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For generations, associates have squirmed under the poison pens of their supervisors. But this summer, Stamford, Connecticut-based Cummings & Lockwood is giving its rank and file the chance to turn the tables by having them evaluate the partners and senior associates who regularly evaluate them. They’re called “360 degrees” or “upward” reviews, but they’re really not as dangerous as they might seem, insisted Peter A. Giuliani, C&L’s executive director, who is in charge of rolling out the initiative in the firm’s eight offices. “We’re not doing this to find out who are the problem partners,” he promised. “We already know who those people are.” Rather, it’s an attempt to uncover the firm’s best managers, “so we can enlist them to help the people who are not so good at it,” Giuliani said. Upward reviews are hardly a new concept. They’ve been around for years, with their heyday coming in the 1970s when management gurus began preaching the importance of companies effectively supervising their employees. Law firms, however, are “the last haven � It’s totally hierarchical,” declared Charles D. Douglas, a consultant at Hildebrandt International, the Somerset, N.J.-based law firm management consulting giant. LOW RESPONSE RATE But with associate retention a major problem for law firms and competition for legal talent as fierce as ever, “there’s definitely a growing interest in upward reviews,” Douglas said. A handful of Connecticut firms already have taken the leap, not always with positive results. Two years ago, Hartford-based Day, Berry & Howard gave its associates the option of anonymously evaluating their superiors. It was the first and last such experiment undertaken by the firm, according to David A. Swerdloff, chairman of Day, Berry’s associates committee. The return rate, he added, was so low that only a few partners received any meaningful feedback on their management skills. Swerdloff said he doubts that associates were hesitant to review partners for fear of retaliation. It was more a case of associates already possessing other means for voicing their concerns over firm management, he guessed. Pepe & Hazard, another Hartford-based firm, completed a similar effort about seven or eight years ago, according to David Urbanik, its executive director. “It was a worthwhile exercise at the time,” he said. But Pepe & Hazard has not conducted a second such review. Back then, there was a greater need for additional communication between management and the firm’s junior lawyers, Urbanik noted. The ratio of associates to partners was about 3 to 1. But now it’s nearly even, he said. NOT A “WITCH HUNT” At Cummings, paralegals and fiduciary accountants — as well as the firm’s associates — are being asked to take part in the 360-degree review process. As of press time, only C&L’s Greenwich, Conn., office had completed the reviews. The response rate, according to Giuliani, was 100 percent. Under the program, employees are asked to anonymously rate supervisors on qualities ranging from their ability to delegate assignments to mentoring and teamwork. Written responses are “sanitized” so as not to reveal the reviewer’s identity, Giuliani said. Partners, he added, only receive a thumbnail summary of the results. The exercise, Giuliani said, will not necessarily be “used punitively” in determining partner compensation, though a problem supervisor who does not improve over time may eventually take a hit in his or her profits share. Rather, the primary goal is to reward good managers, he maintained. A positive showing, he noted, will be one of many factors taken into consideration in establishing a partner’s annual compensation. Such an impact, however, will be implemented gradually, Giuliani said. “If you make this thing a direct tie to compensation, there would be a lot more anxiety,” he cautioned, “in that it might turn into a witch hunt.” Added Hildebrandt’s Douglas: “It’s no good to focus on the partners who are causing everybody to have nervous breakdowns.”

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