top-down evaluation, can provide for a more meaningful performance review.
So how often should performance discussions take place? I would suggest once a quarter, to engage employees regularly. Discuss and refine goals, ask employees about the challenges and obstacles they face, and find a way to help clear those obstacles. It’s all about communication and helping your firm’s number one asset (your people) grow, contribute and succeed.
Renee Mahovsky, PHR, is the Director of Administration and Operations for the Association of Legal Administrators. Prior to joining ALA in 1999, Renee served as Human Resource Specialist for Beloit Corporation. She received her B.A. in Management and Communications from Concordia University Wisconsin and is a certified Professional in Human Resources from the Society of Human Resource Management.
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