Large law firms have been seeking feedback about how they give feedback. And what they’re finding is that associates want to know whether they’re doing well, far more than once per year.
As young lawyers clamor for praise or constructive criticism, a number of firms are moving toward real-time performance reviews. British firm Allen & Overy turned heads on both sides of the Atlantic earlier this month when it unveiled an ongoing pilot program abandoning annual appraisals in favor of “consistent feedback and dialogue” about lawyer performance.
Large Pennsylvania-based firms may not be ditching the yearly review, but they’re eager to start a constant conversation about performance that includes seeking associates’ input on appraisal strategies.
“This generation of associates craves feedback,” said Scott B. Connolly, Drinker Biddle & Reath’s director of professional development.
Drinker Biddle started using quarterly performance reviews about three years ago, in addition to a year-end review. When the quarterly reviews are filled out, associates are prompted to reach out to their reviewers.
“The idea behind it is to encourage face-to-face, real-time feedback … rather than waiting a year for stale data,” said Michael McTigue Jr., who oversees the firm’s talent management.
Reed Smith is about six months into a pilot program using a real-time feedback app, which allows partners to give reviews on-the-go. Casey Ryan, the firm’s global head of legal personnel, said the app can collect timely performance information and bridge geographical divides between associates and the partners they serve.
“The reality is, particularly in global firms, you’re working with people all over the globe,” said Ryan. “There’s not always the opportunity to walk down the hall and say, ‘Great job.’”
Blank Rome has also been in the process of “revolutionizing” its evaluation methods for several years, said Ori Portnoy, director of legal talent. The firm has been looking to corporate America as an example, he said. It first simplified its year-end review form, then made it accessible all year.
“We use the opportunity of the form being open on a year-round basis … as a tool to encourage the feedback all year round,” Portnoy said.
The firm also provides a midyear check-in between lawyers and their career development advisers—not an evaluation, but an informal discussion about the lawyer’s direction. And it recently implemented an “100-hour dialogue” for the newest associates, in which they discuss their performance with the lawyers they’ve worked for most.
Pushing the Partners
Ballard Spahr has been working on expanding its appraisal process for six to nine months, said Dee Spagnuolo, the firm’s partner in charge of attorney career advancement. Like Connolly of Drinker Biddle, she cited a generational trend in today’s associates.
“A year was too long to wait for feedback” for millennials, Spagnuolo said.
To start, Ballard Spahr recently launched tracking software that will prompt partners to complete a feedback form when their associate finishes an assignment. Eventually, they will have conversations about that feedback with the associate.
Of course, partners at many firms already talk occasionally with associates about their progress throughout the year. But firms said they are looking to even the playing field by encouraging or requiring all partners to do so.
Since Drinker Biddle started its quarterly reviews, partners have been giving more “ad hoc” feedback as well, Connolly said.
“One of the hardest things as an associate is not knowing how you’re doing,” he said. “The more you can communicate with the associates, it alleviates that concern and allows them to focus on doing well and serving the clients.”
Reed Smith’s new app not only allows partners to evaluate their associates’ work at any time, but it also lets associates request feedback.
“Partners say to me that it’s a great way for associates to indicate that they care about the project and show they’re invested,” Ryan said.
While Reed Smith is keeping its annual reviews, Ryan said, they will now include information from throughout the year, which is automatically sent to human resources through the app.
Cozen O’Connor has also begun to reassess its appraisal process. Mindy Herczfeld, the firm’s chief legal talent officer, said the firm is considering a number of possibilities, but is focused on providing more real-time feedback. Associates have been involved in the planning.
“They wanted just a little bit more of a substantive conversation about their performance,” Herczfeld said.
The firm already has a framework for real-time feedback, thanks to its pool program for first- and second-year litigators. In that program, associates must solicit feedback about each project they complete, Herczfeld said.
“People really appreciate the feedback, especially that early in their career,” Herczfeld said. “It’s a way for them to make sure they’re really on the right track.”
Portnoy, of Blank Rome, said he would not do away with the annual review—at least not yet. But by adding more opportunities for evaluation, he predicted, it will become less important.
“I would love to be in a place where the formal processes and that backstop are not necessary,” he said. “We will continue to move more and more in the direction of having feedback so ingrained in our culture” that annual reviews become obsolete.
Creating that kind of environment is the goal in Ballard Spahr’s changes as well, Spagnuolo said. For her firm, making annual appraisals a year-round project is just the first step.
“It trains all of us to be having more dialogue about our work,” Spagnuolo said. “Anytime you implement a change like this, there’s sort of a cultural shift that needs to happen.”
Lizzy McLellan writes about the Pennsylvania legal community and the business of law at firms of all sizes. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @LizzyMcLellTLI
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