One of my clients, a partner at a large law firm, told me today that the firm recently decided to lay off a senior associate in her department. There was a part of her that felt regret about the decision because Stephen is “such a nice guy.” He got fired for two reasons. First, despite getting very clear direction in three consecutive annual reviews about specific areas of performance the partners wanted him to work on (all of which they considered important to his job performance and the evaluation of his chances of making partner in the law firm), Stephen had never made any effort to work on the issues of concern. In fact, she said, with respect to those issues, every annual review was virtually identical to the one before it. Despite the fact that Stephen is a good guy and a hard worker who is dedicated to the firm, they let him go. He’s a good guy. He works hard. He’s a team player. And he’s unemployed.
Most lawyers I know tell me they hardly ever get feedback from the attorneys they work for and are not really sure how they are measuring up or whether they have any chance of making partner. And it’s often true — the lawyers you report to expect you to have a crystal ball. You’re supposed to know exactly what they want, and when and how they want it, without anyone ever telling you.
How to Stop Wondering about Promotion or Making Partner in a Law Firm
Even if you don’t get much feedback during the year, you may well get it in your annual review. Why? Think like a lawyer for a minute: they need to “paper the file.” In other words, any complaints or concerns about you, any negative perceptions or constructive criticism, needs to get written down somewhere so there’s a record of it for the future. They need a record of your poor performance in case they want to fire you down the road. They’re covering their assets. And so should you.
If you are like many lawyers, you may not put much stock in your annual review. Sure, you might get a little nervous beforehand, but as long as you are not handed a pink slip, you move on to the next assignment and put it out of your mind. That’s a huge mistake. They are handing you the opportunity of a lifetime, and you’re throwing it away. Just like Stephen.
When you sweep criticism under the rug and hope it goes away, guess what happens? The pile under the rug just keeps growing. You may forget it’s there, but your firm won’t.
Your annual review is a huge gift (even bigger and better than your annual bonus). The cherry on top? Most of your colleagues are ignoring the opportunity you are about to grab. You will be among the select few to use it to your advantage.
So how do you leverage your annual review?
• Take Time to Reflect and Respond. No one likes to hear that he’s not perfect and that goes double when two senior lawyers are giving you the hairy eyeball across someone’s faux mahogany desk. Remain calm, thank them for the feedback (don’t argue the point), and let them know you intend to carefully consider their advice and work on improving your performance.
• Be Honest with Yourself. You didn’t want to hear the news, but there it is. Do they have a point? Even if you’re not in full agreement with their assessment, the reality is that it’s their assessment. That’s part of your reputation. And it needs to be fixed.
• Be Grateful. It’s tempting to get angry, but you just got thrown a roadmap to success. Unroll it, study it, and start following the bread crumbs.
• Consider whether you need help and then get it. Just because someone told you what they think you need to do to improve your performance doesn’t mean you know how to do it. If that’s the case, invest in your own professional development and get someone to help you make the changes that are needed.
• Follow up. Don’t wait until next year’s annual review to see if the perceptions of you have changed. Reach out to your reviewers, share the steps you have taken, and solicit their continued feedback.
Making partner in a law firm is a process, and ambitious lawyers owe it to themselves to pay close attention to the feedback they are receiving from their senior colleagues.