The NALP Foundation for Law Career Research and Education released a new report on lawyer performance evaluations. The report, entitled How Lawyer Evaluations Measure Up, is the second national research study of performance assessments within law firms done by the NALP Foundation, following a similar study in 2006. This new study looked at the importance and function of core competencies and benchmarks in the evaluation process, and includes surveys of associates, non-partnership track lawyers and law firm administrators. Legal Executive Institute recently spoke with Tammy A. Patterson, CEO & President of the NALP Foundation about the study and what it showed.
LEI: This is the second study the Foundation has done on the area of lawyer performance evaluations. How do the two studies compare?
Patterson: Well, the first one we did in 2006 looked at the performance evaluation process in law firms, and really focused on associates only and on the process and how it works.
Last year we launched a very similar study again where we surveyed folks on the administrative side and also lawyers who were being evaluated. We expanded beyond just the on-track associates in law firms. We surveyed all non-partner lawyers, and that included staff attorneys as well as contract, temporary and part-time lawyers—everyone who basically was not a partner was invited to participate in this study. We again looked at how the process works as far as how many times a year folks are formally reviewed, who reviews them, what type of form is being used, what type of feedback is happening.
To those being evaluated, we asked them some of those same questions. Also, we asked what value they see in this, and were they satisfied with the process, those types of things.
In all, it was a range of 500 to 600 lawyers who completed the survey.
LEI: What were your key findings?
Patterson: What we found in general is that law firms have a pretty formal process for evaluating non-partners. It typically happens once a year, although some firms are doing this twice a year. There’s normally a committee that’s in charge of the process with one person or a couple of people overseeing that committee. Administratively, we didn’t find that a lot had changed between the 2014 and 2006 studies on the administrative side.
LEI: But you did find some changes between the studies?
Patterson: One change we did find is that now firms are tying their evaluation process a little bit more to competencies and benchmarks because, over that period of time, a lot of firms invested in developing those types of benchmarks and competencies for their lawyers. There’s more connection now with that scenario.
What was surprising was that in between 2006 and 2014, even as law firms have made a lot of advancements in the evaluation process, that there still was not a big difference in the level of satisfaction and confidence that the evaluatees have in the process.
And we also still found that there remains a big lack of feedback going on outside the formal process. Even while there might be some type of session where an associate or a lawyer gets some feedback; in general, our respondents say that it still wasn’t all that helpful. There’s still not a lot of informal feedback going on apart from that formal review process. I think making the performance evaluation process meaningful and valuable to the person being evaluated is still an area that law firms struggle with.
LEI: What about other talent development and training programs, like mentoring?
Patterson: I think firms have really struggled with finding a mentoring program that really works, as far as a formal mentoring program is concerned. I think the performance evaluation process fits into that somewhat. It’s still an area, along with mentoring, that I think law firms—really of all sizes from 25 lawyers up to well over a thousand—still struggle with.