Bonus season is around the corner! But first, associates need to make it through performance reviews. Few people look forward to the review process. Some find it stressful — after all, these can be complicated conversations. Others may be tempted to dismiss it as pointless, considering that many firms award bonuses based primarily on class year and/or hours billed. But even if you’re at a firm where performance reviews are not a critical compensation driver, you should treat the review process as a valuable opportunity to elicit helpful feedback.
Instead of viewing your performance review as something to be endured, take control of the process to the extent possible. Put in the time to prepare fully, clarify the feedback you receive, and reflect on the implications for your broader career goals.
Prepare for the review conversation
It’s likely that your firm will ask you to do some form of self-evaluation ahead of the review process, but regardless of what is formally expected, preparation is critical to achieving a productive conversation. Questions to ask yourself include:
- Did you make your hours?
- What sort of feedback have you gotten along the way?
- Did you have a trend line this year of improvement, or did you have the same problems all year?
- Did you successfully address the feedback you received in last year’s review?
Identify your weaknesses, and think about how to frame them constructively. You want to go into the review conversation prepared to talk about what you learned and what you’ll do differently next time. Demonstrating that you have a specific plan for future improvements helps your evaluator look past any bumps.
Ahead of the review, be sure to update your deal sheet or representative matters list! In case you don’t already have a deal sheet, see how to make one here. Updating your deal sheet will help you review your work and prepare to discuss both victories and setbacks. It’s too easy and too common for a supervisor to forget about things you thought were really important, so don’t rely on your reviewer to generate a comprehensive list. Having your deal sheet at your fingertips will make sure you’re prepared to advocate for yourself.
Listen carefully and seek clarification
During the review conversation, remember to take notes as best you can. You can’t expect to remember it all, especially if you’re anxious or you get feedback that surprises you. Detailed notes will be helpful if you need to follow up on something later.
Ideally, the feedback you receive will be specific and actionable, but it’s possible it will be generic and unhelpful. If so, it’s on you to ask granular questions to elicit more precisely what the reviewer is talking about. This applies to either positive or negative feedback, but it’s especially critical in situations where the reviewer is expressing concern about your performance. Valuable questions to ask include:
- Am I on track for partnership?
- What do I need to do this year to get there/stay there?
- What specific skills would you like to see me acquire this year?
- Are there any weaknesses I need to shore up?
- Now that I’m a Xth year associate, how do you see my role on deals in the coming year? In mentoring juniors on our team? In business development?
Ask for clarification, especially about critiques, but don’t be defensive. Remember: “curious, not furious.” Achieving this balance can be really challenging for us over-achieving lawyers. You may find it helpful to practice reacting to feedback in advance, ensuring you enter the review conversation with some default responses. Ask A Manager has some great advice on this, as well as scripts for if you disagree with the criticism. For example: “I’m glad you’re telling me this. I’ve been letting some deadlines on this project slide because I had thought that projects x and z were higher priorities and was more focused there. But am I looking at this wrong?”
Keep in mind that it’s perfectly acceptable to ask for a follow-up conversation! You may find that you ask more effective questions after having had some time to gather your thoughts. Ahead of the follow-up, draft a list of questions digging into the specifics of how the firm wants you to perform in the next year.
Reflect on your broader career trajectory
Although the review process is principally about your performance in your current role at your current firm, don’t forget to reflect on the bigger picture. The end of the year is a great time to consider whether your firm remains the best setting to achieve your career goals. Are you getting the work you want? How do you feel about your professional development? Have you found your people at this firm? Are you content?
If not, keep in mind that other firms would be happy to have you. I’d love to help you think through your options or connect you with one my colleagues in your area.