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How Can I Get the Most Out of My Performance Review?

How Can I Get the Most Out of My Performance Review?

By Nicole L. Donnelly, Esq.
Senior Managing Director
t. 212.897.0986
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Associates typically tell me they learn very little during their year-end performance review – they are told they should keep up what they are doing, perhaps they are read some vague commentary from their senior colleagues, and they are back at their desks shortly after. It should feel a bit frustrating – to work tirelessly on a range of matters for a year and have a 15-minute one-sided interaction to show for it.

You, as an associate, should want more from your review – you need more from your review. And it isyour responsibility to get more from your review.

• As a developing associate, it is essential to be proactive about your professional growth. There is no better formal opportunity than your performance review to learn how your colleagues view you, how your skill set compares to others at your level and in what areas you excel or need to focus. You don’t want to tread water in your career, you want to progress. You can’t do that without feedback.

• While performance reviews are designed and implemented to give you that feedback, law firm leadership is notoriously passive/aggressive and they certainly aren’t leaping to give constructive feedback because it can be awkward. If you leave your review with only a vague appreciation of your performance and status at the firm, you are the one who loses out most.

• You have a shelf life at a law firm and the length of that shelf life has everything to do with how you are perceived, both individually and in comparison to your colleagues. If there is something you need to enhance, tweak or change altogether, you have limited time to do so and you need to make yourself aware.

• Prepare. How many associates walk into their review having spent little to no time preparing for this rare opportunity for feedback? You will squander this educational moment if you aren’t prepared. Set aside time to decide what you want to get out of your review. Write down your questions and goals so you have them at the ready. Decide what you want to say, both in response to feedback and proactively – feedback is a two-way street and it is equally important for your reviewers to hear from you, but only if you are prepared for that discussion.

• Set the stage. See if you have any control over who conducts the review and at what time you get that review. It isn’t productive to have an audience with someone who doesn’t know your work or can’t answer your questions. And you want your review scheduled for a time when neither you nor the reviewer is rushed or during a time that is vulnerable to rescheduling. Early morning? Late evening? After a deal closes or a brief is filed? Be strategic.

• Control the conversation and get granular. Too often, reviews are a monologue – the reviewer speaks, the associate listens. For the sake of your professional growth, be an active participant in your review. Push back (respectfully) when necessary and get the specific details you need for this review to be of value to you. Don’t rush. And ask the hard questions. Don’t settle for vague answers.

• Schedule a follow-up. Your reviewers may not have immediate responses to your questions or comments, but you are entitled to them. Ask for the follow-up meeting if you are owed one, schedule that meeting during your review and make sure it happens.

What to discuss in a review depends on one’s goals, which differ based on your seniority, your long-term aspirations, your practice area, etc. But some questions or themes to strategically consider include:

• What hard skills should I have at my level? What soft skills should I have at my level?

• Where can I improve? What steps can I take to improve? How can the firm be helpful in me taking those steps?

• What is my reputation within the firm? How do I compare to others in my class? How am I perceived by my colleagues and/or clients?

• What is the growth strategy for our group?

• What does partnership track look like at the firm? What can be learned about the partnership decision-making process?

• Am I on partnership track? Who am I being considered next to and how do I measure up? What does that track look like for me?

• If and when I’d like to consider going in-house, how can the firm be helpful?

Many of these questions will not be easy to ask. Pushing back on responses may be uncomfortable. But if you own the awkward, then you own your career. You cannot afford to avoid the awkward or be passive. Look your performance review dead in the eye and don’t flinch. Break a leg!

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