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Evaluating Your Evaluation: 5 Ways to Improve Your Performance Reviews

by Ryan Anderson

on 28 December, 2018

Hey supervising attorneys: your staff evaluations might not be up to snuff. Consider this your first warning. Here are some ways to do performance reviews right.


 

“It’s brutally hard to tell people when they are screwing up,” writes executive Kim Smith in her book Radical Candor. She continues:

“You don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings; that’s because you’re not a sadist. You don’t want that person or the rest of the team to think you’re a jerk. Plus, you’ve been told since you learned to talk, ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.’ Now all of a sudden it’s your job to say it. You’ve got to undo a lifetime of training. Management is hard.”

 

And management is particularly hard for lawyers, who have to squeeze their management activity in between a full load of litigation and client care — with little or no training on how to be a boss.

The result is that lawyers can be, in attorney/blawger Stephen Furnari’s term, “horrible bosses.” He notes that law schools ignore the essential skills of training, supervising, and motivating employees. “For better or worse,” Furnari writes,

“We live in a world where high billable hours and business organizations are king. If the high salary you are being paid is not enough to keep you happy or motivated, then go get a degree in social work. In our world, we do not seem to place much value on keeping employees motivated and happy. It’s just not a priority.”

The more delicate skills we might dismiss as “social work” are especially relevant when it comes to performance reviews. Hiring and training a new staff person — or putting up with someone who does their job badly — is a tremendous waste of resources. In Furnari’s words: “human capital is a law firm’s single biggest expense and improving management skills can have a material, long-lasting effect on a firm’s profitability.”

To improve workplace culture and profitability, here are the top 5 ways attorneys mess up evaluations, and some tactics to make it right again:


 

Bad Practice 1: Not Having Regular Evaluations

The first way to screw up evaluations is to not have them or have them irregularly and infrequently.

There are reasons for this avoidance. A stunning 95% of all managers are dissatisfied with formal performance reviews. 90% of HR professionals are skeptical about their accuracy or usefulness. And those on the receiving side of reviews are filled with stress about the entire endeavor.

When you’re already busy, the easiest thing to brush off the schedule is the task that everyone hates already.

But inside the bathwater of bad performance reviews sits this baby: it is crucial that you take time to meet with employees and discuss goals, set expectations, and talk through problems. Don’t throw all of that out.

In the tips below, we’ll cover ways to make evals more pleasant experiences for everyone. But first, here’s the truth: workers like feedback. Workers need feedback. This is especially true with younger workers — Millennials in particular thrive on regular feedback.

That’s because they know your feelings about their work are going to affect them, whether you speak it or not. It’s far better to have your thoughts out in the open than to give your employee a nagging sense that their boss disapproves of them.

And how about when you avoid criticism only to have it explode later on? Managing partners bottle up their disappointment and resentment about an employee’s bad behavior … until one trivial mistake causes it to detonate. Avoidance followed by overreaction makes bosses look arbitrary, irrational, and weak.

attorneys are also bosses

So give feedback and schedule regular evaluations. When you delay or avoid them, you’re not actually helping anyone. You’re short-changing your high-performing staff members, who need to hear more affirmation and have a better sense of how they can reach their own career goals, and you’re keeping low-performing staff in a state of perpetual anxiety, in the murk of unknown expectations.


 

Bad Practice 2: Over-criticism

Attorneys are good at criticism: it’s needed for their job. As Daniel B. Evans puts it, the very skills useful in tearing down an opponent’s brief “can produce disasters while managing a law firm.” Because lawyers are “[t]rained to identify problems, they do so at every opportunity, whether or not it is appropriate.”

Maybe this is why sideswipes and scorchers are so central to legal culture. Furnari writes:

“As a profession, abuse and humiliation seem to be an acceptable part of our culture. From the very first time you are embarrassed in front of your law school classmates by a professor, to getting dressed down by an irate judge, to being largely reviled by a large portion of the general public, lawyers tend to have a high tolerance for abuse. If you don’t, you will not stay in the practice long enough to be in a position to manage others.”

But just because you signed up for abuse and humiliation doesn’t mean your secretary did. For those steeped in this aspect of lawyer culture, it will take work to create an encouraging, pleasant work environment for employees.

And the evaluation process is a perfect place to begin.

Staff can be squeamish about evaluations because too often they’re used merely to tell employees to shape up, as curmudgeonly attorneys practice their Simon-from-American-Idol impersonation.

But get your Simon-practice elsewhere. Because while evaluations are a space to communicate problems, they’re much more than that. Their most important function, which you should make clear to your staff, is to work together to set out clear goals and expectations — which include establishing a vision for promotions, pay raises, and other goals that might motivate your staff.

If your focus is only criticism, you’ll be devaluing the worth of good employees — and reducing the chances of improvement in employees with problems.


