Strong leaders voluntarily initiate their own performance feedback. The benefits of doing so are enormous.

[Editor’s note: Given the time of year and the topic of Patrick’s essay, this monthly leadership column is being published two weeks early. Enjoy! wdh]

There is an old adage in managing a client’s expectations that states, “whether we like it or not, we are going to be measured by our clients.”  If we take a very passive approach, the measuring stick against which we will be measured will be exclusively a creation of our client.  Alternatively, we can be proactive and help identify and shape the scorecard.

The same principle is equally true for law firm leaders (FL), especially in dealing with your elected board or executive committee (EC), as the partners and the EC become your expanded client constituency.  Working with your colleagues, especially early in your tenure, to formulate a proper feedback or evaluation process presents a terrific opportunity for you to manage everyone’s expectations.

This issue is especially timely in light of predicted declines in law firm profits. According to a recent article in the legal press, a large proportion of law firms closely tie compensation to law firm financial performance, with a gradual shift from topline revenue to overall firm profits.  See Aebra Coe, “How Closely Should Law Firm Leader Pay Be Tied To Profits?,” Law360, Nov 2, 2022.  Such an approach, however, often make compensation (a key driver of behavior) a function of “year-to-year blips” that are not completely under the FL’s control.  Indeed, the story reported a remarkable statistic: among 213 law firm managing partners surveyed at firms with 10 to 200 lawyers, less than half had formal job descriptions, and fewer than 20% relied upon those criteria to manage the firm.

If this describes your firm, you have a golden opportunity to help your colleagues make you better at your job.

Looking in the mirror

When any of us look in the mirror, we tend to have an overinflated view of what would be considered our positive qualities and an underinflated view of our negative ones.  A host of studies show this.  Research scientists call it “illusory superiority,” and it’s a bias that shows up in a wide range of personality, cognitive, performance, and other self-assessments.

For example, a widely quoted study of Stanford MBA students showed that 87% rated their academic performance as above average, and only 10% of them rated it below.  See Erza W. Zuckerman & John T. Jost, “What makes you think you’re so popular?,” 64 Soc Psych Q 207, 208 (2001) (citing Stanford study). Even academics aren’t off-the-hook. In another widely quoted study, 68% of faculty members surveyed at the University of Nebraska rated themselves in the top 25% for teaching ability; further, 90% believed they were in the top half!  See K. Patricia Cross, “Not can, but will college teaching be improved?,” 17 New Directions for Higher Education 1, 9-10 (1977).

Yet, if done proactively, the feedback evaluation process can become the basis for a communicative partnership with the EC that helps you:

  • Engage the EC members in a discussion of your annual goals and objectives
  • Enhance dialogue and candor between you and all EC members
  • Obtain meaningful performance feedback
  • Get important information relevant to compensation and performance bonuses
  • Set an example of accountability and dialogue for all of your partners to emulate.

Given the status and power of your role, a typical firm leader may rarely be exposed to candid, detailed perspectives about his or her behavior and personal impact, unless the Committee members commit to providing formal developmental feedback.  Thus, you need to take the lead.

Just like a performance appraisal at any level of any organization, a FL’s evaluation process can collect information about past performance and set directions for the future. It should help you and your EC establish a clearer focus on the firm’s future direction by specifying a set of strategic objectives at the start of the process.  This goal-setting aspect of the evaluation can also serve as part of your ongoing leadership development, with the EC providing feedback on those areas where you might need to do a better job, learn new skills, or devote some additional attention.

This approach should also emphasize what you are expected to achieve (such as increased revenue from an overseas office) and how you may be expected to behave (such as giving more attention to identifying and developing future practice/industry group revenue-generating opportunities).

Defining performance measures

The most basic element in structuring any performance feedback is to first establish the expectations upon which any evaluation can and should be made.  Without proper clarification of expectations, it is very difficult if not impossible to conduct an effective evaluation.

Different firms have different expectations of their FL.  In adopting a form for the FL evaluation, the performance expectations need to be articulated and agreed upon by the EC or the entire partner group.  By taking a snapshot of the firm at the beginning of a year and then again at the end, the evaluation can assess: “Is the firm in better shape as a result of my efforts as the firm leader?But in order to make that assessment, the EC and FL must agree upon the definition of “better shape.

The biggest challenge then is to define an appropriate set of dimensions to be evaluated.  These dimensions form the basis of the measures, objectives, and targets used in the process.  A useful distinction is to consider how the FL behaves as a leader and the impact of your leadership actions on the firm—the impact is arguably more important.

