Surviving a Bad Performance Review, Part II

Part I of this piece examined the growth of performance reviews at law firms and detailed the rationale behind them. In Part II, LawCrossing gives advice on how to handle the review process.


Okay, So The Appraisal Process Is Not Perfect! How Do I Proceed?

Your first battle is to win a fight with yourself. As we have said, you are emotionally predisposed and programmed to protect yourself from bad news, especially if through your actions you caused the bad news to happen. Your mind will deliberately rationalize your mistakes. It will attribute them to events beyond your control. It may even shift blame to others. In short, your brain will do almost anything to avoid confronting the truth of your own error. So your first job is to confront this aspect of yourself and attempt to override it. Easier said than done, right? Well, awareness is half the battle.

When you make a mistake, go ahead and rationalize it all you want, but allow part of your brain to recognize it for what it was, a blunder. Start with prevention. Where associates and professional staff get themselves in needless difficulty is not owning up to mistakes. Most mistakes can be fixed quickly. If you find yourself making the same type of mistake over and over, you need to be on the outlook for this predilection. Then your brain can start building fail-safe mechanisms to guard against similar future mistakes.

Learn the system. Every firm has its idiosyncrasies. For instance, in your firm, what is considered a respectable amount of billable hours? Are partners down in the trenches with associates or do they have a tendency to remain aloof? In general, how is work assigned? How is it evaluated? If you get in the flow sufficiently to operate automatically, then the aspects of the system that seem petty or unnecessary will eventually be forgotten.

Get feedback. But don't do so too often. Don't go running into a supervising partner or senior associate every three or four hours to ask "How am I doing?" Your insecurity will soon cause irritation, and you will look like a whiner and not a "take charge" individual. Instead, choose quiet times, outside the office if necessary, to ask the assessment of someone senior whom you trust. There are good and bad ways to do this. A bad way might go like this:

You: Well, how am I doing? Partner: What do you mean? You: You know, my work performance. Is it okay? In your opinion, am I partner material? What does the bonus situation look like this year? How much do you think I will get?

  • Here's what you did wrong in this conversation. First, you put the partner on the spot. You did not give him or her enough time to reflectively respond to your first question before you asked the second question. As for the second question, if you have only been with the firm a few years, there may be no way of telling if you are or are not partner material. True, impressions about you have begun to form. But those impressions can and will change over time. So the first piece of advice is to avoid asking about partnerships. Likewise, asking about bonuses and promotions is rarely a good tactic.

  • Instead, whether you are an associate or professional staff, keep your questions specific to a particular assignment or series of assignments. This is only reasonable. The long-term decision regarding your competency and/or partnership potential is the result of many private discussions by others that eventually result in a consensus after a period of years. A better way to inquire about your performance might go like this:

    You: Do you think I did okay on the Laughingbod Case? I'm only asking because I respect your opinion, and your feedback can only be helpful. (Pause)

    Partner: I thought you did okay. (Pause) You might edit your stuff a little more carefully before turning it in. You write persuasively, and I've complemented you on your citations, and you're great at meeting deadlines, but, as you know, I've also pointed out some problems from time to time; not serious, you understand, but an indication that your language can use some tightening. I'll work with you on this. It was a problem I also had when I first started working here. I had to learn how the law firm did things. I might add that others have noted how well you handle the client. You're very relaxed and professional and I've heard a lot of favorable comments.

    You: Thanks. Now, about the Laughingbod Case. I next plan to, etc.

  • Here's What You did right in this conversation.
    1. You asked for advice, which flatters the potential advice giver.
    2. You didn't bombard him/her with additional questions. You asked an open-ended question that gave the other person wide latitude in how to respond.
    3. You got the advice giver to point out problems; but more important strategically, you got him or her to partner with you in working on the problem. You moved the advice giver into your corner as a helper/facilitator.
    4. Finally, you didn't become a pain in the ass by dwelling on the subject. You moved on, allowing the supervising attorney to do the same.