 

Bad Practice 3: Vagueness

Whether it’s praise or criticism, vagueness serves no one. It’s like the last day of 9th grade when your crush wrote “stay cool have a good summer” in your yearbook. Just insulting.

In the same way, avoid evaluations that tell someone they’re “dependable” or that they “have a bad attitude.” Be specific about things they have done, and how you want them to continue or change that behavior in the future.

One route to specificity is through metrics. When you have measurable outcomes and behaviors, you can conduct your review from a foundation of objective outcomes, instead of gut feelings. Not only will you make better decisions about your employees, but they’re more likely to trust your conclusions. They know that gut feelings are liable to be hijacked by prejudices or personal preference — but if done right, the numbers don’t lie.

Keeping these metrics is easy when it’s built into the case management system. Without any additional data-entry work, you can find the financial outcomes of their work, and compare it to their colleagues.

With additional tools, like Filevine Periscope, you can hone in on the specifics of behaviors and accomplishments. You can see how often they’re engaging with case files, communicating with clients, and completing tasks.

Metrics also provide concrete documentation should it be necessary to let someone go.

Whatever your technology, be sure that you’re specific about your criteria of good performance, long before the actual review. Instead of the standard five-point spectrum from ‘Excellent’ to ‘Needs Improvement’ on each issue, take time to define what each category means. Legal administrator Christine Hashemi explains that 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.

These clear standards mean that your employees will get specific feedback, rather than one vague word. It will also mean that you’ll think more carefully about how they’re really doing on each category, and be more likely to be prepared with specific examples of how they’re doing poorly or well.


 

Bad Practice 4: Saving it for Once a Year

It’s just fine for Christmas music and Cadbury eggs to be restricted to once a year. But feedback must be more frequent than that. Saving feedback for the yearly performance review is like believing that you can win a case with only a great closing argument.

Employees will be much more motivated if they hear positive feedback regularly. And when it comes to criticism, the yearly evaluation should never be the first time an employee hears you have a problem with their work. Rather than surprising them with bad news as the evaluation, give them feedback early, in a relaxed way, with clear descriptions of how it can be done better, and adequate resources to do so. You’ll be able to improve most employee’s work earlier on, and it will be easier to spot the employees who refuse to adjust and need to be fired.

attorney employee evaluation tips

Regular feedback in legal culture is rare. Furnari writes:

“Whether managing attorneys or being managed by other attorneys, I had no expectation to give or receive praise. If I wasn’t hassling someone (or being hassled) to get the work done, things were good. That’s a pretty low threshold in terms of managerial competence.”

HR attorney Jill Swtizer describes the typical performance review like this: the manager saves up all complaints and concerns until review day, only to unleash it on an unsuspecting employee. Switzer writes:

“Talk about a lack of due process, talk about the inability to correct problems during the course of the year, talk about the unfairness of a process that left the employee marching to HR after the review to complain.”

Following the review were days, weeks, or months of fallout, as HR investigated the concerns and arrived at their conclusion. Switzer asks “Wouldn’t it have been so much easier if there had been conversations during the year about what needed to improve?”

With this in mind, some law firms are radically reshaping their review process. Biglaw firm Hogan Lovells has moved to “flash feedback,” which provides three instances of feedback over four months.

While Switzer applauds the more frequent, informal performance check-ins, she worries it comes with a risk. If firms don’t adequately document their evaluations, people can be promoted or fired without clear explanations or paper trails — which could create more workplace insecurity and HR complaints.

While informal, frequent feedback is crucial, it should be accompanied with clear metrics and documentation.


 

Bad Practice 5: Failing to Listen

Finally, the evaluation is the perfect time to show legal staff that you’re interested in their perspective on their work within the broader context of your firm’s operations. What are their concerns working here? What are their professional goals and what do they need from you in the upcoming year to reach them?

In Kim Smith’s book Radical Candor she writes that one thing bosses can listen for is employee motivations. They shouldn’t assume it’s the same for everyone. While some employees are high-powered rock stars that want perpetual upward mobility, there are other great employees who desire the stability of their current role, and only desire to do that job better. Once you understand this, you can save the rapid promotions for the rock stars, and reward the stable rocks with improved salary or benefits while letting them stay in place.

Employee responses also might help you step back from their specific performance to see the big picture of their work. If they can’t get their briefs written on time, that might simply be their failure — or maybe it’s because they’re doing the work of three people, or because one of your partners doesn’t give them information early enough.

Stephen Furnari writes:

“Good managers can do two simple things: listen to their employees and think before they act. Simple, really. But when you’re constantly working in reactionary mode, often in an adversarial environment, taking the time to listen and think before acting isn’t always easy. As a result, the staff suffers.”

All of these tips come down to one truth: a performance review isn’t just about the employee under scrutiny. It’s also a chance to review your role as a boss, and evaluate the wider culture of your workplace.

The way you have these conversations can do more than reward or punish specific employees: they can help create a culture of trust, accountability, and respect among your legal team.