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The combination of the economic downturn, the events of Sept. 11, over-hiring and the need for accountability due to high starting salaries has caused firms to look at the methods they use to review associate performance. Now, associates are not only judged on the basis of their work skills and performance targets, but have the added anxiety that termination could be the result of a less than glowing review. Corporations have long had in place complex and standardized evaluation processes. Law firms are just now instituting such systems. Depending on 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 a system in which associates evaluate their own performance and implement 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. 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 using year-end evaluations. There are some very real benefits to both associates and to law firm management when evaluations are well prepared and clearly defined and the the process is understood by everyone involved. When used properly, evaluations can help deepen strengths and correct weaknesses. Too often these days, however, evaluations are merely the means used to weed out associates. But associates can have an impact on the process. SEEK REVIEW For every project that an associate completes, 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 to develop skills and improve work quality. Be considerate of a partner’s schedule and pick the appropriate time to ask what could have been improved about the memo or project 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. 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 also are expected to be responsible for others’ work. LEARN HOW TO SUPERVISE Take the time to look outside 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-degree evaluation is increasingly important to both your remaining at the firm in the short term, and to your success and ability to succeed in the long term. Everyone has a voice in your future. Some voices are heard through the formal evaluation process, while 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 redirect a project. And 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 apprised of where you are on a 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 his or her 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. Before you accept that next project, 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 you from 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 perceived weaknesses, political navigation and other insights necessary to success. Others might not share this information with you until it is too late. Mentors can also provide a cushion for you when you run up against 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 used (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. Questions allow evaluators the opportunity to write their opinion of an associate’s progress. So at the conclusion of each assignment, you should evaluate your own performance using the firm’s stated criteria. FUTURE CONSIDERATIONS Being evaluated is a fact of professional life. Associates are judged by their skills, their relations with others, how quickly they understand the practical world and 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. The author is dean of career services at Columbia Law School.

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