As part of the Legal Executive Institute’s new Talent platform, we sat down with Sonia Menon, Chief Operating Officer at Neal, Gerber, & Eisenberg, to ask how the firm ensures equity in work assignments, which is a critical element of supporting associates, especially those of color, in their careers and trajectory in the legal profession.
A best practice that Menon discusses is the role of the Assignment Review Partner, and how the partner plays a crucial role in work assignment equity in two ways: i) addressing the competency gaps or goals for each associate; and ii) ensuring a more equitable distribution of assignments for the firm’s most highly valued clients.
Legal Executive Institute: Please tell us about your competency-based associate development framework.
Sonia Menon: The firm uses a competency-based framework made up of practice specific benchmarks and firm-wide core competencies to provide associates with a roadmap for successful professional development. The core competencies focus on the key drivers for success at the firm, including communication and analytical skills, professional judgment, client service, professional development and firm citizenship.
Meanwhile, practice group benchmarks specify the technical legal skills to be mastered in each field. In addition to mentors, associates are assigned Assignment Review Partners as part of the competency framework. The final piece of the framework is the Professional Development Plans (PDPs) used by associates.
Legal Executive Institute: What are responsibilities of the Assignment Review Partner as it relates to associates?
Sonia Menon: With the implementation of the competency framework, partners and associates are more cognizant of the need to diversify work assignments and spread work equitably to allow all associates the opportunities for growth. Each practice group has Assignment Review Partners who are responsible for three to four associates. The Assignment Review Partners are responsible for reviewing associate workload, client and high-profile opportunities, and development plans. They meet periodically with associates to ensure that developmental needs are being met by the projects and matters assigned, including pro bono opportunities and non-billable projects. The competency system allows us to focus on assignments as a way to develop skills and create opportunities, rather than just distribute hours.
On a monthly basis, Assignment Review Partners receive hours reports from our finance department, detailing the hours of the associates in their practice groups. The partners examine the hours focusing on key issues, such as:
- Number of hours — Does the associate have sufficient work? Are the hours distributed equitably throughout the group?
- Type of Work — Does the associate have the mix of work needed to build core competencies and meet benchmarks? Are certain associates being pigeon-holed at the expense of their development? Are stretch assignments equitably distributed?
- Non-billable — Is the associate engaged in productive non-billable activities? Are non-billable opportunities, such as working on pitches, being distributed equitably? Is the associate making connections and strengthening their reputation through non-billable work?
- Key clients and partners — Is the associate getting the opportunity to work with key partners in the group? Are they getting the opportunity to work with top clients in that group?
Assignment Review Partners meet with each associate at least quarterly. The structure of these meetings varies depending on what is most helpful to the associate and what format works for them. Each meeting typically ends with action items for the associate and/or the Assignment Review Partner, and includes a review of hours (quantity, quality, and access), an update on non-billable activities, and a review of the associate’s progress against the annual goals the associate has set, as well as any goals or action items specifically identified in the prior meeting.
How do the Assignment Review Partners use the competency model in relation to associates’ assignments? Or is it the responsibility of the associate to monitor his or her competencies?
It is the responsibility of both the associates and the Assignment Review Partners to monitor their progression along the competencies and how that aligns with the quantity and quality of assignments they receive. One tool that is particularly helpful for associates and Assignment Review Partners to use as a guide to track this progress is the individual PDPs. Through this living document, associates are empowered to articulate their professional goals and ambitions and outline the steps necessary to achieve those goals.
In the early stages of practice, a PDP will likely focus on developing substantive legal knowledge and skills such as strong writing ability. As associates develop, their PDP will broaden to include items such as practice management skills and developing a professional identity. The PDP helps inform the Assignment Review Partners’ analysis of whether the associates are getting the types of assignments they need in order to progress in line with their career ambitions.
Assignment Review Partners request updated copies of the associate’s PDP, particularly around annual and semi-annual reviews, and discuss the document during meetings with the associates. The PDPs are not evaluative documents and are only shared between the associate, Assignment Review Partners, and sometimes with mentors and practice group leaders, if appropriate.
How does the Assignment Review Partner engage with the practice leader on these assignments for associates?
The Assignment Review Partner interacts with the group’s partners regarding assignments and keeps the practice group leader apprised of the distribution of work among the associates in the group.
Most practice groups hold regular partner meetings, which is an opportunity for the Assignment Review Partner to update all partners with respect to distribution of work. They typically use this occasion to discuss the possible need to shift work to balance workloads and ensure that all associates have an opportunity to develop among the competencies. Often, Assignment Review Partners will reach out to practice leaders and particular partners in the group after meeting with associates if they have identified a need to distribute work differently or pursue a new opportunity for an associate.
What criteria do you use to recruit a partner as an Assignment Review Partner?
Each practice group has at least one or more Assignment Review Partners designated to the associates in the group. We select partners who have taken an active role in mentoring junior talent and are invested in training the next generation of attorneys at the firm. We also look for partners who are approachable so that associates feel comfortable discussing short-term and long-term career plans with them. In addition, it is important that they have strong communication skills and are comfortable advocating on behalf of the associate, so that they can effectively convey any opportunities for change or redistribution of work with their practice group leaders and partners.
Each associate’s Assignment Review Partner should be a neutral resource, so we select Assignment Review Partners who do not work regularly with the particular associate assigned. Often, this means that we will have more than one Assignment Review Partner in each practice group, depending on the current distribution of work and the number of associates in the group.
We also have “At Large” Assignment Review Partners who can serve in this role for any associate, not necessarily an associate in his or her group. We occasionally ask the “At Large” Assignment Review Partner to step in if a particular associate works regularly with the Assignment Review Partner(s) in the group to ensure that the associate has access to a neutral resource who can objectively evaluate the quantity and quality of their work assignments.
If an associate is not meeting a competency, how does the Assignment Review Partner get involved?
The Assignment Review Partner coordinates with practice group leaders and associate review committee members to understand what types of projects would be most beneficial to ensure the associate meets a competency. The PDP is the centerpiece for the associate’s discussions with partners in the review process, providing the critical link between annual review results and tailoring future work assignments and training to maximize growth.
Associates should be updating their PDPs after mid-year and annual reviews and discussing the updates with their Assignment Review Partners. The Assignment Review Partners can use the PDP to develop a specific plan for progressing along the competency at issue and regularly check in to follow up.