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Under the Microscope: Three Types of Reviews That Can Benefit Your Firm
By Naomi Beard –
(Originally published August 2015, PD Quarterly by NALP)
The importance of lawyer talent development has taken hold within law firm culture. Once regarded as a discipline found primarily in corporate America, talent development has been increasingly recognized by law firms as critical reinforcement for their strategic and business goals. Today, law firms dedicate themselves to building highly responsive and comprehensive talent development (TD) frameworks.
A comprehensive law firm TD framework includes cohesive and integrated programs covering, for example, recruiting; lawyer training programs customized to class year and practice group; a clear, robust performance review and associated compensation system; a philosophy and system for the allocation of work; resources to enable lawyer career development and self-direction, including core competencies, benchmarks, individual development plans, and other self-assessment tools; mentoring and sponsorship programs; career coaching and conversations about pathways to partnership; and fully developed alumni tracking programs, including, when appropriate, the placement of law firm attorneys with clients and the provision of professional outplacement support. While these frameworks are larger and more complex in Am Law 100 law firms, many smaller firms, and most mid-size and large firms, have implemented talent development frameworks that include some of these elements.
Law firms acknowledge that engaging in deliberate, focused training and development of their lawyer talent is no longer optional, but has grown to be the centerpiece of their ultimate goal of achieving preeminence in their areas of legal practice. For a law firm, effective talent development:
- Grooms its lawyer talent to perform optimally. TD provides the construct through which a law firm may groom talent to develop the skills necessary to best contribute to a firm’s strategic vision and business goals. During this process, effective TD also identifies additional areas requiring improvement.
- Helps attract top talent. Firms routinely refer to the features and benefits of their TD programs when recruiting attorneys. Peer firms compete to offer the best, most cutting-edge talent development resources.
- Speaks to the needs of the associate ranks. Research repeatedly shows that today’s younger attorney talent needs to find meaning in and connection to the work they do and to the organizations for which they work. Effective talent development programs foster that sense of significance and belonging.
- Promotes retention and engagement of talent. Unsurprisingly, attorneys who feel supported by their firm’s excellent training and development opportunities are more likely to stay longer at that firm and to perform at a higher level because of the TD opportunities afforded them.
- Best ensures client satisfaction. Firms that are able to retain their talent have more cohesive, efficient teams. This benefits not only the firms but also their clients, who dislike turnover and welcome stability. By investing in TD and focusing on growing and retaining their talent, law firms are able to preserve client loyalty and reinforce their business goals.
The business case — and necessity — for law firm TD is clear. As a result, law firms that have developed TD programs continually seek ways to evaluate and improve those programs and, in the process, to reinforce their TD norms and culture. Three methods of self-scrutiny for the review, analysis, reinforcement, and continued growth of law firm TD frameworks are discussed below. These include the conduct of —
- attorney upward reviews,
- firm-wide talent development reviews, and
- targeted reviews of selected law firm leaders through 360 reviews.
These reviews enable firms to take fresh looks at their TD approaches and identify areas needing improvement and innovation, thus shaping their TD agendas.
Attorney Upward Reviews
Law firms with well-established TD programs often employ upward reviews, generally on an annual or biannual basis. An upward review is a process in which more junior attorneys are invited (1) to provide feedback on the supervisory and mentoring performance of attorneys senior to them, typically including counsel and partners, and (2) to provide feedback on TD-related themes, including, for example, mentoring and training, advancement of diversity, communication from firm leadership, and compensation and performance reviews.
This feedback may be gathered from participating attorneys, either through the use of an online survey or through individual, face-to-face interviews. Data compiled from these reviews is then synthesized into a series of reports that present and analyze detailed information on the performance of partners and counsel as managers and mentors of others and on the performance of the firm in effectively implementing its TD framework. Upward reviews give continued life to established talent development frameworks and identify with precision both individual and institutional systems requiring further growth and improvement.
These results allow a law firm to celebrate talented mentors; identify those who could make improvements, perhaps through coaching; reinforce firm-wide expectations; and identify in what areas TD is doing well, as well as where it needs improvement. For example, one firm has found after implementing upward reviews that partner commitment to mentoring has increased significantly. It was able to identify effective mentors as well as those who would benefit from further support (e.g., in the form of coaching and/or group training). In the process, it further solidified its firm-wide commitment to mentoring and team management, a fundamental pillar of its TD framework. The content of the associate feedback identified two important training needs for its associates: (1) for its mid-levels, more focused training developing their own mentoring and managerial skills; and (2) for all of its associates, training to develop their own abilities to become more proactive “mentees,” e.g., by initiating mentoring conversations with partners and counsel and developing skills to self-direct their own career development.
Another firm has been able to use upward reviews as a consistent platform through which associates may safely voice their feedback, both positive and constructive, something that has become a cornerstone of its ability to maintain higher levels of associate morale and engagement; track partner progress in mentoring and team management; and pinpoint the most pressing TD issues of the moment. Such data has been used by this firm to develop and maintain a particularly responsive and forward-looking TD approach informed by the most current needs of its talent.
Upward reviews represent a significant investment of a firm’s time, energy, and resources in the mentoring performance of partners and counsel, as well as in the morale of associates. They offer numerous benefits to the firm:
- They provide partners and counsel with invaluable feedback and suggestions for improving their supervisory skills.
- Review results help law firm leadership refine TD agendas for the coming year and beyond.
- Firms that employ upward reviews often find that their associates eagerly await upward review season, when they are able to provide anonymous feedback to the firm about issues important to them, which serves as a strong morale booster for them.
