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Taking the dread out of attorney performance reviews

Millennial associates spark trend toward more frequent, helpful interactions

The traditional annual performance review may be giving way to different feedback mechanisms, as some law firms move to systems that allow for more immediate and meaningful discussions about performance and goals.

While software programs can track performance appraisals, goal-setting and compensation, the trend to make performance management more personal is gaining steam – thanks, in large part, to millennials.

Hogan Lovells US LLP last year launched its Pathways program, a professional development system divorced from the compensation process. Pathways encourages supervisors to give quick, actionable feedback and encourages associates to ask for it, according to Allison Friend, Hogan Lovells’ chief human resources officer.

“We weren’t getting people the information they needed to grow as professionals in as real a time as we could and we wanted to make sure the information we are getting to our professionals was real and rich,” Friend said. “The whole purpose was to make sure that people are having conversations on their development throughout the year.”

The program was designed in partnership with Ideo, a global design firm. Rather than using software, the program relies on paper tools and in-person interactions.

Hogan Lovells provides “flash feedback” cards, which can be filled out in less than 10 minutes, for associates to give to co-workers. The firm also partners attorneys with peers who have a couple more years of experience for biannual feedback and discussions about career paths.

Friend said the millennial generation particularly likes the program because younger lawyers tend to want more real-time feedback and the ability to discuss opportunities.

Friend said the firm doesn’t track whether attorneys are following the program’s guidance, but she said it does check in with partners and associates about how it is working.

“The point of this is less about a process and trying to force something; it’s more about trying to facilitate a culture change,” she said.

Diane Rosen, a New York attorney and co-founder of Compass Consultants LLC, said performance reviews can be demoralizing when they focus on what needs improvement.

“Law firms have become kind of unpleasant places,” Rosen said. “Their performance management systems are not oriented around what a person is doing well, they’re more oriented on what they’re doing wrong.”

Rosen and Compass co-founder Laurie Lyte, currently with the Maryland Office of the Attorney General, met in a master’s in applied positive psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania. Positive psychology is “the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive,” according to the Positive Psychology Center at Penn.

“Let’s ask different questions,” Rosen said. “We’re not going to be Pollyannas and pretend that there’s no problem because that’s not real, but let’s look at what’s going well and let’s amplify that.”

Lyte, who is the director of professional development and planning with the Office of the Attorney General, said she puts positive psychology into a lot of her training, either in the office or at conferences.

“It really is a way to get folks more engaged from an organization perspective and an individual perspective,” she said. “My goal is to give people … tools so they can find their joy in what they do.”

Hogan Lovells’ Friend said “untangling” Pathways and professional development from raises and bonuses has allowed attorneys to have more frank discussions with their supervisors and mentors.

“I think it’s had people really focusing on their development,” she said.

Lyte said lawyers often change jobs throughout their careers with the hope of landing something they like and find fulfilling.

“I think at the end of the day, a lot of what I do is help people figure out what success means to them,” she said.

Timothy C. Lynch, managing principal at Offit Kurman’s Baltimore office, said the firm prides itself on a performance management system that starts with “role clarity.”

With job descriptions for every role, attorneys know what is expected and can make plans for their development with supervisors, Lynch said.

Offit Kurman formerly used the traditional annual performance review model, which Lynch called “sterile and unhelpful.”

“Times change and you’d better change with them,” he said of the switch to a new performance assessment model.

Lynch said the millennial generation has made law firms rethink a lot of their feedback and review structures.

However, he said, it is not just younger attorneys who prompted – and appreciate — the trend toward a new performance model.

“We find that people want to work and they want to do a good job, and they want to know when they’ve done a good job; they want positive feedback and they also want to hear constructive feedback, and they don’t want to hear it nine months later,” he said.

Lyte said she encourages attorneys and law firms to think about resiliency, or the ability to process stress and to bounce back from setbacks, which are almost guaranteed in the field. The notion of employee well-being has begun to be discussed and recognized as an important aspect of performance management.

Well-being can be cultivated via meditation techniques and tools to deal with stress, as well as by giving employees the freedom to discuss what they don’t like about their jobs and how they might improve them, Lyte said.

“I think you’re seeing more and more a concerted effort in terms of well-being,” Lyte said. “I happen to believe (that) to have a healthy organization, you need to have healthy, thriving individuals.”


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