Kate Mayer Mangan is back to talk about a subject that so many attorneys face, your performance review. You may recall her previous post about whether personality tests are an actual indicator of career success and litigation for introverts. Today she shares three strategies for making sure your performance review is a helpful tool. Welcome back, Kate!
All over the country, partners and supervising attorneys are writing performance reviews. They’re filling out forms about your writing, your legal analysis, and your time management. While well intentioned, performance reviews often fail to serve their purpose. Feedback gets lost in jargon. Reviewers don’t offer genuine feedback for fear of tanking someone’s career. The upshot is that reviews become a hollow—and stressful—exercise. I’ve delivered hundreds of reviews and received my fair share. I’ve come to believe that the whole, broken process is more effective if the reviewees do a few tasks ahead of time. Here are three things to do before your review to help you glean meaningful information and further your career at the same time.
1. Get a Decoder Ring
The first thing you need to do, especially if you are new to an organization, is to get a decoder ring. You need a translator to help you understand the terms you’ll hear in your review. That’s because most organizations use a semi-secret dictionary to craft evaluations. The bosses are not trying to deceive you, but over time, plain English terms become infused with meaning that is anything but plain. Words gain definitions that are particular to the company. At one firm, “meets expectations” may mean exactly what it says– that you’re meeting expectations and doing fine. At another firm, the same phrase might mean, “You have 6 months before you’re fired.”
You should also investigate your firm’s informal policy on criticism. Find out if reviewers are required to include constructive criticism, in which case you should expect some negative language in your review. If every review contains “constructive feedback,” as the euphemism goes, comments about your weaker areas should not be alarming. On the other hand, at some companies, a single line of criticism is bad news. Understanding your organization’s view on criticism will help you decide whether you should work harder or polish your resume.
Finding a decoder isn’t usually too difficult. At many companies, the people giving you your review will help you understand the terms—if you ask. The key questions are (1) what the language means about your performance relative to your peers, and (2) what the language means about your long-term role at the firm. Knowing how you fare relative to your classmates and whether the firm is slotting you for partnership or outplacement will give you tremendous insight.
Some reviewers are more cryptic than others, so it’s a good idea to look for other clues to the review-speak. Seek out trustworthy alums or your more senior friends to find the all-important decoder ring.
2. Develop Your Own Criteria
Most firms build reviews around the criteria that are essential to succeeding in that particular company. The categories usually include things like legal analysis, reporting back, and collegiality/teamwork (or some other squishy category that gets to whether you are a decent colleague). Of course, at many law firms, the number of hours you billed is an incredibly important—if not the most important—category.
The problem for many people is that the firm’s criteria for success may not match their own. That’s why I suggest outlining the criteria you deem essential to creating the career you want. Here’s an example.
I had one client, Laura (not her real name), who wanted to be a prosecutor. But her massive law school loans had driven her to a high-paying gig at a big law firm. Not surprisingly, Laura didn’t care much about having the highest billable hours or whether the firm thought she was good at business development. Neither of those categories was critical to becoming a skilled government trial lawyer. Before her review, Laura wrote down the review categories that were essential to her—stand-up performance and legal analysis—and noted how she thought she was doing in those areas.
The point of listing your own categories is to help you keep an eye on the skills that you deem critical to your career development. That can help you design a career that fits your own temperament and goals, even in the face of many demands (and even negative reviews) from the firm. It helps you tease out the feedback you value, while retaining a healthy distance from the feedback that’s less essential to you. Laura cared a lot about what the senior trial lawyers said about her public speaking ability; she cared less about whether the firm thought she was a good networker. Having a list of her own criteria enabled her to solicit more of the feedback she valued, while letting less important feedback slide.
3. Prepare Your Response in Advance
After your evaluation is delivered, you’ll probably talk to the reviewer about how it went. Just as with any speech, especially one delivered under stress, it’s worth preparing your talking points.
Decide what you want to convey. What opportunities are you seeking? Who do you want to work with? If you anticipate negative feedback, prepare an explanation. Even if you don’t expect anything negative, reviews often contain surprises. Preparing a generic response to an unexpected negative review can help you remain calm and buy you time to develop a more nuanced response. It’s perfectly fine to say something like, “Thanks for this feedback. I’d like to think it over a bit.”
Try not to react emotionally, which can be hard, especially a review is unfounded. If you allow your emotions to take over, they’ll cloud the content of your message. You can make your points far more effectively—and avoid a note in your file about how you overreact– if you’ve planned ahead. Save the fury and the upset for a post-work cocktail, during which you can plan your next move.
If you do these things—learn the language, stay focused on your own metrics of success, and plan your response—your review may be a bit less painful and a bit more useful.
Thanks, Kate! Great advice.
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Kate Mayer Mangan is a coach and consultant at Donocle, a company that helps lawyers work at their highest potential. Before founding Donocle, she had a successful career as a lawyer, practicing as a partner, associate, and professor. Her work has appeared in the Huffington Post, LA Daily Journal, and Ms. JD. Learn more at www.Donocle.com.
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