Performance Reviews

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….

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Partner asks for a draft brief by Wednesday. It doesn’t arrive on time. Partner asks Associate about the brief: “I wrote it, but the dog ate it. I’ll get you a draft next week.”

On the next assignment, Partner asks for a draft brief by a deadline. The brief doesn’t arrive on time. Partner asks about the brief: “I left the finished draft in a briefcase in my car, and a thief broke into my car and stole the briefcase. I’ll get you a draft next week.”

On the next assignment, the computer crashed at the last minute. And on the assignment after that, a junior lawyer doing some research for the brief fell ill, so it wasn’t possible to get the brief written on time.

For Partner, the solution is easy: “This clown is irresponsible. There are other associates around here who actually do things on time. I’ll stop working with the clown, and my life will be much easier. And I’ll report on the clown’s annual review that he’s irresponsible.”

For Associate, the situation is baffling: “I do great work, and I turn things in late only when fate interferes. Why doesn’t Partner work with me anymore, and why did he unfairly say on my review that I’m irresponsible?”

Another example; the corporate analogy to law firm life; and my stunning conclusion all after this enticing ellipsis . . .

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I’ve suggested in the past that law firms generally don’t bother with managing people, and I’ve heard a chorus of complaint: “But all I do is manage people! I’m a senior associate, and I spend my entire days begging, cajoling, and threatening junior associates and legal assistants to do their work. How can you say I don’t manage people?”

Read my lips: You don’t manage people.

You manage projects, and you mistakenly believe that’s managing people.

If you were managing people, you’d be doing about a half dozen things that are not currently on your plate . . . .

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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….

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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 . . .

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Well, last Friday was interesting. When I decided to close the comments for last week’s installment of Moonlighting, Lat responded, “I’m glad at least someone is willing to try deactivation.” As expected, undeterred from the fact that they couldn’t comment directly on my post, the usual group of ATL commenters uniformly hijacked Kashmir Hill’s “revenge porn” post which followed mine on ATL to provide me with their usual thoughtful and highly encouraging feedback.

Later, an anonymous 2L tweeted as follows: And @susanmoon has the dubious distinction of being the first @atlblog writer to close off comments. When I joked to the 2L that my feelings get hurt every week, the 2L (taking me seriously, I presume) told me that instead of hiding, I should “rise above it” because even a SCOTUS justice would get flamed on ATL. This invited Brian Tannebaum (an ATL small-firm columnist) and some others to rush to my defense. What ensued was a flurry of debate on Twitter — infused with an abundance of insults — mainly between Brian and the 2L. I’m actually not quite sure why Brian got so involved, as I’m not even sure he likes me (that’s the real reason I cry every week). I think he just likes to pick on poor souls every once in a while (read: several times a day) for his own sadistic pleasure.

In any case, in addition to the entertainment value that the Brian v. 2L debates offered on Twitterverse Legal last weekend, there were definitely some interesting points made on both sides about the value of anonymous feedback….

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Partners at Gibson Dunn are conducting associate reviews this week. Associates receive news of how they’re doing — and how much they’ll be getting, in terms of bonuses that will be paid out later this month.

As we’ve explained in 2010 and 2009, the GDC bonus system is not transparent and not lockstep. Instead, associates get individualized bonuses, based on such factors as hours and quality of work. The firm tends to use the Cravath scale as the starting point for its bonus scale.

What’s the early word about Gibson bonuses this year?

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(Or: Gibson Dunn Open Thread — 2011)”

For most of us, the holidays are synonymous with family, fun, and fruitcake. Work, at least for a few days, drops off our radar. However, the down time received during the holidays is the perfect time to break out the old résumé and, in fact, improve it. Whether or not you are looking for a new job, keeping your résumé current will help you avoid headaches in the coming months should you decide to make a move.

Here are three ways the holidays can help update your résumé, provided by the recruiters at Lateral Link….

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Here’s proof that I view my readers at ATL as family: In this post, I’m going to share with you the results of my recently concluded 360-degree performance review and tell you how I plan to improve my personal job performance. (That may not be quite as sexy as pictures of naked judges, but you must admit that I’m making terribly personal information awfully public.)

I’d never been through a 360-degree review before. As part of the process, I completed a self-evaluation, so we could see whether my self-perception matched how the world perceives me. In addition to my self-rating, I received anonymous feedback from (1) the person to whom I report (who was classified as a “peer,” so that his responses would remain anonymous), (2) five other “peers,” or people who hold jobs equivalent to mine in the company and who work with me occasionally, and (3) seven “direct reports,” or folks who report up to me through the ranks. The human resources guy who discussed the review with me did a very nice job; he knows a fair amount about performance evaluations. (Aon is not just the world’s leading provider of insurance and reinsurance brokerage, but also the leading provider of human capital consulting. This means that (1) at long last, Aon finally just got some free publicity out of my having written this column for almost a year, and (2) we have many colleagues at Aon who do human resources consulting for a living, so they’re slightly better at delivering the results of reviews than the kid down the block or the head of your practice group at your law firm.)

What did I learn from the results of my 360-degree review?

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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….

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