Law Firm Management

You’re Still Not Fired!

Let me tell you about annual reviews for Associates in law firms.

Let’s start with the word “annual” which suggests that the review will take place around the same time every year. In most firms, it will not, if a lawyer is conducting it. Doing that would require that billable work be put aside. That is not going to happen.

Now let’s move on to the purpose of the annual review. It should be to: (i) discuss with the Associate how they are perceived to be doing in their quest to meet previously communicated objective criteria; (ii) provide encouragement and constructive criticism; (iii) listen to the Associate’s concerns with a view to resolving them;  (v) for senior Associates, tell them where they stand on meeting the previously communicated requirements to be considered for partnership; and (vi) perhaps, to discuss bonuses and salary increases, although I note that in our firm we purposely kept this item separate from the review process so that the focus would be on performance.

(Associates reading this may want to pause now to laugh about that “previously communicated” stuff.)

And what is the real reason that the annual review is being done?  In some firms it is being conducted because they have good human resource practices. In others it is a “check the box” thing.  Annual Review – done, check! And of course, in other firms it is not done at all on a regular basis.

Who should be conducting the reviews?

The Partners would like Human Resources to do it so that they do not have to be bothered with this ‘fluff’ when they could be busy docketing billable hours. One of my partners used to say, “Do we really have to do this? Can’t we just tell them that they are still not fired?”

Human Resources would like the Partners (or other supervising lawyers) to do it because they actually have firsthand knowledge as to how the Associate has been doing and will be taken seriously by the Associate. Also, Human Resources wants the partner to be involved so that they cannot later claim ignorance of the message that Human Resources is providing and sabotage the entire process. So, depending on how well-managed the firm is, the review may be conducted by one or the other of them, or perhaps both together.

And now, for the secret sauce – the most burning question that each Associate is going to be asked at the review:  “Why are your billable hours below target?”

Sure, there are other things that may be discussed as well. Whether there have been complaints from supervising lawyers or clients about the quality of their legal work? Does the Associate have a marketing plan or any desire to develop one?  Can the Associate please stop treating the staff like shit? Can the Associate share an assistant to reduce overheads? And other such mundane stuff. But mainly – “Why are your billable hours below target?”

Being retired I no longer have to conduct performance reviews which is fine because I don’t want to waste my remaining time on this earth on fluff. Now, if I could only get my wife to stop giving them to me, all would be perfect.

2 replies on “You’re Still Not Fired!”

I have an idea. Why don’t firms ask retired partners or other former senior staff to conduct lawyer performance reviews? It could be done on a paid basis or as an alumni act of pro bono.

Interesting idea. Here are my thoughts: (1) Reviews are best performed by lawyers who have actually worked with the associate and who are familiar with their strengths and weaknesses; (2) Law firms like to believe that there are things that partners or senior associates have to do “in their spare time” or “because they are part of the team,” which are not compensated. They like to ignore the fact that it is hard to motivate people to do unpaid work when they are already working full time plus on paid work; and (3) You would think that retired partners or former senior staff would have been treated so well on their way out that they would have a warm and fuzzy feeling about the firm as alumni and want to help, pro bono. I imagine that is the case in some law firms, but I suspect that may be the exception. Law firms sometimes have a way of asking “what have you done for me lately” when lawyers slow down their billables towards the end of their careers.

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