We enjoy giving our readers the occasional peek behind the Biglaw curtain. Last month, for example, we shared with you the internal interview manual that Sullivan & Cromwell provides to its attorneys who conduct on-campus interviews at law schools.

Today, in a similar spirit, we take an inside look at the annual review process for attorneys at Skadden Arps. We’re into the fourth quarter of 2011, so these reviews are not far away.

In this special report, we’ll provide general observations on the Skadden review process, highlight noteworthy comments from leaked attorney evaluations, and show you a few reviews in their entirety (redacted to remove lawyer and client names). This information should interest Biglaw associates who want to know what partners look for junior lawyers, and it should also appeal to partners at other firms who want ideas on how to structure annual reviews.

If you’re interested in learning more about performance reviews at one of the world’s biggest and best law firms, please keep reading….

This analysis is based on the 2010 reviews for Skadden’s antitrust department. As you may recall, last year a Skadden partner accidentally emailed the collected attorney reviews, for both associates and counsel, to the entire department. It took a while, but this very interesting document eventually found its way to our inbox. (The time lag between the unintentional dissemination of the reviews and the post you’re now reading does make it safer for us to run this story; note that some of the reviewed lawyers may no longer be at the firm.)

Here is what the Skadden review form for 2010 looked like:

Attorney Name (2009 rating was ____ [e.g., Exceptional, Very Good, Meets Expectations])

Chargeable Hours: ____ actual hours in 2009; ____ actual YTD hours through 10/31/10.

Docket: [Description of matters handled by the attorney.]

Evaluations: [Overall comments from partners who have worked with the attorney, done Zagat-style, with direct quotations from feedback forms.]

Strengths: [Positive comments from partners.]

Weaknesses: [Negative comments from partners.]

Additional Training: [Areas where the attorney could use additional exposure.]

Partnership Potential: [Whether the attorney is in the running for partnership (or even wants to be).]

Review Message: [What the attorney was told about his or her performance.]

Upward Feedback Report: [What the attorney's junior colleagues had to say about his or her performance.]

Associate’s Career Development Plan: [What the attorney will focus on in the year ahead.]

After reading the reviews, about 50 in all, I reached a few overall conclusions:

  • Performance over pedigree: The evaluations were all about the quality of the lawyer’s work product. They did not mention the attorney’s law school, academic honors, clerkships, or similar biographical information. Credentials may help you get a job at Skadden, but once you’re there, it’s all about the work that you do.
  • Strict meritocracy: In a similar vein, the evaluations did not discuss diversity considerations in any detail. There was not, for example, any mention of the need to name additional female or minority partners, or any reference to clients seeking diverse teams to work on their matters (which we know some clients have been doing). (Of course, avoiding such sensitive subjects in written reviews is understandable, given the trend of employment discrimination lawsuits being filed against law firms.)
  • Seniority matters: Not surprisingly, the reviews of more-senior associates and counsel were far more detailed and substantive than reviews of junior associates. As a junior associate, you really just want to stay on track (i.e., not screw up). It seems hard to truly excel and distinguish yourself as a junior; some of the junior associate reviews were quite perfunctory.
  • Pro bono matters: I was pleasantly surprised by how often pro bono work was mentioned in the reviews, both in terms of praise for associates who work on pro bono matters and for the training opportunities provided by pro bono cases. Skadden doesn’t have a reputation as a warm and fuzzy law firm, but SASMF partners apparently see significant value to pro bono work. (Note also the firm’s support of public interest work through the Skadden Fellowships.)
  • Billable hours: I was surprised by how few of the lawyers racked up more than 2000 hours in 2009 (the last full year for which hours data was available). A fair number were in the 1800-hour range, including some with very positive reviews, and others were below even that level. Is antitrust a low-billing practice area? Was antitrust work down along with deal flow in 2009? I find it hard to believe that Skadden is a low-billing firm. UPDATE (10:35 AM): A commenter points out that the reviews speak in terms of “chargeable” hours rather than “billable” hours, which may explain the low numbers, at least in part.
  • Not up or out: The antitrust department seems to have a high number of counsels — about 10 of them at the time of these reviews, compared to around 40 associates. Some of these counsels have been at the firm for a long time (well over 10 years). So this doesn’t seem to be an “up or out” system, where you’re shown the door (or head for it voluntarily) if you don’t make partner. Is this a Skadden thing, or an antitrust thing? (I’m not very familiar with antitrust as a practice area, so I welcome enlightenment from readers and commenters.)

That’s about it in terms of general observations. Check out the subsequent pages for (1) specific comments from evaluations that struck me as interesting and (2) selected individual attorney reviews, redacted to remove attorney and client names.

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