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The annual season of worry for associates has arrived. Self-evaluations will be prepared in earnest, and firms will send reminder emails to partners, urging them to fill out their associate evaluation forms. As associates enter into their evaluation meetings with those responsible for their future at the firm, the results can be dishearteningly predictable. Partners emerge from the meetings pleased with a productive conversation, while associates often feel frustrated by what they see as vague messages and limited guidance.

For women, in particular, the mixed messages and lost opportunities that are part of so many evaluation sessions are a precursor to attrition. Law firms increasingly speak about their commitment to gender equality, but the institutional changes required to turn words of commitment into results still fall short. The proof is the continued low percentage of women in equity partner roles and the lack of gender equity in compensation.

The evaluation process serves as a critical starting point to effect real change. In my training work, I have many opportunities to speak with associates in firms of all sizes, and hear frequent examples of their evaluation experiences.

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