Summary: Nobody likes to be criticized, but law firm performance reviews are part of working at a law firm. Here’s how to get the most out of every review you get.
Junior associate at a large firm. He writes a memo for a securities partner, and when he gets it back, he sees that the partner has written on it: "I couldn't have done better myself." When a midlevel associate sees this, he says, "That's a kiss from God. Take it into your review with you!"
Mid-level litigation associate, large firm: "Sometimes, especially as a woman, you might find that you're not getting the juiciest work. You're put on cases where you can't develop. No hearings or client contact, no depositions. At review, they'll tell you, 'You're behind your class,' and deny you a bonus or a promotion. 'Your work product is wonderful but you haven't done A and B and C.' They're weeding you out of the system! What I do is to make a point of going to my partners three times a year, and ask for involvement, so I don't get burned at evaluation time. I know what they're going to evaluate me on, and I make sure I ask for those experiences. I keep track of the experience I get and the experiences I ask for and don't get, and I take that with me into my reviews. During one review, my partner said, 'You've had less deposition experience and you've gone to fewer hearings than other people in your class.' I pulled out my notepad and said, 'On this date I asked you for this and this and this and instead of being given those, I was assigned to these other cases. I am not yet in charge of my caseload. I'm not a rainmaker yet. I get the cases to which I'm assigned. On this date I approached Partner X looking for practical experience, and when you found out you were angry about it.' His jaw just dropped to the floor. After that, he made sure I got the opportunities I needed."
CAREER LIMITING MOVE
In response to a verbal lashing about poor billable hours from a managing partner at a major New York firm, a first year associate offered the following defense: "But Sir, I think the real problem is that my skills would be better utilized doing rainmaking."
SMART HUMAN TRICK
Mid-level associate, large West Coast firm: "My performance evaluations as a litigator were getting so that I knew I wouldn't make partner. It wasn't as though they were saying 'Get rid of this guy, but there would always be some criticism about my not being aggressive enough, that I was too nice and laid-back to be a big firm litigator. I took the hint and asked for a transfer to corporate. In my next review, it was partially litigation and partially corporate. The leaders from both departments were there, so my brand-new corporate partner heard all the old criticisms. It was like a grand jury indictment! My new boss heard everything the old bosses said, a lot of petty, horrible stuff. I was horrified, but I didn't cry, I didn't get angry, I didn't throw a tantrum. I wanted to, but I didn't. I didn't squirm or fidget. When the old boss was done, I said calmly, 'I'm sorry they feel this way, this is what I did, I can understand their perspective, I'd like to point out that they did say good things about X and X and X.' Immediately after the review, my new section leader said to me, 'I thought you handled that review extremely well.' The way she said it, I could tell that she thought more of me for the way I handled it. It minimized what they said. Sometimes in your life you'll get unfair criticism. If you think it'll address the substance of your work or damage your career, then address it. If not, be elegant. Don't respond to carping. You want people to be able to say of you: 'He's a class act.'"
SMART HUMAN TRICK
Female associate at a large firm. She'd been used to general praise, but at one particular evaluation, a partner for whom she'd done no work contributed his perception that she didn't take initiative and she worked too slowly. He had no rational basis for either comment. She said nothing at the evaluation, but as she says, "I was just seething. Afterwards I sat down with my mentor, and using choice words, I told him about it. I finished up by saying, 'What should I do about the son of a bitch?' He looked at me and said, 'Today, don't do anything. Calm down. Tomorrow morning, walk the hallways and find him, and thank him for taking the time to make those comments in your evaluation. And smile when you say it. Tell him that you want to be the best lawyer you can be and that you value his advice, and in the future when he sees areas where you can improve you hope he'll tell you directly.' I couldn't believe it. I said, 'But he's wrong.' He said, 'It doesn't matter. What he told you tells you how he sees you. He's powerful. If you're smart you'll try to change his impression. If you approach him you'll totally disarm him. Especially because he says you don't take the initiative.' I wasn't happy about it, but I went away and thought about it and realized I didn't have anything to lose." She laughs when she describes her critic's reaction: "He was totally in shock. He couldn't believe I'd taken it like this. He was speechless. The effect was unbelievable. He turned into one of my biggest fans, and I heard through the grapevine that he was saying glowing things about me behind my back. What's ironic is that nothing had really changed. Not really. My work was the same as it always was. But the way he perceived me did a 180."
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