What rating criteria should be used?  This is one of those questions that has no right answer.  I personally don’t like 4-point systems because there is a natural tendency to give 3s and 4s to most.  I don’t like 5-point systems because most ratings will be 4s.  I would suggest a 3-point rating system, with “meets expectations” as the “middle” grade.  As you can see from the depth of the evaluation questions, if any firm leader could meet expectations for most of these items, I’m sure everyone would be very happy with his/her performance.

To me, it’s not that important to arrive at a numerical grade calculated to many decimal points.  What is important, however, is for the evaluation form to be a tool for facilitating a frank and productive meeting with the FL.  Throughout the evaluation process, all parties should remember the cardinal rule about any performance feedback—the goal is to clarify expectations and enhance performance.

Firm leader sample evaluation criteria (41 items)

I suspect that upon a first reading of the items comprising the below “sample” evaluation criteria, many may conclude that only a Super-Man or Super-Woman could perform this job.  Therefore, look at the following list as a menu that you can modify (wordsmith), add to, and choose from, as you develop your own criteria.

  1. Does the Firm Leader (FL) communicate to the partners regularly (at least monthly), and in a meaningful way about what he / she is doing and what is going on within the firm?
  2. How well has the FL functioned as the firm’s strategic thinker? For example, does the FL devote adequate time and proper attention to thinking about where the firm should be going, what practices should be abandoned or further developed, and what new markets should be entered?
  3. Has the FL ensured that the firm has developed a written strategic plan, a clear set of firm goals that are revisited and monitored regularly, and a well-articulated plan for growth?
  4. Has the FL been successful at achieving a healthy blend of long-term thinking versus short-term results?
  5. Does the firm have a written human resources (career and competency development) plan that integrates with the firm’s strategic plan?  (Per the great strategist Jim Collins, you must get the right people on the bus, the wrong ones off, and everyone in the right seat.)
  6. Does the FL regularly monitor external trends and changes occurring in the profession, participate in relevant associations and practice management conferences, and bring new ideas to the firm?
  7. How effective has the FL been in selling his/her new ideas to the other partners?
  8. How effective has the FL been at building consensus among the partners, where needed?
  9. Is the FL effective at managing the implementation of the firm’s strategic plan? Have written action plans been created, with deadlines and responsibilities assigned?
  10. How good is the FL at getting things accomplished?
  11. Has the FL made a meaningful contribution to improving the firm’s profitability?
  12. Has the FL helped established procedures for achieving partner accountability?
  13. Are the partners in the firm truly held accountable for their conduct and performance?
  14. Does the firm operate with a team feeling, where partners collaborate, bring others in on their clients, help each other out even if there is no immediate compensation for it, cross-sell each other, foster a feeling of “team” rather than a group of solos practicing under one roof?
  15. Has the FL contributed to the development and strengthening of effective practice and industry groups (also formal client teams)?
  16. Do practice/industry group leaders meet with the FL on any regular basis to work on particular challenges, share their successes and learn from each other?
  17. Does the FL require all practice/industry groups to develop their own strategic plans?
  18. Does he/she hold the groups accountable and to reporting, at least quarterly, on their progress to achieving their game plans?
  19. Has the FL developed an effective style, methodology, and regular discipline of coaching those practice/industry/office leaders that report to him/her to help them develop and succeed?
  20. Does the FL address and resolve partner conflicts and partner behavior or performance problems swiftly and effectively?
  21. Has the FL’s involvement in the partner compensation systems been effective?
  22. Do a strong majority of partners feel the system for allocating income is reasonable and fair?
  23. Does the FL make decisions promptly and effectively? Is the FL a good problem solver?
  24. Do the partners feel that the FL is accessible, listens, and is interested in what they are saying?
  25. Does the FL encourage partners, and all firm personnel, to express their opinions and encourage them to speak truth to power?
  26. Has the FL made specific and measurable contributions to making the firm a great place to work where retention is high, training effective, recruiting successful, and morale outstanding?
  27. Does the FL take action to ensure that the firm’s culture is consistent among offices and that there is no apparent favoring of one group over another?
  28. How effective has the FL been at identifying lateral candidates, validating their credentials and bringing individual stars and promising groups into the firm?
  29. Is the firm active in business development and has the firm been successful at meeting its goals for growth?
  30. Has the firm established a strong marketing culture and has the FL played an important role in making that happen or reinforcing successes?
  31. Has the FL assembled and empowered a strong internal management team (could include COO, CMO, CFO, etc.) that performs well and to which the FL delegates day-to-day management duties?
  32. Are the basic, routine matters of the firm handled efficiently and timely (WIP billed, write-offs challenged, receivables collected, timesheets in on time, issuance of internal financials, admin staff providing quality support to client service personnel, preparing and monitoring of budgets, etc)?
  33. How well does the FL keep the bar high on issues of work quality, client service quality and standards, integrity and ethics?
  34. Does the FL meet regularly with the firm’s key clients and report to the partnership on the learnings and outcomes of those meetings?
  35. Is the FL visible in the community and is the firm represented well?
  36. Does the FL help the firm maintain a strong public image?
  37. Does the FL’s conduct always take the firm’s perspective as opposed to his/her own or that of a particular group of partners?
  38. Does the FL set an example and serve as a good role model to partners and staff in the firm for conveying personal respect, being accessible, following the rules, etc.?
  39. What do you consider to be the three main strengths that this FL brings to their work?
  40. What do you consider to be the three main areas to develop in order for our FL to be even better in their role?
  41. In what specific ways could our FL work better with you, which you may not have already mentioned?

