Annual performance reviews often strike dread in law firm associates. For junior lawyers, a lot of money and professional status depends on these yearly rites of passage.
The high expectations and stakes remain, but the process for evaluating associates is changing at some law firms.
Annual performance reviews are standard for many employers, but real-time evaluation systems are gaining popularity as employers increasingly question the effectiveness of annual reviews to gauge and improve employee performance. About seven in 10 companies are changing the performance management process in their organizations, according to Deloitte’s 2017 Global Human Capital Trends survey, which polled more than 10,000 companies. Many employees consider performance reviews more valuable when they occur at least quarterly.
Hogan Lovells Adopts Continuous Feedback
Hogan Lovells is replacing its traditional annual assessments with a new continuous feedback system dubbed Pathways. “We changed our model because we found that the traditional approach to reviews wasn’t working,” Allison Friend, Hogan Lovells’ chief human resources officer for the Americas, told Bloomberg Law. “We decided to scrap the old way and approach it from a more modern perspective,” she said. “We’re one of the first law firms” to go this route.
“It’s more about making the feedback people receive richer and more timely and more relevant,” Friend said. Under Hogan Lovells’ previous system, the feedback “was not so useful. It was old and stale,” she said.
The annual performance review model “didn’t facilitate or encourage the development of our people,” Friend said. It also ate up resources. The “partners said the process took a long time,” she said.
Allen & Overy also is implementing a review process based on ongoing communication rather than a retrospective annual appraisal. Its Compass system “has been introduced to drive more regular feedback and discussions than provided by the typical annual review process,” Dave Lewis, Allen & Overy’s managing partner in New York, told Bloomberg Law in an e-mail. “It’s focused on future development, goals and career objectives and allows for much more transparent and open career conversations,” he said.
Universal Dislike for Annual Reviews
Dislike of the annual review model was consistent across all Hogan Lovells’ locations, Friend said. The global firm has about 1,100 lawyers in 15 offices in the U.S. and about 2,800 lawyers in 47 offices throughout the world.
Hogan Lovells’ Pathways system gives immediate feedback that associates can use to enhance their skill development and further their career goals. The Pathways program asks associates whether they aspire to become a firm partner, a judge, or an in-house counsel. “Associates are empowered to own their career,” Friend said.
Pathways has three four-month terms each year. An associate tries to get at least three pieces of “flash feedback” during each term, Friend said. The feedback can be from a partner, an administrative staffer, or the associate’s assistant. An associate also can seek guidance at the end of an event, such as a client call. The new model has room for positive feedback, “reinforcing the things people do well,” Friend said.
After piloting Pathways in a few offices last year, Hogan Lovells implemented it at the beginning of this year for all its associates and counsel worldwide and will expand the system to its business departments next year.
Help With Attorney Recruitment
The new associates “really want to feel like they’re being invested in,” Cole Finegan, regional managing partner for Hogan Lovells in Denver, told Bloomberg Law April 13. “They’re able to adjust faster if you’re giving them real-time feedback,” he said. “I think it will be very positive for our attorney recruitment.”
Compensation and promotion to partner are separate from the Pathways process, Friend told Bloomberg Law in an April 16 e-mail.
Hogan Lovells declined to provide information on the percentage of incoming associates who eventually attain partnership status at the firm.
Allen & Overy Favors Frequent Check-Ins
At Allen & Overy, Compass is replacing the annual review process with frequent one-on-one meetings with partners or managers. These check-ins focus on future development and career aspirations. The system is the same for lawyers and support staff.
With Compass, Allen & Overy personnel give feedback in real time when the work is still fresh in everybody’s minds. Feedback can be solicited or unsolicited, upward, downward, or peer-to-peer, and it’s visible to employees and their partners or managers.
Compass works through a mobile application so people can receive feedback from any location. Allen & Overy has about 2,800 lawyers in 31 countries.
Two thousand of the firm’s personnel are using the new approach worldwide, and the entire firm will implement the system by May 2019.
Opportunities for Stretch Assignments
“We expect that the new approach will enable associates to stay more closely connected with their growth and development,” Lewis said. It “gives the teams more of an opportunity to discuss what’s going on in the individual practices as well as work allocation and stretch assignments,” he said. “Associates who are not busy or who want to explore a change in their assignments and responsibilities have another opportunity to have that conversation.”
Continuous feedback systems are “not very common in law firms,” Brad Hildebrandt, founder of legal industry consultant Hildebrandt Consulting, told Bloomberg Law. “At a law firm, getting an evaluation of any kind is difficult,” he said. “Lawyers are not good at giving evaluations,” in part because of a “lack of time” in their schedules.
A law firm using an ongoing process would “need some formality to make sure the evaluation gets done,” Hildebrandt said. There must be some structure to ensure that senior lawyers do the evaluations, he said.
“Firms are trying different things, and that’s good,” Hildebrandt said.