Partner appraisal waste of time?
Updated: Apr 10
Now that accounting has completed the books on 2021, many law firms are in the middle of the annual partner appraisal cycle. For some firms, this is merely a formality for deciding what cut of the profit a partner will receive. The majority of firms however is set out to use the opportunity to agree on targets for the next year, and to discuss opportunities for improvement.
When I talk to managing partners these days, or with other members of the appraisal committee, invariably they mention how completely bogged down their schedules are. One just need to do the math’s to see how this works out: on average it takes a total of one hour for preparation and another hour for the appraisal, so two hours per partner. This is multiplied by the number of partners in the committee plus the time of the partner who is being appraised.
All this would not be an issue if the process would produce tangible results and directly contribute to increasing profitability. The problem is it doesn’t
Partner appraisals are like pulling teeth.
In general people feel uncomfortable when being judged. Lawyers no exception. It just does not feel right if another person tells you what you do right and what you do wrong. It highlights an inequality in the relationship: the assessor/judge is superior to the assessee.
Partners in law firms tend to be hyper sensitive to this type of relationship.
Lawyers are highly skilled in using language to divert a conversation, and are masters in finding arguments to explain any situation.
The combination of resent and avoidance does not provide fertile ground for future change. Partners who are being assessed will politely sail through the motions without damage, only to return to their desk and continue what they were doing. No amount of assessment will change the behavior or performance of a partner. The annual partner assessment in its present form is a total waste of time. How depressing…
How to do it better
There are basically only two reasons for a person to significantly change its behavior: trauma/fear, or self-insight. The later can only come from within, as where the former comes from the outside.
Material changes in behavior do not happen on the basis of rational arguments. It is not that kind of process. Everyone knows that smoking is bad and that it is unhealthy to be overweight, but that does not trigger behavioral change. We all know on a rational level that the world is heading towards a climate catastrophe, but we don’t change our behavior. Within this framework, why do we expect partners to change their behavior or performance after we tell them? Back to basics, partners might change when they genuinely fear being kicked-out. Sometimes, even that is not enough.
So if change is not triggered by reason or arguments, and possibly not even by fear, self-insight is basically the only shot we have. But how do we make partners want to change out of self-motivation?
A method we have developed and promoted over the years is partner self-assessment in combination with peer review. Let’s examine the benefits of self-assessment first.
Rather than confronting a partner with the opinion of the managing partner or a committee, which will force the partner into defense and deflection, the partner is asked to self-assess and present the result of the self-assessment to the assessor(s). This fundamentally changes the dynamics of the conversation. The partner is no longer shielding him/herself from ‘critique’, but building a case instead. This creates a much more open attitude.
The assessors on the other hand, do not take their personal views and opinions as a measurement but use the collective opinion of the whole partnership as the basis for the discussion. This makes the arguments much more objective and less personal, which makes the discussion a lot easier.
The combination of self-assessment and peer review, has proven to be the most effective method so far. We have actually seen partners adjust their behavior and improve their results after using this method for the assessment conversation.
Turning the tables
Changing the conversation from critique to self-improvement does have a big impact on the effects. Within this framework it is essential to recognize that improvements on the business side, will inevitably result from development of a partner’s soft skills.
At TGO we have defined 7 Core Development Dimensions©. One thing that highly successful lawyers all over the world have in common, is that they score above average on these 7 dimensions. Counterintuitive as it may sound, shifting the focus from improving the practice to personal development, will almost immediately result in better business results.
Investment in partner development is probably the most profitable investment any law firm can make. It all begins with methodical self-assessment. Curious? Just inquire!