By Mark Powers and Shawn McNalis

Originally published in MBA Lawyer’s Journal

If you’ve ever played a team sport or even watched one — whether college, pro, high school or even little league — one thing you’ve noticed is that the coach never sends a team onto a court or field without one very important tool: meaningful feedback. Without input throughout the game, the team would never reach its peak performance.

A law firm is also a team with the supervising attorney as the coach. However, unlike the field of sports, it is not uncommon for the associates and staff of a law firm to work their entire careers without any feedback from their supervisors. Employees are hired and given basic job parameters, but they never go through an official evaluation. This means the law firm team will never reach its maximum potential to win.
This happens for several reasons. The most obvious is that attorneys are not trained as business people. In law school, emphasis is placed on the law, and rightly so. But this does nothing to prepare attorneys to run a successful business. Instead, most attorneys manage by abdication, meaning they throw the work to associates and staff and hope for the best.

There are 172 available work hours in a month. Consider all the time spent training to be an attorney. Now contrast that with the relatively little time spent training those hired in your firm, whether law practitioners or not, for the day-to-day tasks of running a successful law practice. Very few attorneys, whether they are sole practitioners or part of a larger firm, spend concentrated time training the people they bring on board.

According to the Institute of Management and Administration’s Law Office Report for 1998, the attrition rate for associates in law firms (regardless of firm size) is alarming. Ten percent of associates leave their firm within the first year, 26.5 percent in the second year, 34.6 percent in the third year, 55.6 percent in the fourth year, and 64.6 percent in the fifth year.

These figures represent a high failure rate in the first five years for associates. The reason for this astronomical rate is that law firms no longer implement the mentoring and training methods used to guide new associates through their first years with the firm.

Just as a coach would never let a team play a season and then tell them at the end what worked and what didn’t, a supervising attorney should not let associates flounder for assistance until frustration and disappointment force them to look elsewhere for more satisfying employment.

When teams win it is due in large part to immediate and frequent feedback from the coach. This enables a player to do more of what works and less of what doesn’t work on the playing field where it makes a difference.

Associates and staff will benefit from feedback as well. This feedback can take several different forms: yearly evaluations, where supervising attorneys work with employees to set goals and refine job descriptions; weekly meetings, for more frequent, short-term feedback to improve performance; or daily briefings, to provide alignment on priorities.

According to several bar associations, there are standard categories in which the performance of an attorney should be rated during an evaluation. Associates are rated either “excellent,” “good,” “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory” in each category. Similar categories can be applied to staff.

  1. Research — the associate researches matters thoroughly.
  2. Writing and drafting ability — the associate expresses thoughts in an organized, clear and concise manner.
  3. Oral expression — the associate expresses thoughts verbally in an organized, clear and concise manner.
  4. Practical judgment — the associate provides practical solutions to difficult problems, uses common sense, has a good feel for priorities and acts in a mature manner.
  5. Legal judgment — the associate recognizes legal issues and takes creative approaches to resolve them.
  6. Knowledge of the field — the associate has developed recognizable expertise and confidence in the field.
  7. Dependability – the associate handles matters with a minimum of supervision, is reliable and careful, fulfills responsibilities, completes assignments, and conducts proper follow-up.
  8. Work dedication — the associate is industrious, enthusiastic and highly motivated, and turns out a substantial volume of high-quality work.
  9. Relationships with attorneys and staff — the associate is tactful, cooperative and reasonable, and works well with others.
  10. Relationship with clients — the associate impresses and is accepted by clients.
  11. Operating style — the associate is personally organized.
  12. Marketing — the associate develops new business.

In addition to the above information, supervising attorneys should also note standard background in an evaluation. This could include practice area, date of law school graduation, date of hire, current salary rate, billable hours for the prior year, and billable hours for the current year to date.

Depending on where the associate is on the partnership track, the evaluating attorney could give the associate one of six partnership recommendations based on this evaluation and the background information:

  1. Yes, the associate is ready for partnership this year.
  2. Yes, the associate has potential, but is not ready for partnership this year.
  3. Undecided. Presently cannot determine the associate’s potential for partnership.
  4. No recommendation. Insufficient information.
  5. No partnership potential, but do not terminate.
  6. Terminate.

Most law firms would end an evaluation here. Instead, borrow a page from corporate America and go one step further to ensure the success of your associates. Work together to arrive at 3-5 mutually agreed upon performance objectives for improvement. These objectives would focus on improvement in areas in which the staff or associate was rated “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory” only. Then, together, the staff member or associate and the evaluating attorney should put together an action plan to reach these objectives. Any plan of action should also include deadlines for completion.

For example, let’s say your firm hired an associate with very good legal judgment but poor people skills. Clients complain about his abruptness and lack of tact. An appropriate objective would be to have him shadow attorneys in the firm who are very good with people, or to take courses in legal etiquette or working with clients.

It is important to remember that time spent recruiting and hiring associates and staff is an investment in both the hired person and your firm. It is an investment worth the minimal time it takes to encourage employees to grow into a vital, winning part of your team.

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