Biglaw, In-House Counsel

Inside Straight: Setting Performance Objectives

Do law firms set performance objectives for their lawyers?

I worked at two different law firms over the course of 25 years, and I remember only one meeting where anyone sat down and talked with me about setting performance objectives. We set the objectives; no one ever followed up to see whether I’d achieved them; and the rest was silence.

Perhaps some firms regularly set performance objectives for lawyers, but that was nothing I’d experienced before I moved in-house.

Many corporate law departments set performance objectives for in-house lawyers, and many people do this poorly. “Setting objectives” is viewed as an annual chore inflicted on the supervisor that he cannot ignore; the computer system keeps nagging him about it and ratting him out to others up the ranks. The supervisor finally relents and types a few objectives into the system: “Meet budget. Work closely with business units. Negotiate alternative fee agreements.”

Now that’s out of your hair, and no one will bother you until next year.

Or, if you preferred, you could do it right . . .

What is a good performance objective?

It has five characteristics. First, a good performance objective is specific; it defines precisely what must be done. Second, a good objective is measurable; at the end of the year, you can tell whether the objective has been met. Third, a good objective is ambitious yet achievable; the objective will push an employee toward a scalable height. Fourth, a good objective is relevant to an organizational goal; the employee should be able to tell why she’s being asked to achieve the objective. Finally, a good objective is time-constrained; the objective includes a specified deadline, so that it’s possible to judge results.

What would a bad objective for someone in a typical law department sound like? “Provide more E&O training to business units” would be a bad objective. “Learn more about the business” would be a bad objective. “Be more responsive to business units” would be a bad objective.

Is it possible to pursue those same ends with good objectives? Sure. If you’d like a lawyer to provide more E&O training, then set a specific, measurable, ambitious, time-constrained objective: “Teach six hour-long E&O training sessions, each attended by ten or more employees, before December 31.” Both the employee and the supervisor know what’s being asked; the employee knows precisely what’s expected; and, given the specificity of the objective, the employee is likely to make a point of achieving the goal.

Similarly, it’s possible to write a good objective about learning more about the business. The wording of this objective will vary by industry, naturally. If you wanted an employee to learn more about, say, your real estate brokerage business, you might set the objective: “Attend our day-long training session for new residential brokers, and our week-long training session for commercial brokers, before December 31.” That objective is specific and measurable and thus likely to be achieved by an industrious employee.

What’s the analogue at law firms?

“Bill 2000 hours” is surely specific and measurable. But, if you set this as a goal, people are likely to achieve it, and your clients may unfairly pay the price as lawyers work more slowly (or bill more aggressively) than truth would dictate.

Creative law firms could surely craft objectives for lawyers that are specific and measurable without being dangerous. Perhaps a litigation partner could have as an objective: “Schedule three separate meetings at which you will introduce one of your corporate partners to an in-house corporate lawyer at your litigation client.” That’s specific, measurable, and achievable. Partners who are predisposed either to work for the common good or obey authority may well satisfy an objective such as this, and the firm might well benefit from the effort.

At the end of the year, of course, firms will be faced with hard questions about how to compensate folks who have achieved their objectives and penalize folks who have not. But I wrestle only with the easy questions here; I’ll leave the hard ones for a different author at a different forum on a different day.


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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