Your job can be a lonely one.  Cf Post 334 (discussing feelings of isolation among managing partners).  Some of your colleagues may be reluctant to offer constructive critique for fear of repercussions.  Some may be reluctant to provide feedback for fear of offending or hurting your feelings.  But to be effective, you need feedback to confirm whether or not you should keep doing what you have been doing and to get direction on what your partners expect.

As important as defining what your colleagues expect you as the FL to be doing, is documenting what they believe you should not be doing.  A simple question like, “what are the three things the FL should stop doing” is as relevant as any of the above questions.

While the above 41 items are not all-inclusive, they can serve as a starting point for you to develop your firm’s unique evaluation format.  Hopefully, this will get everyone thinking and acting on formalizing the process of providing the FL with constructive feedback.

The process

From the outset, you and your EC members need to agree on the format, timing, and responsibilities for the evaluation.  Typically your performance feedback process should occur (at least) annually.

The process should begin with you preparing a written self-evaluation of your own performance.  By allowing you to conduct a self-evaluation, you will likely be more comfortable receiving feedback from the Committee, knowing that you had a voice in the process.  In mid-December, you might send the Committee your assessment of your past performance as well as your plan for the coming year, including personal leadership objectives.

Partners evaluating their FL should be limited to those in a position to offer informed input.  This means that in firms of fewer than about 50 partners, all the partners should probably participate.  But once a firm gets beyond that size, the firm may wish to limit the evaluation to those partners on the elected board, management, or EC as well as office heads and practice/industry group leaders.

Once it has been decided who should participate in the evaluation, each partner should complete an evaluation form.  Someone should then tabulate the forms and summarize the results.  The evaluations should be done on a semi-anonymous basis.  In other words, partners’ names should be on the forms so that the coordinators of the review process can go back to people for clarification and amplification of responses.  But you, as the FL, should not be told who said what.

Related to the above, there needs to be some sort of filtering of negative comments coming from any poor-performing partners, when all partners are participating.  Partners who consistently fail to perform in certain areas will more than likely feel that they are in the FL’s “doghouse” and may be unfairly hostile to the FL in his/her evaluation.

“One reason we periodically measure a child’s height on the same wall is to help that child get a sense of how much—and how fast—they are growing.”

Presenting the findings

This process should evidence a meeting between you and a small committee (no more than three partners) charged with delivering the feedback and engaging in a discussion about what your goals might be for the next following months.  This sub-committee needs to be sensitive in presenting the feedback in a way that anyone will be able to hear and appreciate the message.

A report is then delivered to the full EC regarding the evaluation and outlining the follow-up actions.

The most effective leaders have one thing in common: they are comfortable in their own skin and project confidence.  That said, it can be difficult for leaders to get honest feedback on their effectiveness.  Many, especially new leaders, are uncomfortable asking their peers to evaluate them.  But without effective feedback, there is little input to improve one’s professional growth.

What strikes me about this whole subject of firm leader evaluation is how few firm leaders (and I have worked with a few) have actually been proactive in formulating their own performance assessment tool and then asking all of their partners for some critical and anonymous feedback.

And News Flash: There is an empirical correlation between the strength of a leader and their willingness to ask for candid feedback.  By way of just one example, according to Joe Folkman, author of The Power of Feedback, “Top-ranked leaders (those who average a score at the 83rd percentile on leadership effectiveness) are also at the top in asking for feedback, based on research drawn from our database of 360° reviews.  Is this a coincidence?  I think not.”  Joe Folkman, “Top Ranked Leaders Know This Secret: Ask For Feedback,” Forbes, Jan 8, 2015.