Making the Performance Review Process Better

The legal profession is not particularly known for its attention to well-being. Law school enrollment continues to fall and talent retention throughout the profession has proved challenging. Law firms have begun to explore how to reimagine firm culture to attract, engage and keep talent, offer meaningful professional development and create pathways for advancement in firms where full partnership opportunities are limited.

Dissatisfaction with the profession has structural roots relating to how the law is actually practiced, particularly in law firms. Young lawyers typically join top firms for the high pay and future career options but may become disillusioned by the realities of a highly competitive environment, the pressure to bill hours, lack of appreciation or interaction with partners, and long hours. Combined with a lack of support, autonomy and constructive feedback, firm practice becomes unpleasant and demoralizing.

Organizational researchers have begun to explore how to create workplaces that promote employee engagement, and optimal business and employee performance outcomes. Support is growing for the notion that rather than merely focusing on fixing what is not going well, a more positively oriented, strengths-based approach to organizational change can increase individual and organizational workplace effectiveness and productivity so that both the employee and the organization can flourish. Transforming law firms into more positive, forward-thinking, great places to work that enhance and support lawyer well-being is a lofty goal. A promising entry point for improving the attorney work environment is through the lens of the employment relationship.

All law firms need to periodically evaluate lawyer performance to support compensation, promotion and retention decisions as well as to ascertain how their lawyers are performing with respect to the goals and needs of the organization. Most performance management systems rely on written reviews of other lawyers in the firm which are consolidated and form the basis for a review conversation with the attorney at which feedback will be delivered and, in most firms where future development goals will be outlined.

The effectiveness of the traditional review process, however, is questionable. Deficit-oriented performance reviews that emphasize what an employee is not doing well have been shown to fail to improve performance, and can be counterproductive, generating employee dissatisfaction and lower organizational performance. It makes sense that the negative dialogue of a review that highlights mistakes and shortcomings is not especially motivating.

An alternative would be a process that identifies an employee’s strengths and encourages collaboration among supervisors and subordinates. A more positively, prospectively directed system can validate what is going well and develop future performance goals that build on previous success, balancing the effects of negative feedback and supporting individual engagement. Most important is not to think of performance reviews as the delivery of information by a superior to a subordinate, but to reimagine the process as a dialogue intended to share information about the work and workplace and co-create a plan that facilitates ongoing growth and development and information sharing.

Moving the performance dialogue in a more affirming, prospective direction has the potential to build an environment that supports positive, lasting benefits for individual lawyers and the organization, and potentially the bottom line. A positive orientation can encourage employees to feel better about and more committed to their jobs and the organization, more connected to colleagues and the organization, and avoid knee-jerk reactions by employers (i.e., firing, no bonus or raise) to less than excellent performance.

Attention to strengths can enhance positive outcomes in goal achievement and stress reduction. Cultivating strengths through increased self-awareness, accessibility and effort can potentially lead to a multitude of positive outcomes. A greater awareness of strengths and of self-efficacy in their use can provide a focus to develop goals and map out action plans. In the employment context, a conversation around strengths can motivate employees to use their strengths to achieve positive behaviors and results.

Various studies conducted by Gallup show that when organizations used a strengths-based approach to identification of talent, feedback to, and development of strategies for employees, engagement and productivity meaningfully increase. Those same studies show that when the focus was on weaknesses, employees tended to disengage. Engagement is not ever-lasting—maintaining engagement requires ongoing learning and growth. A shift from extensive attention to problems to a strengths orientation that helps employees build on what they do well, while also addressing weaknesses, provides a solid foundation for continued development, and ultimately increased engagement.

This is not to suggest avoiding or ignoring negative feedback. To the contrary, if the goal of reviews is to help lawyers become valuable, productive, profitable members of the organization, they need to know what is not working and where to shift attitudes and/or behaviors. It is important to keep detailed personnel files that support employment decisions. Since lawyers tend to plan for the worst, there may be a propensity to ‘build a record’ to support a discharge or document poor performance to have as evidence in a legal challenge to compensation, promotion or retention issues. However, keeping track of problems should not necessarily be the primary reason for conducting reviews. For the process to be truly valuable, it should deliver specific, clear and constructive feedback, provide assistance in overcoming weaknesses and cultivate, encourage, and recognize employee strengths.

Workplaces that honor and respect individuals’ contributions, nurture and support their intellectual, professional and relational growth, and provide constructive feedback and fair compensation optimize the opportunity for lawyer engagement, commitment, performance, productivity, profitability, teamwork, and ability to attract and retain talent. Specific work conditions linked to positive organizational performance outcomes include role clarity, feeling appreciated, coworker relationships and learning opportunities. Constructive performance feedback, supervisory support, and information can facilitate workplace engagement by fostering learning which increases job competence.

Successful implementation of a modification in the performance review dialogue will require: preparing and training at all levels of the firm, including those who deliver and receive feedback; reviewing of the current performance review process with an eye to what is and is not working; introducing stakeholders to a strengths-based process and its relationship to engagement and productivity; developing specific training modules for both reviewers and reviewees on framing, delivering and receiving feedback; creating individual development plans that are actionable and include periodic check-in and feedback to provide encouragement, assess progress and course adjust as needed; designing metrics to assess retention, recruitment, absenteeism, completion of assignments, etc.; and having all attorneys complete evaluations of the impact of the process.

The legal profession can realize enormous benefits from rethinking performance management as a tool for developing and retaining talent. However, merely providing information does not necessarily help an individual develop missing skills. In an increasingly complex, high-stakes business environment, ensuring that the information provided in a review process is retained and available for use on a day-to-day basis is critical. Post-review coaching may provide a valuable complement to the review process. Combining a positive, prospective performance management system with supportive coaching and training can yield great benefits and facilitate individual and organizational flourishing.

About the Authors

 
Diane Rosen (left) is of counsel at Ortoli Rosenstadt LLP in New York and is a mediator and coach. Laurie Lyte (right) is an experienced lawyer, coach, and training professional.

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