Career Audit

The Value of Evaluations

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When he gives associates their annual per­for­­mance reviews, Portland, Ore., part­­ner Walter W. Karnstein looks to the future–the associates’ future.

“My goal, when I give that review, is to help them advance in their career, and I think it’s helpful if they realize that,” says Karnstein, who chairs the Practice Management Core Group of the ABA Law Practice Management Section.

“This isn’t us against them,” he adds. “This is me tell­ing you how you become one of us.”

If making partner is the associate’s goal, then few clues to success are more valuable than performance reviews–if the associate accepts them in the proper manner. “When you come out of that review, take that information and shape a plan,” says Jane Sullivan Roberts, who co-chairs the professional development committee at Shaw Pittman, a 400-lawyer firm based in Washington, D.C.

Setup for Success

Shaw Pittman has begun a program to help associates set what the firm describes as specific, measurable, achiev­able, realistic and timed–or SMART–goals. While the program is not yet formally linked to the firm’s evaluation process, Roberts expects associates who succeed at meeting these goals they voluntarily set for themselves will enhance their job performance and their reviews.

Roberts says associates should list strengths and weaknesses and short- and long-term goals, as well as specific steps to achieve them. Then, she suggests, they should seek out a senior lawyer other than the evaluator who is willing to talk about the plan and advise them.

Ironically, part of the problem with gaining such information is getting partners to give it. “I think the biggest failing that many firms have with their evaluations is that partners are unwilling to take the time to evaluate, or else they just don’t want to evaluate certain individuals,” says Joel A. Rose, who runs a law firm management consulting firm in suburban Phila­delphia.

“Any time when they have these evaluations, partners try to gloss over some unpleasant things that need to be discussed,” Rose says. “For any number of reasons, they just don’t do it.”

A reluctance to address issues directly, however, benefits neither the firm nor the associate, Rose says.

So, if partners aren’t willing to take the bull by the horns, it’s up to associates to do so, Roberts says. “You might go into your review with certain questions in mind, asking your reviewer to help you identify your strengths and your challenges and your opportunities, within the firm and elsewhere.” Also ask what, specifically, you need to do to improve, she recommends.

If you are already expecting certain criticisms, “explanations aren’t worth much,” and probably are best avoided, Karnstein says. Instead, outline the steps you are taking to address the problem.

Some avant-garde firms have reversed the equation, seeking more feedback from associates, Rose says. Many even ask associates to evaluate themselves, on the same form that partners use, to make sure both sides are heard from in the review process.

Associates at firms that don’t have such programs might ask a friendly partner to give them a copy of the evaluation form to get an idea of what will be discussed, Rose suggests. Or, if they don’t feel comfortable bringing up the subject, sam­ple forms can be obtained on the Internet or from the National Associ­ation for Law Placement.

The bottom line, Karn­stein says, is that associates appreciate how critical it is to present themselves professionally during the evaluation “to be balanced and respectful and friendly in their demeanor” and to demon­strate “a willingness to take direction, a desire to do a good job.”

Adds Karnstein, “If someone gets confrontational or starts crying or gets defensive, it probably is going to have the effect that you’d expect. … It’s going to harm the purpose of the review.

“The better you’re able to communicate,” he adds, the more your reviewer will be “understanding or accepting … of whatever your strengths or failures are.”

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