Biglaw, In-House Counsel, Partner Issues

Inside Straight: 360-Degree Reviews

360-degree reviews: We solicit anonymous input from your boss, your peers, and your subordinates. A reviewer goes through all of that information, discusses it with you, and, perhaps, shares with you documents containing parts or all of the anonymous responses.

These are remarkably helpful tools. They’re helpful, first, because you know that they’re coming. If you’re going to be evaluated by everyone in the neighborhood, then you’re more likely to be civilized and fair to everyone in the neighborhood. (“Civilized and fair” doesn’t mean “easy” or “letting others break the rules.” It means “civilized and fair.” If someone’s performance needs improving, you talk reasonably with that person about his or her weaknesses and how to improve. You don’t belittle people or scream at them, because incivility will surely come back to haunt you at 360-degree review time, and you know that 360-degree review time is lurking in your future.)

360-degree reviews are helpful because you critique others. It’s relatively easy — or, at least, routine — to be asked to critique folks situated beneath you in a hierarchy. But it’s a little different to be asked to critique folks who are situated horizontally or above you. When you’re asked to critique those people formally, it makes you think a little harder: What are those people doing right? What are they doing wrong? What information should they hear about their performance?

Because you’re forced to think about those topics, you become more sensitive to them. And, because everyone knows those topics will later be identified during reviews, you may be more willing to raise sensitive issues with your peers or your supervisors. (“I agree with you that Sally didn’t distinguish herself on that project. But, if I were you, I would have been a little gentler on her during the group meeting. She deserved the criticism, but don’t you think she also deserved the dignity of hearing the criticism privately?”) Intelligent peers and supervisors, aware that 360-degree review time is right around the corner, may be pleased to receive this type of feedback.

360-degree reviews do not simply sensitize you to, and perhaps make you more willing to speak about, these subjects. Those reviews also make you feel more engaged in your workplace. “The firm is asking me how my boss performs? That’s pretty cool. Who knew the institution cared?” The institution shows concern for employees by soliciting their input on important matters, and your relationship with your supervisors surely falls into that category.

I’ve heard (from a person who participated in these things) that some consulting firms use 360-degree reviews to inform partnership decisions. And, I’m told, those reviews are done the intelligent way: You select a reviewer who is truly disinterested. The reviewer is not located in the same office as the candidate for partnership and doesn’t work in the same practice area. The process thus reduces the parochialism that might otherwise infect partnership decisions: “We really need another corporate finance partner in Dallas this year. We haven’t had one in forever, and the associates are getting disheartened. Fred may not be the best candidate for partnership we’ve ever seen, but we should push hard for him so it doesn’t look like corporate finance is powerless here.”

The reviewer gathers the information, distills it, and presents it to the partnership committee. That provides a fairly comprehensive view of the candidate, may weed out some of the ogres, and alerts candidates in advance that the partnership decision will turn in part on the perceptions of folks horizontal to, or beneath, the candidate in the hierarchy. That can work wonders to create a more civilized workplace.

Many corporations use 360-degree reviews. At least some consulting (and other professional services) firms use them. But I’ve never heard of law firms using them, either annually or as part of the process for selecting partners. Perhaps some law firms do use them, and I simply haven’t heard. Perhaps law firms are uniquely protective of their partners’ egos, or uniquely concerned about infuriating a rainmaker and causing him to leave the firm because he’s been insulted by the review process. Or perhaps law firms in fact would not benefit from these reviews, for reasons not obvious to me.

In the corporate setting, however, we manage to conduct 360-degree reviews right up to the C-suites, and most folks seem pleased to receive feedback and delighted to participate in the process. Unless law firms are a truly unusual breed, they, too might consider using this management tool.

(Yeah, yeah: I know that you’re concerned about reviewers not respecting the pledge of anonymity. But you’re wrong. First, information can be solicited anonymously through a web-based tool administered by a third-party vendor. No one at your outfit would know who wrote what. Second, you must of course be smart when you evaluate others. If you say, “Partner Jones was a jerk when he screamed at me about my draft motion to dismiss in the IBM case,” then partner Jones will probably figure out who you are. But I suspect that you’re clever enough to avoid this problem. Finally, so long as the 360-degree review process is used to convey constructive criticism, rather than to vent hysterically about perceived wrongs, then most people will accept criticism in the spirit in which it was offered. You’d be surprised: I, and others, have been pleased to learn how those surrounding us in the corporate structure perceive our performance.)


Mark Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law (affiliate link). You can reach him by email at inhouse@abovethelaw.com.

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