Firms’ Feedback Keeps Associates from Straying

A few years back, Law.com’s Petra Pasternak chronicled how midsize firms which employed anywhere from 101 to 250 lawyers became decidedly interested in whether their associates were happy.  After some investigation it was concluded that, when partners gave feedback and when the associates were allowed to give feedback, in turn, the associates were more likely to call their workplace happy.  Associates at these midsize firms also gave high marks when their work was being evaluated without bias.

Although the largest firms were seeing the greatest signs of attrition, midsized firms, too, were reporting that associates, perhaps because they  lacked professional development guidance, were bailing.

And so midsize firms decided to attempt to remedy the situation.

An adjunct consultant at Altman Weil who addressed such issues said that feedback was a step that made an immediate difference. “[A]ssociate evaluations of partners and competency-based performance evaluations of associates are among the latest professional development techniques that make a difference in how quickly a young lawyer matures as a professional,” he said.   Even if the firm isn’t small enough for person-to-person give-and-take (and perhaps not large enough for a mentor), knowing that you’re being fairly and objectively evaluated seemed to make for a more contented associate. “In an environment that can no longer be warmly personalized, objectivity and fairness will save the day,” the consultant noted.

This technique will especially prove helpful to minority and women lawyers trying to work their way up the ranks.

One firm in San Francisco, seeking to improve its work assignment system, hired a professional development director whose sole job was to keep track of the development of each of their 40 associates—and who actually tried to match up associates’ ambitions with what was available.  It worked to the firm’s advantage that they were able to hire a director who was experienced in practicing law, as opposed to someone who might not have been able to relate as well to the associates.

The director was tasked to keep track of how busy each associate was.  He then had to match their professional goals with incoming projects.  This also helped the associate stay aware of what exactly was expected of him or her. The director drafted a checklist spelling out the competencies and experiences.  The list detailed what skills the associate was supposed to have mastered each year of his or her career.

As a way to show how serious it was about the professional development of their associates, one firm even tied its partners’ year-end bonuses to the feedback from associates. (It also handed out monetary rewards to partners who met the firm’s diversity goals.)

“There are some partners who have changed their behavior, based on the reviews,” said the firm’s director of professional development.  In some cases, the partners learned some things about themselves that they were “clueless” about before.   One associate suggested that  a particular partner could improve by helping him prioritize the tasks he was juggling,  so the associate didn’t get overextended. For the partner, the critique wasn’t easy to hear but he did something about it, and the following year that issue did not resurface.  It was obvious, the partner emphasized, that, in this specific attempt to provide a happier workplace for associates, “there [were] results.”  To read more, go to:http://www.law.com/jsp/article.jsp?id=900005486799&slreturn=1&hbxlogin=1

-EM

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