Traditionally speaking, performance management and employee development go hand-in-hand. Engaged people perform better. But classic performance management methods used in law firms, such as performance reviews, fail to live up to that expectation. These methods are out dated. Meanwhile, personal development continues to be a concern for professionals working in law firms.

Many young lawyers try to be proactive about their professional development. But their employers (typically partners) are often too busy to take an active role in mentoring them. This was raised in one of The Lawyer’s Career Clinic articles.

The shortcomings of traditional law firm performance management

Career improvement needs great feedback that is accurate, relevant and timely. But this is often not the case. Especially with annually scheduled performance appraisals: feedback is retrospective, often no longer relevant, and often not all that accurate. Something clearly has to change. Given that the vast majority of HR professionals don’t believe their company’s review procedures provide effective feedback.

As well as being fairly time-consuming, these reviews tend to be a great source of stress that damages employee productivity. One in three Millennials had cried after a performance review. And two thirds would change to a job with no formal review process in place, even if the job level and rate of pay were the same. Additionally, 80% of all office workers would prefer to get feedback in the moment rather than wait for their annual or quarterly review.

Associate job reviews are usually a big waste of time

In his article, “Associate Job Reviews Are Usually A Big Waste Of Time’, US lawyer Jordan Rothman discussed his own experience going through the review process during his time at various firms.

He drew attention to some of the issues we have already touched upon. Namely that the review processes were time-consuming for all involve. And often ran counter to the schedules of busy partners. This often resulted in being reviewed by people who were available. Not those he’d worked with.

“It is extremely demoralizing if partners who don’t oversee your work conduct reviews, and if no specific examples of both good and bad work are discussed at the meeting. If managers want to have meaningful attorney reviews, and not just check a box to feel good about themselves, they need to put in some effort and show associates that they take the review process seriously.”

But of course, partners are incredibly busy, as you’d expect from a firm’s top fee earners. So the question isn’t how can partners make more time for performance reviews. But instead, how can the review process be modernized to help everyone involved to engage effectively?

Modern approaches to performance reviews in law firms

The first thing that needs to go is any over reliance on the annual performance review. With the vast majority of office professionals wishing to receive feedback at the time when it is actually relevant, it’s clear that a more consistent and timely means of performance management is needed.

Shorter, more regular performance conversations improve professional development by giving timely feedback with regular check-ins to monitor progress.

There is also a clear need in law firms for diversified feedback. Especially when Partners are too busy. 360° feedback may be a solution.

360 feedback supports performance reviews in law firms

360 feedback is where an employee can receive feedback from a variety of sources. These could be other associates, partners they may have worked with, paralegals. Even those outside the firm such as suppliers and clients. This type of feedback could even work in chambers.

This type of feedback means associates get feedback from people who know their work. And the burden on Partners is reduced.

Use check-ins to underpin performance reviews in law firms

Engage365 removes up to 90% of the prep work involved in performance reviews. It does that by using more light-tough performance based updates called employee check-ins. Rather than cumbersome once-a-year conversations.

Another benefit to these digital platforms is their use of OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) along with the feedback process. These smart objectives help to align an associate’s professional development aims with the firm’s long-term goals. Used in conjunction with check-ins, OKRs provide insights into how everyone is contributing to the firm’s overall productivity, week by week. Additionally, the ability to recognize colleagues in your own review allows people to thank each other for their contributions. This increases employee productivity via positive reinforcement.

Move to a more continuous performance management process

More firms are re-evaluating how they conduct performance evaluations, and many of those are going digital. For example, in 2017, Hogan Lovells made the change to using a digital review platform designed in-house. According to Allison Friend, their Chief HR Officer in the Americas,

“Instead of being evaluated once a year, our lawyers now have a process for getting thoughtful input as frequently as they want in order to improve and develop their skills. This new approach helps associates develop the skills they need to be successful at the firm, or wherever their career path takes them.’