Building Performance Reviews That Work for Your Firm

Does your firm conduct annual performance reviews? If not, it’s probably because the mere thought of law firm performance reviews elicits a collective UGH from managing partners, attorneys and staffers alike.  

Annual performance reviews are a touchy topic at any workplace — more than half of people say the performance management process doesn’t reflect all their work (53%) and that it doesn’t improve their long-term performance (55%).  

But, when done right, performance reviews can be an extremely valuable tool for running a profitable business. They serve as a gut-check for employee happiness and productivity, as well as the effectiveness of your processes and the quality of your overall work. And the 67% of employees who have had a performance review within the last 12 months also are more likely to be engaged than those who have not. 

By focusing on the areas and metrics that matter most to your specific firm, attorneys and managing partners can build a performance review process that’s worth every minute. 

Use reviews as an opportunity for mentorship  

While formal mentoring historically is woven into the fabric of large firms, it often falls by the wayside at small firms. That’s especially true in recent years; 20% of millennial attorneys say formal mentoring has been irrelevant to their careers, and 57% of attorneys say mentorship has suffered at their firm since the COVID-19 pandemic began.  

Reviews are your chance to reverse this trend and help attorneys and paralegals raise concerns and feel like a supported member of your firm. For more tips on supporting your team, especially during COVID-19, download “The Healthy Remote Lawyer: A Guide to Improving Your Mental and Emotional Health.” 

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Apply metrics to understand individual strengths + overall firm performance 

While billable hours are the most common benchmark of attorney and paralegal success, Smokeball’s legal practice management software automatically generates additional data that can be even more relevant: 

  • Collection/realization rate. While attorneys didn’t go to law school to become bill collectors, it is an important part of your firm’s profitability. Smokeball’s automated legal billing software streamlines your process by auto-generating invoices based on the hours tracked within each matter, helping each member of your firm bill more hours, more efficiently.
  • Write-offs. If a junior associate is completing a task in four hours that would take a more senior attorney just two, those hours have probably been written off. Because Smokeball gives you a complete snapshot of each attorney’s total write-offs, you can focus your review conversation on areas for improvement if the hours raise any red flags.
  • CLE hours. While it’s easy to have casual conversations about making partner, your firm’s reviews are an opportunity to formalize the process. Monitor each attorney’s CLE hours for the year, ask about their areas of interest and formalize a game plan during the review conversation. 

Ensure reviews are a two-way street 

Law firms aren’t immune from what’s being called “The Great Attrition”: 40% of employees say they’re at least somewhat likely to leave their jobs in the next six months. And your firm should employ an open-door policy for feedback (both positive and negative), reviews are an especially safe place for employees to raise these concerns.  

You’ll learn what is and isn’t working well within your firm, and the factors that could potentially drive an attorney out the door. And once you’re armed with this information, make sure it goes to use. 

Technology can help you find the time 

While reviews are important, it’s no secret that they’re also time-consuming; reviewers and reviewees must press “pause” on their casework for evaluation forms, goal-setting and conversations. But that’s where legal practice management software like Smokeball can save the day. Features like legal document automation and management drastically reduce time spent filling out forms and organizing your matters create space in your day for empathy-driven tasks. Most days, that probably means spending more time with clients, but it also translates to an opportunity to focus on fairly and accurately evaluating staff performance. 

On a final note, be sure to reiterate the confidentiality of your performance review conversations. While gossip can and will happen, details like the identity of those up for partner can create unnecessary political divisions within your firm.