Helping A Below-Average Associate Improve

Retraining or—worst-case scenario—rehiring for an associate position costs time and money. So, when a young associate is showing below-average performance, it’s sometimes more efficient and cost-effective for a law firm to create a plan for individual improvement.

The first step in this process is to conduct a performance review. Performance reviews should be standardized for all associates, and conducted regularly throughout the year.

When an employee receives a low or below-average rating, give that person the opportunity to respond. Hand the associate a written copy of their performance evaluation and then schedule a time to meet again.

Don’t schedule more than 15 minutes for this re-evaluation. Long discussions or disputes can turn ugly after too much time.

Still, it’s only natural (and good business sense) for an employee to refute his or her negative performance review, or—at least—to ask for advice about they can advance within the firm. Young associates, especially, may not fully understand what they’re doing wrong.

Whether or not the help is solicited, managers should implement a plan for improvement with any below-average associate.

Follow these steps for each point of failure or missing skill:

  1. Set goals for improvement
  2. Define methods for improvement
  3. Measure the improvement

First, set a goal for improvement. For example, if an associate has sloppy work, like poor grammar or misspellings in the initial drafts of legal filings, set a goal to have zero misspellings in each draft work product.

Then, explain how you expect the employee achieve this goal. For example, assign a second associate to re-read each office memo or draft filling before it is circulated. Create a checklist that includes items, such as (a) draft spellchecked? (b) draft proofread? (c) draft proofread by second associate? (d) changes made according to proofreading?

Don’t underestimate the value of a simple checklist.

Finally, managers should monitor and measure improved performance by the employee. Where possible, quantify the evaluation. For example, in week one, the associate had five misspellings across 3 fillings. By week three, the associate had only 3 misspellings across 5 filings.

Always make sure your evaluation of performance has an objective measure.

Do not rely on whether or not you “feel” an employee has improved.

At first, law firm managers should use words of encouragement or rely on a mentorship relationship to encourage improvement in flailing, fledgling associates.

However, if the associate does not show improvement, it may be time to consider a written warning. Pay attention to whether or not the associate responds more productively to stern or soft language.

Whatever the reaction from your subordinate associate, however, do not go back on your initial review assessment. Associates will try to convince you that their work has gone unnoticed, or that they are, in fact, meeting expectations despite your observations.

By relying on regular reviews, objective measures for performance, and giving second chances to associates to meet or exceed expectations, law firm managers ensure all employees are given, equally, top tools necessary for success (without harming the firm’s bottomline).

-WB

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