When it comes to employee relations, law firms are among some of the worst employers. HR is typically impotent in addressing issues amongst attorneys so the rules of the game are largely left to the players. In lieu of actual feedback, it seems that most firms opt for obstinate silence and the good ‘ol freeze out in lieu of actually providing constructive feedback.
Over the years, many firms have beefed up their periodic review process as a nod to HR that they do, in fact, need to actually address performance with their attorneys at SOME point. Even when those meetings occur, oftentimes the feedback is light and airy unless and until a decision has been made that you need to find the door. Then suddenly, the feedback shifts and years of evidence to support your shortcomings are lain before you for the first time.
I have heard these stories so many times from my clients and I have witnessed them first hand with colleagues, associates, clerks, and friends. The legal industry is notoriously terrible at providing good feedback at the right times. Usually, when an associate is struggling they are left to twist in the wind. And when the powers that be have given up on an associate, they simply freeze them out. Suddenly there is no more work for them and the review discussions become focused on the lack of work and low hours. Eventually those performance metrics form the basis for the breakup. A real discussion about the performance issues rarely occurs.
So what do you down when you sense that you are getting roped into this long goodbye?
Get very clear on what is happening.
Make a list of everyone you have asked for work and their responses (or lack of responses). At all times in your practice, you have to be prepared to be your best advocate! That means you are going to need to document your efforts to fill your plate as well as evidence when all of those efforts have been rebuffed. This exercise will also help you get clear on whether your imagination is running wild or things are starting to get a bit chilly at the office.
Take a hard look at your performance.
Go back through each of your working relationships and examine projects that did and didn’t go well. Be honest with yourself. Take a look at those email strings where a project got off the rails — did you miss something critical that you shouldn’t have? Were the parameters of the project clearly communicated? Did you rush through the memo and forget to spell check? Take an inventory of your work and be sure to include your wins. Did you handle all the client interfacing on that last deal? Did you successfully apply what you learned in earlier projects?
Having a clear view of your performance will not only arm you for a performance discussion, it will help you see things from their point of view. You may have to ask yourself — am I not living up to my potential? Are they right? Do I need additional support?
Have the discussion.
Do the hard thing and have those conversations that are being withheld from you. For each key relationship, prepare a summary of your performance. Be sure to include both WINS and LOSSES. Remember that as humans, we have a bias toward the negative. Your attorneys might only be focused on the last mishap and might be forgetting all the other good things you have done. REMIND THEM! The goal of this meeting is threefold:
- Tell them what you have accomplished.
- Acknowledge where you have room for growth.
- Tell them where you would like to improve and present your plan for improvement (be sure to invite their support as well).
This is not a place to defend yourself or make excuses. This is a time to take ownership of where you are–what have you succeeded at and where is there room for growth. This is a space for you to re-communicate your investment in the work, in the team, and in your growth.
An example of how this conversation might go is this: I want to thank you for the opportunity to visit with you. I’ve been taking an inventory of my work and I wanted to get your input and support on how I can take my work to the next level. Over the past six months, I have really gained a better understanding of how a deal evolves from beginning to end. I was really able to take my experiences on Project Zero and apply them to our last deal which really streamlined the diligence process. I can see that sometimes I have a tendency to rush through things and respond too quickly without taking the time to fully understand the issues or ask follow-up questions. I am working to balance my desire to be responsive with my goal of gaining a deeper understanding of the big picture. I’ve only been doing this work for two years and I know I have so much more to learn. I would really like to focus on learning more about the structure of the deal and the parties involved so I can start getting a better understanding of how my work fits into the whole. I think if I could participate in the earlier project discussions with the client, that would help me see the big picture. I would appreciate any feedback you might have to help me improve my contribution to the team.
Lawyers are busy. We focus on what is in front of us and that is typically it. Scheduling time for this discussion will force them to focus on YOU. It’s easy to be annoyed with an associate when you are in the heat of deal. It’s easy to be dismissive when you are stressed. When an associate proactively schedules time to discuss their performance and their career, it forces us to all take a hard look at how we have been treating you and how we have been (not) supporting you.
Be sure to schedule the discussion during a time when things are low stress (as much as possible). You want your attorneys to have space from those challenging projects to see clearly their role in the relationship as well.
Remind them of how long you have been doing the work and recognize that you have room to grow. As partners, we often forget how long you have been working as an attorney and it can be jarring to be reminded what level you are at. I often overestimated how long associates had been doing the work and realized I had been setting way too high of standards for newly minted attorneys. We forget how hard the work is and we forget how little we knew coming out of law school. Sometimes, it was helpful to be reminded of that by my associates and clerks.
This conversation might yield a significant change in your relationship or it might fall flat. Either way, this is a fact-finding mission. This is your best opportunity to figure out whether you are being frozen out; to ask for the feedback they are withholding from you. If the conversation is an utterly waste of time, simply document it and continue on with your other discussions. If you are asking for feedback and support and guidance and it is not being given to you, that is an important fact to discuss with others in your circle. Difficult conversations are the key to a successful career. Use this as an opportunity to start honing that skill.
Whether they like it or not, law firms need associates to function and associates want feedback and guidance. Law firms cannot afford to have mid-level and senior attorneys freezing out their associates and driving turnover. Force these conversations and document your results. Use those exercises as more evidence of your commitment in later conversations with other attorneys.
This is your career. You are not a victim. If they are freezing you out, take active steps to understand what is going on. The worst thing you can do is allow them to force you out without gathering all possible learnings from the experience. Work to gather information about your performance so that you can use that information to continue to improve and develop, whether it’s at that firm of the next.
Taking ownership and control of your career is at the foundation of my work. If you are concerned about your future at your firm, sign up for a free session so we can strategize and get you back in the driver’s seat.
Photo by Caspar Camille Rubin on Unsplash