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There has been a lot of talk about associate evaluations this spring. Rigorous performance appraisals, firms are saying, are what’s behind associates being let go in seemingly greater numbers than usual. According to associates, however, their evaluations are only being used as a ruse to cover layoffs needed to stabilize overstaffed firms. Both agree that evaluations got a bit tougher when salaries shot up last year. As more firms move toward merit-based compensation systems, as they recognize mismatches made in their haste to hire laterals and as the market continues to slow, the effectiveness of the systems that firms use to appraise associate performance may come under review. We all know that fair, timely, and consistent performance appraisal is critical to effective associate management, but few firms would say they are wholly pleased with their systems for providing this information to associates. Once, most firm evaluation forms looked pretty much the same. Today, there’s a wide range of options to allow firms to tailor a performance-appraisal approach that fits the developmental goals and philosophy of the firm. Take the time to determine which type of evaluation system is right for your firm. 1. Define the firm’s objective(s). As with all strategic decisions, you have to begin by determining your desired outcome. In some firms, the annual performance appraisal is simply a means of communicating senior attorneys’ opinions of past work product and progress. In other firms, annual or semiannual evaluations are used to determine base compensation or bonus allotments. In an increasing number of firms, the associate review process is an integral part of the overall plan for professional development. Any one of these objectives, or some combination thereof, may work for your firm, but tying the evaluation system to a comprehensive plan for attorney development is the most efficient. Most firms have their attorneys spend a lot of time filling out forms, summarizing comments, and conducting evaluation interviews. Yet, often that information ends up providing no benefit beyond the 15-minute associate interview. In order to get the greatest benefit from the time spent, it makes sense to use the information for more than just a “you’re doing fine” meeting. 2. Get feedback on the current system. Talk with the attorneys, practice group leaders and professional development administrators to find out what they think about the system. The junior and senior attorneys who review and are reviewed probably know best what works well and not so well. It is always eye-opening to learn how little use is made of information that required many attorney hours and loads of administrative anguish. Use the feedback to assess how participants’ needs fit in with the firm objective. Most associates will tell you they want more and better feedback. Most partners will tell you they want to spend less time and have a simple form to fill out. Process administrators say they would just once enjoy not having to beg everyone to get their forms in on time. 3. Consider the available options. Many firms today are moving toward competency-based evaluation systems. This approach measures performance against predetermined sets of skills, behaviors and personal qualities that are tailored to the requirements of each specific practice area. Criteria for measurement are set by the practice group and broken down in evolving responsibilities. Many firms create as many as three levels of evaluation: for first and second years, for third through fifth years, and for those more senior. Firms that decide to stay with the traditional system of applying a standard set of criteria to all attorneys are taking a careful look at exactly what they are measuring. Often, they find that even recently developed criteria do not reflect characteristics necessary for success today. Practices have had to become fluid and flexible to meet swiftly changing client needs and interests. The characteristics that the firm uses to define success among its attorneys must remain fluid and should be reviewed annually. The most important aspect to review in existing systems is the way reviewers are asked to rank or rate performance on a scale or with a numerical value. Such subjective systems always involve a high level of grade inflation, and junior attorneys become accustomed to being rated “Outstanding” or “Above Average.” Heaven forbid that even the most junior associate should be told he or she might need to better develop a skill or might be progressing as expected, without superlatives. Think carefully about how ratings are used and what kind of information you actually hope to collect from them. You may find it more useful to toss the rankings and ask for commentary instead. 4. Decide how the system will work. After determining the evaluative criteria, identifying the populations who will be evaluated, and the system of measurement that will be applied, consider the following issues: � Who will do the evaluations. � How frequently will the evaluations be conducted. � Whether to include self-appraisals. � Whether to include 360-degree appraisals. � Whether to set goals for the next review period. � Whether the associates will get copies of their evaluations. � Which attorneys should conduct the reviews. � How the information collected will be used. If the system is changing radically, there may be a need to consider “grandfathering” a group of attorneys who might suffer under the new plan. 5. Plan for implementation of the new system. It is important not to rush the introduction of a new evaluation system. Once all the difficult policy decisions have been made and the system has been designed, all participants will need time to familiarize themselves with the new process. Orientations held for all attorneys, training seminars for evaluators and practice group meetings can help ensure that everyone understands his or her role and how the system works. Many firms are moving to an automated evaluation process that is available on the firm’s intranet. This can save attorneys hours of time and can make it easy to get supervisory comments from those who constantly travel. It can also provide the means to collect and sort the information in ways that make it more useful to supervisors and professional development specialists. Putting the associate performance appraisal policies and procedures in writing makes them available for everyone to study and less subject to individual interpretation. The system should be covered in the orientation process for all new associates, including laterals. The final step involves waiting to see how it works, then going back to the design phase to correct any missteps. You cannot assume that everything will go smoothly the first time, but if everyone understands that the firm is trying to create a more effective and efficient process, they should be willing to work through issues. Providing meaningful comments on performance remains the single most important goal — for the firm as well as for the future development of associates. Any process that does not accomplish this simple objective should be re-evaluated. Susan G. Manch is a principal in the legal management consulting firm of Shannon & Manch (shannonandmanch.com). She can be reached at (202) 293-8900.

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