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The role of performance reviews in law firms needs to change to better develop legal professionals.

Modernising performance reviews in law firms to improve professional development

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Traditionally speaking, performance management and employee development are supposed to go hand-in-hand, with the former leading to the latter. But it is becoming increasingly apparent that the classic performance management processes such as annual reviews are failing to live up to that expectation. A growing body of evidence suggests that these methods are becoming out-dated. Meanwhile, personal development continues to be a vital concern to professionals working in a variety of sectors, not least of which are law firms.

Many young lawyers today are facing the issue of trying to be proactive about their professional development in a sector where their employers (typically partners) are often too busy to take much of an active role in the personal, long-term development goals of people below them, as much as they might wish to. This issue was highlighted by one of The Lawyer’s own Career Clinic articles from 2018, How Can I Ensure My Law Firm Takes My Career Development Seriously?

The shortcomings of old-fashioned performance management

When the name of the game is personal career improvement, one of the keys is great feedback that is accurate, relevant and timely. But this is often not the case, especially with annually scheduled performance appraisals, when feedback is retrospective, often no longer relevant and often not all that accurate. Given that the vast majority of HR professionals don’t believe their company’s review procedures provide effective feedback, as surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management, something clearly has to change.

Performance reviews in the law firms are still largely very traditional in their approach.

As well as being fairly time-consuming, these reviews tend to be a great source of stress that damages employee productivity. A study by Adobe found that one in three millennial-aged professionals had cried after a performance review and that two thirds would change to a job with no formal review process in place, even if the job level and rate of pay were the same. Additionally, Adobe found that 80% of all office workers surveyed would prefer to get feedback in the moment rather than wait for their annual or quarterly review.

In his article, ‘Associate Job Reviews Are Usually A Big Waste Of Time’, US lawyer Jordan Rothman discussed his own experience going through the review process during his time at various firms. He drew attention to some of the issues we have already touched upon, namely that the review processes were time-consuming for all involved, and often ran counter to the schedules of busy partners, often resulting in his being reviewed by people who were available but had not worked with him.

‘It is extremely demoralizing if partners who don’t oversee your work conduct reviews, and if no specific examples of both good and bad work are discussed at the meeting.  If managers want to have meaningful attorney reviews, and not just check a box to feel good about themselves, they need to put in some effort and show associates that they take the review process seriously. […] During many of my reviews, partners who I did not work with would simply relate that I had a good attitude and was liked around the office.  Such comments are not useful at all when trying to improve as a law professional, and reviews should be conducted by people who are most familiar with your work. ’

Weekly10 has streamlined our performance appraisal process. We’re now having conversations based on real-evidence making our sit downs more targeted and impactful.

James Nutt – Mr Fothergill’s

But of course, partners are incredibly busy, as you’d expect from a firm’s top fee-earners. So the question isn’t how can partners make more time for performance reviews, but instead, how can the review process be modernised to help everyone involved to engage effectively?

Modern approaches to professional development

The first thing that needs to go is any over-reliance on the annual performance review. With the vast majority of surveyed office professionals wishing to receive feedback at the time when it is actually relevant, it’s clear that a more consistent and timely means of performance management is needed. Shorter, more regularly scheduled performance management sessions stand to improve professional development by giving timely feedback with regular check-ins to monitor progress.

There is also a clear need in law firms for diversified feedback, especially when partners are often too busy to be frequently involved. So-called 360° feedback may be a solution. This is where an associate can receive feedback from a variety of sources, such as other associates, different levels of partner they may have worked with, paralegals and even those outside the firm such as suppliers or, where appropriate, clients. If implemented in the right way, this style of feedback could even work in chambers, where clerks work with a host of barristers who are typically self-employed. This could also prevent associates from being solely assessed by people who don’t know their work, as feedback can come from a variety of sources the associate has actually interacted with, thus taking some of the pressure off of partners.

Performance reviews in law firms are often ineffective in shaping the future behaviours and performance of staff.

Given that one of the most cumbersome aspects of traditional performance review methods can be the sitting down to have a scheduled meeting, it follows that evaluations would be well supported via a digital platform aimed at gathering feedback, such as Weekly10.  Weekly10 negates the reliance on setting up frequent meeting times to catch and mean check-ins and reviews can be prepared extremely quickly, pulling in a host of accurate data, allowing partners to be more consistently involved in a much more time-effective and habitual manner.

Another benefit to these digital platforms is their use of OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) along with the feedback process. These smart objectives help to align an associate’s professional development aims with the firm’s long-term goals. Used in conjunction with frequent check-ins, OKRs provide extremely useful insight into how everyone involved is contributing to the firm’s overall productivity, week by week. Additionally, the ability to recognise and mention specific people in your own review posts allows people to thank each other for their contributions, increasing employee productivity via positive reinforcement.

More and more firms every day are re-evaluating how they conduct performance evaluation, and many of those are going digital. For example, in 2017, Hogan Lovells made the change to using a digital review platform designed in-house. According to Allison Friend, their Chief HR Officer in the Americas, ‘Instead of being evaluated once a year, our lawyers now have a process for getting thoughtful input as frequently as they want in order to improve and develop their skills. This new approach helps associates develop the skills they need to be successful at the firm, or wherever their career path takes them.’

If you feel it is time your law firm was looking at a more effective approach to performance management (and answers around the hot topic question “how to improve our employee engagement”) then why take a closer look at Weekly10 with one of our demo options?

Is it time to improve your approach to performance management?

Research Associate