Biglaw, Partner Issues

A Quarter At A Time: Some Thoughts On Performance Evaluation

If you work in Biglaw, there is a very good chance that you represent at least a few publicly traded companies. For these companies, and their employees, thinking about business performance is usually framed temporally in quarters — as in “it was a great quarter” or “we need to close out this case by the end of the quarter.” Of course, investors and the public are kept apprised of company performance through quarterly reports as well.

I must confess that this time increment, the “quarter,” took some adjusting to. In fact, until I joined Biglaw, and worked on a case for a publicly-traded client, I had never used the term in a temporal context. By now, after over a decade of working with publicly traded corporations and their employees, corporate-speak such as references to quarters has become much more familiar to me. And while I would never ask my kids what their expectations are for school performance this quarter, I see definite value in measuring professional performance along that time frame….

Interestingly, references like those to quarters that are second nature to our corporate clients remain a bit foreign in the Biglaw world. But that is changing, and there is nothing wrong with modeling the behaviors and lingo of those clients that pay our outsized rates. Part of the problem, of course, is the insular nature of legal education. While I generally have a utilitarian view of the educational process as one where the primary objective is to earn the degree and move along to the next challenge, the lack of exposure a typical law student has to corporate culture is stunning. But as I have mentioned, eventually you pick things up as your practice exposes you to your clients’ view of the world. And while I agree that many Biglaw firms today suffer from a focus on performance that is too short-term, there is no reason why thinking and reporting on our personal performance cannot be done on a quarterly basis. In fact, I submit that analyzing our performance using that time frame is superior to doing so in the typical Biglaw manner of thinking about our hours and collections monthly, and our overall performance yearly.

To that end, I think we need to start to push away from the traditional barometers of Biglaw performance, and start to think a bit more strategically about how things are going for our firms and careers on a more manageable time basis. In Biglaw, we tend to talk about performance on either a monthly or yearly scale. Examples of each are easy to come by. As associates, you will often overhear colleagues (or catch yourself in what one hopes is an unusual occurrence) talk about how many hours they billed in the last month. “I had a crazy month” or “last month was so slow that I blew way too much money shopping during lunch” is typical associate banter. Bonus time at year-end (that disappearing Biglaw anachronism of a practice) brings discussion of “hours this year.” I have yet to hear an associate analyze their performance on a quarterly basis.

Similarly, partners tend to focus on their personal performance on a monthly or yearly basis. “I had a great month with collections” or “my hours got killed this month by the firm’s retreat and that conference I went to” are lines partners offer up during their rare moments of normal human interaction with each other. And as year-end collection drives approach, the discussion turns to a comparison of performance between this year and last, both on a personal and firm level. Hours, collections, business plans — they are all typically broken down into monthly or yearly “goals” and “targets.” Biglaw’s vernacular simply does not match that of its corporate clientele in this regard.

Here are some ideas for incorporating a quarterly focus to your Biglaw practice. If you are an associate, you clearly want to be keeping track of your hours, and if you have access to that information, the collections on your time. Think ahead to the next quarter, and set a target for your billable hours (keeping in mind any vacation you hope to plan and then cancel, or holidays). But do not stop there. Keep track of your matters, such as whether or not you worked for any new partners that quarter, or worked with lawyers in another of your firm’s offices. Also keep track of any business development opportunities that may have crossed your path, even if your current firm discourages business development by associates. Set a quarterly target for working on an article, or keeping track of old classmates. If you are unhappy at your firm, set a quarterly target for recruiter calls or interviews, so that months and months do not go by with misery as your faithful companion. Why quarterly and not monthly? Months are simply too short. And many an associate has gotten stuck in the Biglaw quicksand for years on end by adopting a “wait till next year” approach to their career happiness.

For partners, all of the above is necessary — once adapted, of course, to partner rather than associate economics — but you may also want to consider some additional things to do. For example, it may make sense to keep your firm’s “government,” be it an oligarchy or dictatorship, apprised of your efforts on a quarterly basis. Keep it simple and highlight-focused, whether talking about financial performance, results, or business development opportunities. Offer to elaborate in a follow-up discussion on any topics of interest to management. It is worth considering a similar update to your practice group head, or if you are already the practice group head, a quarterly update email to your team.

Simply waiting for your year-end review and submission of next year’s business plan does not cut it. At minimum, the exercise of preparing this brief quarterly update will make preparing that business plan (or a lateral business plan for that matter) an easier task. And there is nothing wrong with staying “top of mind” for firm management, or projecting an image of an engaged partner to your colleagues. So while monthly goals and reports may be overkill and foster a constant crisis mentality, and waiting for year’s-end to take stock of your career direction is a recipe for inertia, incorporating a quarterly focus to your personal evaluation of your practice can make good sense. You could also try and issue quarterly status updates to your most active and important clients, both on matters you are handling for them and important legal developments in your area that may affect their business. Do whatever you like, but try breaking your professional “seasons” into quarters like your corporate clients or many NFL coaches. Now go win those quarters.

What do you think is the time frame Biglaw firms and attorneys should use when analyzing performance? Let me know by email or in the comments, along with more nominations of those who will play a role in shaping Biglaw’s future, as discussed in last week’s column.


Anonymous Partner is a partner at a major law firm. You can reach him by email at atlpartnercolumn@gmail.com.

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