Our top 10 law firm performance review tips

It's that time again. As the end of the financial year approaches, many of you will be filling out feedback forms and undertaking your law firm performance review. It can be a stressful time. Everyone wants to be acknowledged for the work they did over the past year. Everyone wants to understand where they can improve and hopefully walk away with a bump up in pay. That's the hope, anyway. So, how do you best position yourself to get the desired outcome and more? What factors do you need to focus on to put your best foot forward? How can you provide honest and useful feedback to your employer about your priorities and objectives?

Our top 10 law firm performance review tips

1. Don't make it all about billable hours

Surprise, surprise. The Beyond Billables guys think you shouldn't make your performance review about billables. In all seriousness, unless you are a billing monster, you want to take a more holistic approach in outlining your value to the firm. Your yearly budget and financial targets are only one criterion that is assessed. It's an important one, but many associates are at the mercy of their firms and partners for the work they get. It makes sense to paint the complete picture of your past year, including contributions outside of billables.

2. Have objective market information you can point to

Do not go into a performance review with a magic number in mind or a number that's not realistic. Although it's a negotiation in some respects, your employer holds most of the power here. Do some research. Speak to people in the know about salary levels across comparative firms and practice groups in your area. You can then point to a benchmark for the firm to aim for.

3. Talk about your non-financial contributions

Your black letter legal skills and billing are important, but so is your contribution in other areas. If you are heavily involved in pro-bono or on committees within the firm, these things should be talked about. Why? Because it also actually adds to the law firm's bottom line in a more indirect way. You sacrificed billable hours to do the work, so re-frame it back to your employer as an opportunity cost for you.

4. Focus on how to talk about your skills

A big part of law firm performance reviews is an analysis of your work product and skills. How have these developed over the past year? This includes your drafting ability, as well as your exposure to specific commercial agreements and matters. Being able to tie up your black letter skills with adding value in the group commercially is important. Don't speak of any of these strengths in a vacuum but try and demonstrate how your skills in these areas allowed you to execute more effectively or deliver a better result to a client. Tie up your work with the outcomes that you can point to in a concrete way.

5. Add value to your firm and practice

This is a big one. Performance reviews are about getting to the bottom of the value you add to the law firm and practice. Value doesn't mean only billings. It includes how you contribute across BD, client relationships, helping with knowledge management systems and driving efficiency. Have you been proactive in these other areas? If so, how has this added value to the group? Think of value in terms of billings, marketing, client relationships and efficiency. What problems can you solve that others can't? What particular knowledge do you have that is valuable? Cultivating your value over time is a big factor in your progression. Even taking your performance review as a chance to clearly see that maybe you aren't adding anything special is a good exercise, so you have something to work on for next year.

6. Show an understanding of the business

Try and approach your review in a commercial manner. Proactively demonstrate that you understand the business of the group you work in. Show that you understand the commercial channels through which work is generated. That you understand the connection between the work you do and the outcomes. This might mean doing a little digging to put the puzzle together and understand how it works. But, the more complete picture you have, the more confident you can be in putting this message across to the firm. Again reviews are also a time to get clarity on where you need to be, and this process can be very useful if it makes it clear where you can add financial value moving forward.

7. Manage your expectations

Never go into a law firm performance review with an expectation of x, y or z. You are not entitled to a bump up in pay simply because you've been there for an amount of time. Market conditions will play a part in terms of what firms can and will do. You should also be realistic and approach it in a mature way. You need to be persuasive and advocate for yourself. Remember: You might be great and you might have had a great year, but decisions around budget are based on many other factors. These include firm-wide performance and relative performance within teams. Law firms are also often hamstrung by inflexible lock step and other limitations around remuneration. So, even if they want to pay you a higher salary or bonus they might not be able to. Managing your expectations is key to your performance review, but also to your legal career as a whole. Approaching your review as a chance to learn, get better and get ahead more holistically can make a lot of long term sense.

8. Have a plan for the following year

Again, be proactive. Show that not only are you interested in this year's assessment, but you also have a plan for next year. Particularly around how you could be better utilised in a way that will help you develop any areas of weakness. Or, if you have a real strength or interest in a particular area, make it known. Show that you are keen to further develop in this area with the firm's help. Always be looking ahead to how you can get better and try to wrest as much control over this as you can. This way, you can continue down a path that plays to your strengths.

9. It's not just about a salary review

It's easy to get caught up to the bottom-line financial results of reviews. But, for many, it's not about the relatively small bump up in pay. For some, it's more about more flexible workplace arrangements or finding a better work-life balance. Do your research around the firm's policies and push for this flexibility if it's something you want. It may be that freeing up some time will be what makes your work and life more fulfilling, instead of an incremental pay increase. Be flexible and creative with your thinking around this issue and be brave in brokering it.

10. Seek clarity

One of the most frustrating things around review time is the often opaque criteria by which law firms assess their people. You need to be proactive in seeking clarity about what specific factors you need to work on in the coming year. This is important, so you can address these factors to ensure your upward trajectory. Make a note of them and use them to hold yourself and your firm accountable at the next review. Not knowing what the expectations are and how they tie into salary and title outcomes is a recipe for failure. Have a clear picture around this point. Seek as much input from the firm as possible, so you have targets to aim for in the coming year. Understand clearly the areas you will need to address in non-billable areas.

Finally, don't get caught up in the rush of gossip and comparison that goes on during review time. We know lawyers can be super competitive. But, you might have a think about taking a more collaborative approach. Consult with colleagues beforehand to put on as much of a unified front as possible. Staying on message around the issues that are most pressing to you and your colleagues will only reinforce the message to the firm. This can only help your cause.

Review time can be stressful, especially if you are on the cusp of promotion to senior associate or partner. There can be a lot on the line at the senior end, where business case and client relationships play a significant part in your progression.

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