- Law firms enhance their image by proudly touting that they conduct upward reviews on a routine basis, often discussing them in recruiting conversations and posting information about them in the attorney PD/TD sections of their websites. And they are right to do so — conducting upward reviews enables a firm to demonstrate self-awareness, receptivity to criticism, and willingness to tackle tough issues in an open, firm-wide setting.
While upward reviews are indeed costly, demanding time, energy, and resources from a firm, as discussed above, the return on this investment is clear. That said, the administration of upward reviews isn’t without its challenges. Firms must strive to build buy-in and high participation for upward reviews and, in the process, must protect the confidentiality of those attorneys who provide upward review feedback. The key to addressing these challenges is consistent, repeated communication from firm leadership and PD/TD professionals with the firm’s attorneys at all levels about the process, the protocols for the protection of anonymity, and the importance of each attorney’s participation.
Law Firm Talent Development Reviews
A firm that either doesn’t yet have a fully developed TD framework — or which seeks only an overview and reevaluation of its existing TD framework — may implement a review focused exclusively on TD. Such a review would entail: (1) the gathering of feedback pertaining to TD issues from selected law firm leaders and representatives at all levels; (2) commissioning a report on TD performance based on the feedback collected; and (3) analyzing that feedback to identify areas of success and areas for growth, followed by implementation of cutting-edge approaches meant to meet or exceed industry standards.
Based on the results of this review, a firm may launch a whole new, improved TD system or adjust what it has with the benefit of feedback from those who are part of the firm, who know it well, and who have a vested interest in its improvement. Participation of law firm leaders and representatives, including not only selected partners but also senior administrative professionals and associates, ensures greater buy-in by firm leadership and the firm as a whole once a new TD plan is launched.
One firm used the data generated from such a review to perform an ambitious overhaul of its existing TD framework aimed at providing industry-leading TD opportunities. The key to the success of this TD review and the TD roll-out that followed was the commitment of firm leadership both to the TD process itself and to the importance of ensuring follow-through on recommendations identified in that review. Firm leadership readily recognized how its strategic and business goals were inextricably linked with success in TD, thus deepening its bench strength.
Another firm performed a more targeted expansion of its TD framework based on the results of its TD review. It identified aspects of its TD programs that worked well, and aspects that were either lackluster, or lacking altogether. It used data gathered from its TD review to drive its TD agenda in a way that responded to the needs of its talent — in a manner complementary to its strategic agenda.
Much as with the case of an upward review, a TD review must be conducted in a manner that encourages buy-in, participation, and trust. Communication about the TD review process, its goals, and outcomes is essential. The confidentiality of respondents must be protected, both in the manner in which feedback is gathered and in the manner in which it is reported. In addition, firms must be strategic and thoughtful when deciding how to launch new initiatives following the conduct of such a review. It must not only allocate sufficient resources for the launch of new or expanded TD initiatives, but anticipate potential roadblocks and methods to be used to overcome any such obstacles. Visible and decisive participation by firm leadership in all aspects of this process is critical to meeting these challenges.
360 Reviews of Law Firm Leaders
As discussed in the previous two sections, firm leaders play a crucial role in the effectiveness of TD. A firm may thus conclude, for reasons including the advancement of its TD agenda, that the strengths and developmental needs of its leaders must be identified. One manner of accomplishing this is through a “Leader 360” review. A 360 review of selected law firm leaders is restricted to a much smaller group and focuses on evaluating leaders’ individual effectiveness. Participants in a 360 review will typically include the firm’s chair, vice chair, department heads, and possibly a firm’s practice group leaders, office heads, and chiefs (COOs, CEOs, and chiefs of human resources, talent development, knowledge management, etc.). Unlike an upward review, in which partners and counsel receive feedback from only those junior to them, a 360 review collects feedback not only from direct reports, but also from peers and supervisors. Through this approach, the firm can gather a full “360 degree” view of the performance of its leaders, identifying those who are thriving and, more importantly, also those who may need help, perhaps from an executive coach or targeted training programs.
While the survey used for a 360 review will touch on many topics, including strategic vision, decisiveness, and financial savvy, it will typically also include questions relevant to TD, including the effectiveness of the individual leader in communicating with his or her constituencies; in engaging with the firm’s attorney population; in meeting the training and development needs of his or her attorneys; and in laying out and conveying, clearly and consistently, the firm’s approach to and philosophy regarding TD. Since it is difficult for a law firm to have effective TD without clear and decisive engagement and support from its leaders, 360 reviews help identify successes achieved, as well as areas for growth on this topic.
One firm uses Leader 360 reviews in tandem with its upward reviews. The Leader 360 review runs concurrently with the upward review and, among other things, identifies how the performance of firm leaders supports or detracts from the firm’s ability to accomplish its goals with respect to TD. Another uses 360 reviews to further strengthen existing leaders and groom newer leaders. Issues of department and practice group leadership succession are addressed — matters that also have a significant impact on TD.
Each of these three types of reviews — attorney upward reviews, firm-wide TD reviews, and 360 reviews — can play an important part in helping law firms to evaluate and improve TD programs. Together, they provide law firm leaders with powerful tools for evaluating the success of current TD programs and shaping the agendas for future improvement and innovation.
Naomi Beard is the CEO of Naomi Beard & Associates, Inc. For more than 13 years as a professional coach to attorneys and law firm executives, Naomi has drawn on her decade of experience as a practicing attorney to incorporate a deep understanding of law firm life in her work with clients. Her company specializes in providing to law firm attorneys and executives law firm talent development consulting, executive coaching, career transition services, and large-scale, multi-office law firm upward reviews. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.