Managing people at big law firms is easy: You don’t!
First, you don’t have anyone to manage. As an associate, you have a secretary. That’s it. And you share your secretary with other people, so you have only limited responsibility for giving annual reviews.
As a typical partner, you also don’t have to manage anyone. You still have a shared secretary. And you’re asked to complete associate evaluation forms once every year, which you dutifully do. Some other poor clown is stuck with the job of reading to associates the results of the review forms and saying, “I can’t really answer your follow-up questions, because none of these comments are mine.” Unless you’re responsible for some unusual duty — evaluating contract attorneys, or legal assistants, or some such thing — a partner at a law firm doesn’t manage people at all. (Chatting with an associate about an upcoming meeting or event, or discussing the contents of a brief, constitutes either doing work or being human. It doesn’t count as personnel management.)
Second, “career paths” at law firms are no secret. The “career path” (such as it is) for a secretary at a law firm is fairly obvious, so your secretary won’t ask much about it. And the career paths for lawyers are obvious, too. If you’re an associate, work hard and do good work, and you’ll be a partner some day. (I’m not passing judgment on whether this path is realistic or not; I’m saying only that, to the extent that it exists, everyone knows what the path is.) If you’re a partner, your career path is equally obvious: Work harder, and do better work, and bring in clients, and you’ll be even richer and more important some day.
Nothing to it. Everyone knows the game, so managing people is a no-brainer. No muss, no fuss, and (if you’re like me) you don’t even notice that you’re not managing people. You might even deceive yourself into thinking that you are.
Would that it were so easy in-house….