Performance Review

Sheila Markin Nielsen, M.S.W., J.D.

For Sara, review time was a little like playing bingo. Sara believed that receiving good performance reviews from her partners was a matter of luck. A fourth year at a medium-sized litigation firm, Sara worked for four different partners, but more and more of her work was coming from Kate, the only female partner at the firm. Sara realized that she had not done many depositions, but she had not been given the chance to do them either. Other associates had snapped them up while Sara had been busy doing her partners‘ biddings. She was also relieved not to have to do depositions because she was nervous about them. She planned to do more depositions next year. She had put in long hours and had gone the extra distance to respond to Kate‘s requests even though Kate was anxious, perfectionist and notoriously critical. All-in-all Sara thought she had done a good job during the year.

When Sara read her reviews she was stunned. Kate had given her a flatly negative review. Kate‘s review dwelled on Sara‘s lack of deposition experience and stated that she ought to remedy the problem if she wished to progress. Sara‘s first reaction was anger. How was she supposed to get more deposition experience if she was never given the opportunities? How could this partner judge her so harshly after all Sara had done to help her?

Sara came for counseling to figure out what she should do about her review. The negative feedback had taken the wind out of her sails at work. She felt deflated and angry, misjudged and unfairly treated.

What do you do if you get a negative review?

First, consider the source, the motive, and the validity of the critique. Sara‘s partner, Kate, was notoriously demanding, frank, and overly critical. Sara‘s other partners had not been as negative. In fact most of their comments were positive, although they too noted her lack of deposition experience. Kate‘s comments were particularly harsh because she was a blunt, no-nonsense kind of person.

Kate had another motive for her negative review. She needed Sara‘s help more than the other partners. Kate was overloaded with work, and had come to rely on Sara more and more. It was likely she wanted to turn more work over to Sara, including depositions in her clients‘ matters, but she needed to have faith in Sara‘s ability to handle depositions before she would entrust Sara with this next level of responsibility. Understanding this, Sara was able to see how her lack of deposition experience was a burden to Kate. Kate‘s review was perhaps too sharp, but the message was valid.

Although a negative review hurts, corrective feedback early in your career can be the best thing that happens to you if you take it the right way. Some partners are too busy, others are too faint-hearted to tell you what you need to hear to improve your performance. I have done outplacement work with attorneys who believed everything was going well until they were let go or failed to make partner.

What can you do to have a good performance review? The key to a good performance review is to take charge of your development as a lawyer.

Here are some pointers to enable you to have the best possible performance and performance reviews at your firm.

  1. Identify your own goals for your professional development, both short-term, and long-term.
  2. List the skills and abilities you will need to develop or improve to attain your goals. Keep a skills-needed list.
  3. Identify impediments that keep you from achieving your goals.
  4. Write down a game plan for achieving the goals you have identified. Your blueprint should include ways to overcome impediments you have listed. Keep a “to do“ list with target dates for completing each item.
  5. During the year, do your own assessment of your work every 2 to 3 months. Keep track of your successes and write down positive comments from clients, judges, opposing counsel, and partners. Note the circumstances, date and time of the comments. Keep a list of your non-billable contributions to the firm. Note your networking and marketing efforts.
  6. Prepare for your review as you would for trial. You are your own advocate. Be ready to discuss your development using illustrations to support your points.

To her credit, Sara took charge of her career after her negative review.

She took a NITA training course, found a senior associate who mentored her, learned about depositions by reading materials and listening to tapes, and actively sought and got depositions. Her efforts paid off with strong reviews the next year and more challenging work. Sara gained control over her development as a lawyer and no longer felt her success was left to chance.

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Sheila Markin Nielsen V Card
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