Just about every firm has some formal mechanism for evaluating associates. The format varies, but the general idea is always the same: to collect feedback on how well each associate is performing and to pass that on to the associate, preferably with some comments about how the associate might improve. Fair enough, except that the method of communicating the results of that exercise to the associate often undercuts the effectiveness and benefit that an evaluation is supposed to convey. Toward the end of the year (traditional evaluation time), I’ll discuss this topic in more depth.
For now, let’s consider self-evaluation. A number of large firms are using the self-evaluation model to help associates determine their career path. Again, the format varies, but generally the associate is asked to fill out a form that asks for the associate’s self-evaluation in certain areas and sets plans for the future. If taken seriously, these programs can be very useful in helping to guide associates’ professional development.
The challenge arises, however, when the associate may begin to feel his or her path diverging from the firm. Because the truth is that the self-evaluation and professional planning programs may benefit the firm just as much as they do the associate. I encourage lawyers who are completing these self-evaluations to go through the process twice: once, without censoring anything, and a second time with an eye to how the firm might perceive her comments. For instance, an associate might be unhappy about work/life balance, but it’s wise to pay careful attention to how that issue is raised. Commenting that she’d like to focus on becoming even more effective in her use of time is palatable; commenting that she’d like to reduce her in-office hours is not. But it’s possible to develop a lot of useful information in responding to the self-evaluation and planning forms that the firm provides.
If your firm doesn’t engage in this process, or if you sense that your professional desires may be leading you away from the firm fold, you may want to consider these questions.
1. How satisfied are you with your practice setting? Are you aware of any reason why a different practice setting (larger or smaller firm, sole practice, in-house, government, or public service) might be preferable for you?
2. How well are you perceived in your firm? Do you need to make an effort to raise your visibility?
3. Are you taking advantage of what your firm offers in terms of training, professional networking opportunities, social/cultural opportunities, etc? Are you cross-selling to your clients, and are other lawyers cross-selling your services to their clients?
4. How well are you working with support staff? Are any changes necessary? Are you communicating clearly with the staff? Are these any tasks you can effectively delegate? Any procedures you could institute to make things run more smoothly?
5. How are you doing in terms of skills development? Is there any kind of training you need? If so, what’s your plan for getting that training?
6. Are you satisfied with the quality and quantity of assignments you’re receiving? Is your level of responsibility increasing appropriately? If the answer to either question is anything other than an unqualified yes, what have you done to rectify the situation? If you’re not receiving an adequate quantity of work, is that because business is down generally, or is there a chance that it’s a reflection on your work or on how you’re perceived within the firm? What do you need to do differently?
7. Are you satisfied with your level of client contact? What can you do to provide better service to your clients? Do you have a client development plan, and are you working it on a regular basis?
8. How is your relationship with the lawyers who supervise your work? What can you do to make it stronger? How do they perceive you? What changes would you like to make?
9. What are your career goals for the next three years, both in terms of substantive/skills development and in terms of your position with the firm? What’s your strategy for reaching these goals?
10. Are you satisfied with your work/life balance? Are any changes desirable or necessary?
These are, of course, just a sample of the range of questions you might ask. The most critical part of your self-evaluation is to take a realistic look at where you stand professionally now, to reflect thoughtfully on where you want to be professionally in at least the next one to three years, and to think strategically about what adjustments you need to make so you can reach those goals. You may find it particularly valuable to perform this kind of self-evaluation with the assistance of a mentor or a coach, either of whom can help with each of these three steps.