The above hypothetical conversation may or may not be difficult to replicate. It suggests an already comfortable relationship between a supervising lawyer and his or her report; but a loose approximation of such a discussion can be conducted with anyone as long as you remember to keep your question simple, open-ended, and focused on a specific task or tasks. Your primary task: Get a supervisory attorney to take some responsibility for your development. This does not mean mentoring in the classic sense of the word. You're merely asking for an occasional on-the-job critique from someone who may even busier than you; so you cannot ask for this directly but only hope that it is offered. If it is, this person could eventually evolve into your mentor.

Constantly evaluate yourself. The first and most important question you must ask is, Would I want to work with me or for me? You can decide this by asking such questions as: Do partners, other associates, or people in the support staff avoid me? If so, why? Am I brusque in my professional dealings? Do I complain a lot? Do I pick arguments? Do I fail to say "Thank you" when somebody goes out of their way or does something nice for me? Am I absent more than I should be? Do I fail to return calls promptly?

Being aware of others is often difficult when we have spent all of our lives focusing on ourselves, with our noses in books and with one test hurdle after another always staring us in the face. But the truth is, in a work environment it is all about interpersonal relationships. You don't have to turn yourself into a back-slapping life of the party, but you need to be moderately skillful socially when at the office. You may arbitrarily dismiss such social niceties as "office politics." But the fact of the matter is that all work life involves human interaction, and all of human interaction is political in the sense that to work and live together, we must make accommodations and compromises in order to get along.

Periodically, force yourself to evaluate your social interactions. What aspect of these interactions can you manage better? Which relationships seem to be working best? Why might they be? Do these relationships work solely because you genuinely like these particular individuals? Because you share some interest no matter how banal? Or is it because you take the time to recognize them as unique individuals?

Proactively, always find something about somebody else to compliment, but do so judiciously. Don't just make up something. The compliment has to be sincerely felt or noticed or the other person will likely intuit your deception and react unfavorably to you. Monitor yourself to see if you are walking around looking distracted or unpleasant. If you are, a smile can fix the problem even if you are boiling inside. In an article in JD Jungle, the author (anonymous) comments as follows: "Success at a law firm is about human relationships," says Peter Sloan, a career development partner at Kansas City's Blackwell Sanders. Every time you meet someone new-a partner, another first-year, your secretary -- smile. Introduce yourself. Take the time to ask the person a bit about herself. Be the kind of person people like to work with, says Sloan. "You'll lay the groundwork for the relationships you'll need to get ahead."

Sloan makes smiling sound like a cynical career move, but it is more than that. It may not help you get ahead, as he assumes, but smiling can reshape your approach to work, to your fellow lawyers and life in general. Like physical exercise, it is necessary for a healthy existence. So look upon smiling as producing multiple benefits, some of which may be that people will like you better and be more disposed to giving you a break.

Conclusion

You cannot avoid performance appraisals. Even partners get appraisals. You will be evaluated in one form or another all of your working life. Because you cannot avoid the process, it is better that you manage it as best you can. You must first manage your emotions. This is the toughest part. Secondly, you must identify and establish a comfortable feedback relationship with those responsible for judging you. This means getting constant feedback without having to ask for it; which in turn means establishing the kind of open and eager-to-improve attitude that permits criticism, which also has much to do with managing your emotions. Finally, your task is to get supervising attorneys ready to help you improve, which starts with your being open to all suggestions. If you can do most if not all of this, you likely won't be "blindsided" at appraisal time. So, good luck to you. Take a while to think about what you've just read. Try to dispassionately analyze your current work attitude towards your fellow associates, the partners, the support staff, and your attitude towards yourself. Some of the changes in this article may feel ill-fitting the first few weeks you try them; but none of them -- smiling more, saying "thank you" when appropriate, controlling your negative emotions -- will seriously compromise your individuality. Instead, you'll find your work easier and the dreaded performance appraisal easier to digest.

© 2002, 2003, 2004 LawCrossing, Inc. All rights reserved.