One of the trends in corporate America that is starting to show up in law firms is the replacement of the old annual review with frequent real time reviews. Advocates of the new approach say the annual review focuses too much on past behavior, and often on behavior long in the past. At least two global law firms have initiated such ongoing performance assessments that are driven by the associates themselves.
Corporate supervisors have found that “giving people instant feedback, tying it to individuals’ own goals, and handing out small weekly bonuses to employees” is a more effective way of reinforcing desired behaviors and managing performance. As many as a third of corporations have signed on, with tech companies leading the way, but more traditional companies like PwC, Deloitte and GE are also among the converts. Estimates are that upwards of 79% of corporations are considering the move.
Part of the issue is the underlying philosophy of whether personal attributes can be developed over time. If not, a frank up-or-out appraisal may be all that’s needed. On the other hand, in a tight market where Millennials prize personal growth and research testifies to the malleability of many personal attributes — like emotional intelligence, frequent check-ins for course adjustments in an associate’s growth can benefit both the individual and the firm. The fast pace of business also argues for a more fluid and quick-moving response to performance.
This approach does require capable communication and motivation skills, which may be a challenge both for supervising lawyers and associates. Having an associate approach them for a review may result in more defensiveness or stonewalling than enlightenment from a supervisor. Over weighting comments on the positive side–but also making sure the associate knows what needs to be improved–can best mold future behavior. Research also clearly establishes that praising effort over results produces more attempts and ultimately higher performance. This is particularly effective with lawyers whose resilience levels are notoriously low and who may fold at any indication of failure. Assessing a particular associate’s strengths rather than creating organization-wide hierarchies in pay or position that can put them at odds with their colleagues also promotes collaboration and teamwork, essential attributes of 21st Century law practices.
Associates need to approach their supervising attorneys at appropriate times and without the defensiveness typical of lawyers, keeping a “I want to improve” mindset rather than one critical of their assignments or supervision. Being able to dialogue about issues and brainstorm possible improvements should be a joint undertaking that both parties contribute to.
Building the firm’s or department’s overall emotional intelligence is the best foundation for more frequent and more effective performance appraisals, regardless of who initiates them.