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Evaluation. The word once conjured up visions of a five-minute chat in a partner’s office where you were asked if everything was going well, told your work was fine and sent back to your office to continue on along the same path. Now, along with many other facts of law firm life, the scenario has changed. Evaluations have taken on an importance that they never had before. Associates are not only judged on the basis of their work skills and performance targets but now have the added anxiety that termination could be the result of a less than glowing review. A combination of the economic downturn, the events of Sept. 11, the need for accountability due to high starting salaries and over-hiring have all caused firms to finally look at the methods that they were using to review associate performance. Corporations have long had in place complex and standardized evaluation processes. Law firms are just now instituting such systems. Depending upon the consultant hired or the management book read by the human resources department, evaluations or performance reviews are now found in many configurations in most law firms. They can range from the 360-degree review (where everyone above, below and equal to an individual in the hierarchy evaluates that employee) to associates evaluating their own performance and implementing targets and growth goals. The change has been dramatic and is seen across the board from smaller firms to the multinational international practices. Evaluation has come into its own. In order to maximize the opportunity for good useful evaluations of one’s work, it is often necessary for an associate to be proactive. Associates are often left to try to determine what is happening, who is filling out the forms and when they will be discussed, especially with firms utilizing year-end evaluations. There are some very real benefits to both associates and to law firm management that evaluations be well prepared and clearly defined and that the process be understood by everyone involved. When they are used properly, evaluations can help to identify and deepen strengths and weaknesses can be discussed and corrected. Too often these days, evaluations are merely the means used to “weed out” associates. Associates can have an impact on the process. Consider the following strategies: SEEK OUT REVIEWS For every project that you complete, most firms require that a partner or supervising associate file an evaluation. If information on that evaluation is not shared with you, ask for comments about your work. Partners often find it refreshing if an associate requests feedback seeking improvement in order to develop skills and improve work quality. Be considerate of a partner’s schedule and pick the appropriate time (i.e., not when someone is under deadline) to ask what could have been improved about the memo or project you just completed. Use the feedback to compile your own list of “strengths and weaknesses.” COMMUNICATE Develop a communication process for every project you are assigned to. Of all the items on your list of strengths and weaknesses the ability to communicate well and appropriately should be a high priority. In law school, except for study groups, (which usually consisted of people discussing their own theory of class activities and sharing outlines), most students worked independently. It can be quite a shock to suddenly be thrust into an environment where you are expected to not only work on projects over which you have no choice but are also expected to be responsible for others’ work. Knowing how to work collaboratively and thus being easy to supervise and being able to supervise others toward a common goal are learned skills. LEARN HOW TO SUPERVISE Take the time to look outside of yourself to determine how well you are doing with others at the firm. Are you the kind of person for whom people want to work? Does the clerical staff often avoid you? Does your assignment consistently get done after everyone else’s? These are pretty powerful messages that something is not working well for you in terms of getting along with the team. The “360″ evaluation is increasingly important to both your remaining at the firm in the near term and to your success and ability to succeed there over the long run. Everyone has a voice in your future. Some voices are heard through the formal evaluation process and others are heard through the conversational grapevine that exists at every firm. Supervision is a developable skill. Think about the methods used by assigning partners for whom you want to work. They give clear instructions and timetables, explain the context of the work, make you feel involved and important to the project, and are available for questions, which they answer patiently. Sometimes, even when you are rushed, taking a few moments to orient someone to the task being assigned can make a huge difference in the effort required later to either correct a mistake or to redirect a project. Most of all, remember to say thank you. BE A GOOD TEAM MEMBER Being easy to supervise is a different and more difficult attribute. You need to keep others on the same matter, especially the assigning attorney, apprised of where you are on your part of the project so that work can be adjusted and co-workers can feel assured that you are on the right track. If a partner has to ask you how you are doing on her or his work, or another associate is sent in to speak to you about a project, you are not communicating effectively. Don’t let people assume that you are doing your job — let them know that you are. It provides a comfort level for everyone and allows you to correct errors before they become significant enough to cause other team members not to want to work with you on another project. BALANCE WORK FLOW Too much work is as disadvantageous to you and to the firm as too little. Take the time, before you accept that next project, to make certain that you will have the time to do your best work. Quality is as important as quantity in determining how you are perceived at the firm. If you are not sure that your billable hours are in line with what the firm expects of you, ask someone. Firms are always delighted with a high number of billable hours but not at the expense of quality work product or missed deadlines. FIND A MENTOR Mentors can improve your understanding of how the firm works, provide guidance as you grow professionally, and prevent your feeling adrift as you move from assignment to assignment. Mentors can provide you with both a sense of connection to the firm and your relative progress, thereby lessening your anxiety and making all of the late hours more palatable. A good mentor is the most effective evaluator you can have — often providing feedback on (a) perceived weaknesses, (b) political navigation and (c) other insights necessary to success. Others might not share these matters with you until it is too late to correct them. They can also cushion you against any rough spots or difficulties with other “personalities” at the firm. SET YOUR OWN GOALS While the firm is evaluating you, you should be evaluating not only your performance but also your fit with the firm. Knowing how to improve your performance and your efficiency will improve your effectiveness and could make the difference in your staying or going. You should be monitoring the significance of your assignments. The level of responsibility you are being given and the formal and informal evaluation signals you are getting. You should be positioned in such a way that through planning and self-evaluation, you will know when to make a career move rather than have one thrust upon you. LEARN THE SYSTEM Most firms have a form for identifying the criteria important to success. If a form is utilized (now most often found on the firm’s internal Web page), access it or ask to see a copy. One firm’s form detailed eight criteria for evaluation and four general questions. The formal criteria were: legal knowledge; analytical ability; writing ability; oral communication; attitude and commitment toward work; judgment, productivity, ability to utilize time and prioritize projects; interpersonal skills; firm economics and administration. The questions allow evaluators the opportunity to write their opinion of an associate’s progress including strengths and weaknesses. At the conclusion of each assignment, evaluate your own performance using the firm’s stated criteria. You should, after a reasonable time at the firm, be able to determine how you think you are doing in meeting the firm’s and your own goals. FUTURE CONSIDERATIONS Being evaluated is a fact of professional life. Associates are judged by their relations with others, how quickly they understand the practical world, the skills they will need to be a success, and by their ability to deliver quality work under deadline. Communication skills are especially valued in determining an associate’s potential for success with clients and with other attorneys. Looking ahead to the partner level, partners are also evaluated on a consistent basis. Their peers review them in accordance with other pertinent criteria including financial success, client development and political alliances. Their work, and their success, is more dependent on outside forces, the most important being their relationships with current and potential clients. In conclusion, the evaluation process can allow you the opportunity to learn about yourself, assess and accelerate your professional progress and make short- and long-term decisions concerning your current place of employment. The process can also be utilized to provide you with positive and useful skills necessary to planning your next move and throughout your career. Ellen Wayne is dean of Career Services at Columbia Law School.

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