Law Firm Articles

HR in Practice: An Effective Evaluation Process

An Effective Evaluation Process:  The Cornerstone of Good People Management

A good personnel evaluation process is critical to all businesses.  Law firms and corporate and government law departments are no exception.  The results of evaluations are used for many important purposes, including:

  • Determining proper compensation
  • Ranking and evaluating candidates for promotion, or for staffing of particular matters or projects
  • Developing the individual
  • Affirming or correcting behavior and motivating the individual
  • Making staffing, restructuring, and disciplinary decisions

Therefore, it’s worth time and effort to think carefully about the proper criteria for evaluating each group/category of lawyers or staff.  A logical first step is to identify the behaviors and skills for each position that your organization most values.  It is also important to ensure that the right people are involved as evaluators and reviewers.  For starters, involve those people who oversee and supervise the person’s work, those who know how he/she works with the team, and those who have feedback from clients.

Perhaps most important is clear communication to the evaluators and to those being evaluated of the criteria, the results, and how they will be used.  If people don’t understand clearly how the process works, what factors are being evaluated, and how each person measures up, the value of correcting and/or reaffirming behavior will be lost or diminished, and the process may not be perceived as fair and reasonable.

Even the most brilliantly designed policy is worthless if not implemented effectively.  Lawyers and law firm administrators are busy people, but there is no more important management function than evaluation, coaching and feedback.  How the evaluation process is implemented will affect the quality of an organization’s decisions in many areas.  Your organization should hold each person accountable, not only for his/her individual contributions, but also for how that person performs his/her role in the evaluation process.

Decisions about staffing projects, promotions, reductions-in-force and disciplinary terminations will certainly be affected by the quality of your evaluation process.  A poorly designed or poorly implemented process can also result in the ineffective use, if not waste, of much of the compensation budget – spending too much on the mediocre performers and short-changing the stars.  A good process promotes the wise allocation of compensation dollars as well as correcting and affirming individual behaviors where appropriate.

Corporate and government departments tend to do better in implementation because they usually have a more formal structure for periodic reviews, deadlines and other tools such as forced ranking, with clear bogeys for non–compliance.  Law firms can do these things as well, but they may be challenged by having a smaller administrative structure to develop and push the process along.  In either setting, leadership must communicate its commitment to the timely and effective implementation of the evaluation process.

Of course, the annual evaluation should not be the only time that a lawyer or staff person gets performance feedback.  Coaching – affirming the good, and constructively criticizing the not so good – should be an ongoing practice of the good manager in any business setting.  Interim (often quarterly) evaluations are another way to provide useful feedback during the year.  Both periodic coaching and interim evaluations make annual evaluations easier to prepare, deliver and receive.  Your organization’s prospects for success increase if your people know not only what they are expected to do, but how they are perceived to be doing it.   Feedback is one area where more, not less, is more.

David L. Williams is an adjunct consultant with Altman Weil, Inc. He combines broad experience as a general counsel and in-house specialist in labor and employment law with extensive knowledge of human resource policy and procedures garnered as a law firm HR executive