Should Law Firms Toss Performance Reviews?

by Vault Law Editors | March 03, 2011

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Annual performance reviews—an opportunity for law firm partners to reduce their associates’ toil and commitment to nothing but raw numbers. All of those late nights and sacrifices throughout the year are diminished to nothing more than a five-minute meeting about the numbers. But what if the numbers went away and were replaced with warm-and-fuzzy collaboration—just you and the partner hanging out, planning objectives and figuring out how both of you can work to reach those goals?

What alternative-law-firm universe is this? The one suggested by Samuel Culbert, professor at the Anderson School of Management at UCLA, in his recent New York Times Opinion piece Why Your Boss Is Wrong About You. Culbert criticizes performance reviews, noting:

I’ve learned that they are subjective evaluations that measure how “comfortable” a boss is with an employee, not how much an employee contributes to overall results. They are an intimidating tool that makes employees too scared to speak their minds, lest their criticism come back to haunt them in their annual evaluations. They almost guarantee that the owners — whether they be taxpayers or shareholders — will get less bang for their buck.

Culbert instead suggests that companies replace evaluations with collaboration: “Instead of the bosses merely handing out A’s and C’s, they work to make sure everyone can earn an A.” How would companies achieve this employee’s dream? Put the onus of success on both the employee and the boss. Culbert suggests that “[i]nstead of top-down reviews, both boss and subordinate are held responsible for setting goals and achieving results. No longer will only the subordinate be held accountable for the often arbitrary metrics that the boss creates.”

But how would a system like this work in a law firm, where associates work with several different partners on various matters throughout the year, sometimes on discreet assignments, other times on long-term cases? Is it realistic for partners to sit down with each associate assigned to his or her cases and map out the road to success with that associate? Would the billable-hour structure allow for it? Or is Culbert’s model more geared toward situations where employees work for one supervisor?

I certainly think Culbert’s idea of teaming up to reach success would benefit law firms. Open communication and goal-setting can create more successful working relationships and better service for clients. I also think partners should be candid with associates throughout the year on their performance so associates can work to improve any issues and avoid surprises during reviews. But I’m not sure that completely eliminating performance reviews would be feasible given the "swinging door" of supervisors associates often encounter. What do you think?

NYT Opinion Piece: Why Your Boss Is Wrong About You

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Filed Under: Law

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