Faced with unprecedented changes in the legal profession — usually referred to as the "new normal" — firms must pay more attention than ever to improving their overall performance. Because one of the changes is a supposed oversupply of lawyers, a growing number of firms, midsize as well as large, are now conducting evaluations, not just of associates but also of partners. The purpose behind these evaluations is often just to classify certain attorneys as unproductive and get them out of the firm.

This is unwise. Getting rid of so-called "unproductive" partners may improve the firm’s financial performance, but it often does not improve the firm’s overall performance. On the other hand, fair and effective evaluations can improve individual partners’ performance and therefore overall firm performance.

In contrast to associates, who want feedback on their work and performance, 
partners in many firms resist and 
even resent being evaluated, although it’s often an integral step in setting their compensation.

The ability to conduct effective partner evaluations depends primarily on a firm’s culture. If the firm has a "sole practitioner" culture, where every partner is accountable only to him or herself, evaluations cannot even be conducted. On the other hand, they are effective and productive in 
firms where partners consider themselves accountable to each other and depend 
on one another for the firm’s overall 
success.

In firms that have this culture of accountability, all partners recognize that what is best for the firm is more important — and ultimately more productive — than the goals or ambitions of a particular partner.

SYSTEM CHARACTERISTICS

No evaluation system is perfect. However, if the process is thorough, unbiased and equitable — and is perceived to be so — the evaluations will be fair and effective. They will also be accepted. There are certain essential characteristics of an effective evaluation process:

• The partners conducting the evaluations must be trusted.

• The process must be consistent and understood by both evaluators and recipients.

• No judgments are made until all relevant information has been collected and the partner being evaluated has had the opportunity to make his or her case.

• The evaluations must be explained so they are more readily understood and accepted.

REQUIREMENTS

Successful evaluation systems have certain criteria and goals. The first requirement is that there are published criteria against which each partner is evaluated. The list of criteria may vary from firm to firm, but it usually includes quantitative factors such as billable hours, collections and realization. These figures can be based on the firm’s plans and objectives or they may be based on averages for firms similar in size or type. Some firms record and consider origination, although there can be serious disagreements in cases where origination credit is shared.

Certain qualitative factors should also be considered. They usually include quality of the partner’s work and client service. The latter factor is often difficult to measure unless the firm has a client feedback program. If the partner has certain management responsibilities i.e., firm, practice group or office, his or her performance in those roles should also be evaluated. In today’s competitive environment, marketing and business development activities are usually on the list. Other qualitative factors that are often considered are pro bono work, community service and associate mentoring and development.

SETTING GOALS

Some evaluation systems involve each partner’s submitting a written business plan annually with stated activities and goals. After the evaluation group reviews and approves the plan, it then becomes a covenant between the group and the partner. The major advantage of this approach is that it produces greater buy-in by the partners to the entire process.

Some of the goals in the plan will be quantitative, such as achieving a certain amount of collections or writing a certain number of articles for publication. Others will be qualitative, such as establishing a new practice group or improving associate development. At the end of the year, the partner self-evaluates his or her performance vs. plan and reviews this with the evaluation group.

The self-evaluation is an important 
step. In most cases, they are honest and realistic.

ADDITIONAL FEATURES

Some of the most effective systems involve other features as well:

• The evaluation group first discusses their evaluations with the partner before putting them in writing. This gives the partner the opportunity to react and comment. Then the evaluation is written 
and may include the partner’s comments, if any. A copy is given to the partner and, 
in some firms, a copy is also put in a confidential file that is available only to the managing partner as well as the evaluation group.

• Partner evaluations are generally conducted as part of the compensation process. If a partner’s performance is evaluated against published firm criteria, as well as against the partner’s personal goals, the subsequent decision on compensation will generally be regarded as fair and will be accepted by the partner.

• There can be other rewards besides, or in addition to, compensation. Appointment to head an important committee or the granting of a sabbatical are just two examples that can result from a favorable evaluation.

• Partners who are doing an outstanding job or have performed a valuable service to the firm, such as successfully launching a new practice group or negotiating a desirable merger, should also be recognized throughout the firm. This can be done at firm meetings, in the firm’s internal newsletter or by elevating the partner to an important position in the firm.

WHO SHOULD CONDUCT EVALUATIONS?

In many firms it is the compensation committee. In some of the larger firms it is a separate evaluation committee. However, there is a growing trend for the firm’s management group, i.e., the executive committee, to conduct the evaluations and determine compensation. This is the process in most corporations. There are benefits to taking this approach in law firms.

Another approach in very large firms is to have the firm’s management group evaluate the practice group heads and then have them evaluate the partners in their groups. Some small firms have instituted a peer evaluation process in which all the partners evaluate each other. However, it is almost impossible to adopt this practice in a large firm or one that has more than one office.

As noted above, in the current environment in the legal profession, evaluations of both partners and associates are often used as the basis for removing them because they are unproductive. This is understandable and can be the result. But the principal objective of partner evaluations should be, as it historically has been in successful firms, to improve firm productivity and performance, not just to clean house.

Robert W. Denney is president of Robert Denney Associates Inc. in Wayne, Pa. His firm provides strategic management and marketing counsel to firms throughout the United States and parts of Canada.