For many Biglaw firms, by the time mid-October rolls around, year-end activities are already gaining momentum. Planning for collection drives, a push to get potential laterals interviewed, and financial performance numbers-crunching are all usually well under way. Biglaw’s increasingly centralized administration and management means that most partners are spared from any involvement in those activities. Your typical partner may get an update email or two, or hear about the gear-up for year-end at a partner’s meeting, but that’s it.
But every partner is asked to play the review game. Every year. For everyone from assistants, to paralegals, to associates, to even fellow partners sometimes. And some partners are subjected to 360-degree reviews from their charges. I have a hard time seeing the value of those.
The whole process is thankless, time consuming, and generally useless. It is more akin to “security theater” at the airport than an actual system for providing effective feedback and incentives to Biglaw participants….
First off, the idea of a set “feedback period” works to negate the effectiveness of the feedback itself. If my assistant screws up, the time for it to be addressed effectively is at the time of the screw-up. Likewise the reverse. Great performance should be rewarded close to when it is provided for the reward to have its maximum potency. This applies universally, whether the subject of the feedback is a paralegal, an associate, or a fellow partner. And poor performance needs to be addressed just as quickly, before small issues become big ones. Immediacy equals impact.
Second, the form of the reviews is often quite silly. Generally, you are asked to rank people based on vagaries such as “competencies” or “aligning performance with firm goals.” As time has gone on, this is frequently done electronically, on some (no doubt expensive) software “review management” platform. Click some buttons, type in some generalities into comment boxes, and on to the next review. And a few weeks later, lucky participants get to have a typically awkward sit-down with their review subjects. How this all helps the firm’s bottom line is not very obvious. Nor does it make the employees feel more beloved. The ones I speak to usually care about one aspect of their entire review: the amount of their bonus (if any).
Everyone secretly knows that the Biglaw review process is broken. The response? Make it more complicated. Add more “competencies” for consideration, checkboxes to the survey, and shriller calls for the reviews to be done on time. Let everyone review everybody else, so no one feels left out. It becomes a mess.
So what can be done?
For one, Biglaw firms can be honest with their employees. If the firm is profitable, and everyone behaves as human beings, the review process is pretty meaningless. All partners should send out this message to the firm’s employees. Help our business succeed, and you will be rewarded. Very simple. And while we all want to consider co-workers as “family,” the reality is that even families will fight when resources are scarce. So everyone needs to practice basic human decency at work, and contribute as best as they can to the goal of providing top-notch legal services in a profitable manner.
Second, partners should get used to offering feedback on a regular basis. Again, it is human decency. Someone does a good job, they deserve acknowledgement for their efforts. Someone screws up, they deserve a chance to correct it. Unfortunately, the norm in Biglaw is for everyone to stay tight-lipped, until someone gets blindsided with the truth about what everyone really thinks about their capabilities. I am not saying that the cheerleading squad needs to dance a jig whenever a paralegal spends a late night getting exhibits for a brief together. Just that communication about performance needs to get more honest, and frequent.
I challenge anyone to come up with a real situation in Biglaw where a review changed the course of someone’s career at a particular firm from the wrong track to the right one. Such stories are unlikely at best, because for nearly all of someone’s Biglaw career, you really can’t afford any negativity about your performance. So the likelihood that someone was given actionable advice at a review that changed the trajectory of their career positively (at that same firm) is remote in my estimation. The more practical Biglaw approach to any negativity directed your way is to start looking for a fresh start somewhere else.
The above is especially true for that rare breed of associate that aspires to partnership. Listen carefully here. If you are really on track, you will not be subjected to any kind of “substantive” review at all. No one will find the need to tell you what to do to improve your performance, in any measure. You will either already be doing it, or just waiting for the opportunity to demonstrate the “competency” that you already have. In my case, I cannot remember a single substantive review. It would have been superfluous. As long as I was profitable, contributing across the board to the firm, and easy to get along with, there was nothing much to talk about. Just a “thanks for the good work” and a bonus check handover.
(Of course, I did not trust my firm until I made partner, since there is pretty substantial motivation for firms to dangle the partnership carrot in front of productive associates. But the lack of substantive reviews was a good tell that things were going right.)
If you do have a review, what you want to hear is “What can we do to help you succeed” or something similar. And don’t be shy at that point to lay some foundation for having others invest in your success. In today’s climate, I would think that most people subjected to a review of any more substance than that, particularly associates, should invest in pursuing exit strategies rather than fighting an uphill slog to change minds and prove that the review was wrong.
So I am not a big fan of Biglaw reviews today, and consider myself fortunate to have been spared them while I was an associate. As currently implemented, they are more useful as anti-employment litigation tools than anything else. I fear that as Biglaw becomes more corporate, these reviews will become more complicated, and frequent. For everyone. I prefer honest communication and constructive, timely criticism and feedback. For that, I’ll depend on colleagues I can trust. You should do the same…
Feel free to email me regarding, or discuss in the comments below, your thoughts on Biglaw reviews….
Anonymous Partner is a partner at a major law firm. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.