This is the time of year when many lawyers have a meeting with a supervisor or a compensation committee to discuss their performance over the past year. Many big firms, corporations and government agencies have instituted procedures that give the attorney an opportunity to submit a self-evaluation in advance of their performance review. Many small law firms are more informal, or even haphazard, about the process, however.
If there is an established procedure, follow the guidelines or instructions. When an organization doesn't have a formal review procedure, I recommend that my clients prepare a concise memo, email or other written communication summarizing their accomplishments of the past year. Most associates just wait anxiously, but passively, for the news. They may think the partners are aware of what they have been doing all year, or perhaps they think it is safer to stay under the radar. Maybe they just don't know what else to do.
I believe it is necessary to be proactive about your career. You can stop by the office of the appropriate person with your memo and say something like, "I know that you have a lot on your plate at the end of the year. I thought I might save you a little time and make things easier on you if I prepared a summary of what I've been doing over the past year. If there are other ways I can be of assistance, please let me know."
Here are a few tips on putting together your year-end self-evaluation:
1. Don't just rely on your memory. By October or November, it will be difficult to remember what happened in March and April. I urge my clients to keep a "success journal" throughout the year. Keep track of the significant projects you worked on, developmental milestones you achieved and compliments or expressions of appreciation from clients, partners, co-workers, bosses, etc. If possible, record exact quotes and the date, and save copies of complimentary emails and letters. Put complimentary quotes in your memo and consider attaching copies of glowing emails.
2. Review your administrative records to refresh your memory. Look back over your calendar, time entries, client lists, expense reports or any other records that will remind you of what you have done since your last review. If you received a formal report or took notes at your last review, be sure to look at those also.
3. Start with your strengths and your most significant accomplishments. Remember the journalist's adage, "Don't bury the lead." Your reader may get interrupted, distracted or bored after the first few paragraphs. Emphasize work with your largest clients or highest-ranking leaders. Highlight strong revenue generation, or the most significant milestone achievement you made for a lawyer at your experience level. Show how you took on responsibility for keeping a complex project on track or for shepherding younger lawyers. Make the first impression a good one.
4. Avoid the passive tense as much as possible. As lawyers, we generally draft documents in the passive tense, but that underwhelms a reader. Active verbs convey conviction, energy and strength. Your boss wants to know that you have what it takes to get the job done. A memo infused with action naturally instills more confidence in the reader.
5. Don't make assumptions about what your reader understands. People who don't work with you may participate in the decision process. Give specifics and spell out how you have contributed value to the organization or have enhanced your ability to perform more sophisticated work. Provide the names and titles of clients you have courted and what kind of business that may bring the firm. Explain how your skillful deposition of a witness shrank the settlement demand, saving the client $300,000. Describe how your consistent efforts at maintaining law school acquaintances are paying off now that a classmate has accepted an important in-house counsel position. Draw attention to the large dollar amounts or high-profile personalities involved in your cases or transactions.
6. Demonstrate your ability to be a team player without selling yourself short. Give credit to others who played a significant role in your accomplishments, but don't weaken your perceived level of contribution by overusing "we" instead of "I." Share information on leads and referrals you have provided to other members of your organization. Explain how you have taken on leadership or mentoring roles.
7. Think about the goals and objectives of your department or organization. Describe your accomplishments in terms that demonstrate how they support those objectives. You might feel honored to be elected to the local board of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. If your organization's leaders don't share your passion for that cause, however, you will need to point out how your service on the board will create goodwill or positive publicity for the firm, will help you build relationships with other civic leaders who can be good referral sources, or provide other such benefits. Explain how any significant nonbillable work you have done inures to the benefit of the firm.
8. Show how you focus on continual development. Reflect in your report how you have addressed any criticisms you received at your last review or during the year. State some goals and objectives you intend to work toward in the coming year. Give a progress report on goals you identified in your last review. Describe your efforts to gain additional expertise or take on more significant responsibilities.
9. Explain significant deficits in your numbers. Everyone may be well aware that you had a baby this year, but they may forget to consider your maternity leave when reviewing your billable hours. If your collections are down because your most significant client got wiped out by a devastating hurricane, point that out, along with any expectations of eventual payment. If the industry you serve is in an economic slump, consider providing statistics on the industry's status and any reliable predictions about recovery. You may think everyone knows your situation, but we can all get pretty myopic. If your situation is not poised for a turnaround, explain how you are retooling your skills, seeking to serve a different industry or positioning yourself to help busier departments. Don't bring up the demands on your time outside of work, except in extraordinary circumstances. Be careful not to whine, complain or sound like a victim. That will undermine your credibility and the confidence they have in you.
10. Ask someone you trust to review your self-evaluation. Get a colleague with more experience or greater political savvy to give you feedback on your memo before you submit it. The tone you intended to set may not come through in your writing. You might have highlighted things that don't really matter to the powers that be.
Your career success warrants this extra effort, and the opportunity only comes up once or twice per year. Make the best of it.
Debra L. Bruce is president of Lawyer-Coach LLC, a law practice management training and coaching firm. She practiced law for 18 years and has been a professionally trained executive coach for more than 11 years. She is a frequent speaker and writer on law practice management topics, and has served as the vice chair of the law practice management committee of the State Bar of Texas. She welcomes questions and comments at 713-682-4353 or firstname.lastname@example.org.