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Tried & Proven: 10 tips for better law firm staff evaluations

By NANCY BYERLY JONES, Special to Lawyers Weekly

nbj@nbjconsulting.com

 

Too many law offices have sloppily put together employee-evaluation systems.

These mostly ineffective systems are typically used haphazardly, inconsistently and hurriedly. This means that they result in unfair and inaccurate results.

Does it really matter in the big scheme of things? The answer is a resounding “Yes” if you want a steadily productive, loyal, efficient and top-notch legal team in your corner.

Good evaluation systems are well worth the time and effort put into their creation, implementation and monitoring. They help management stay in touch with the proper placement of employees, their value to the firm and whether they are doing their jobs well, poorly or somewhere in-between.

Employees like well-designed evaluation systems because: (1) they help clarify what the firm expects from them; (2) they keep them timely informed as to whether they are performing satisfactorily; and (3) they provide the opportunity for a professional exchange of ideas, concerns and questions.

They help clarify what the firm expects from them, keep them timely informed as to whether they are performing satisfactorily and provide the opportunity for a professional exchange of ideas, concerns and questions.

Whether your office’s employee-evaluation methods need to be established or could stand to be updated or perhaps entirely overhauled, the starter tips below are intended to help you get the ball rolling:

1. Know the purposes of your evaluation system (e.g. improve job performance, maintain top-quality legal teams, help employees reach their professional goals, fix issues needing attention before they fester and implode, ensure a healthy morale by keeping check on and eliminating chronically poor attitudes or trouble-making employees, etc.).

2. Ensure employees understand the “whys” behind an evaluation process (e.g. to enhance the team’s and each individual’s strengths and skills, to keep small issues from becoming big ones, to help make decisions about promotions and/or repositioning, for strategic planning, bonus determinations, efficiency and more).

3. Create a clear, written policy statement of how and when evaluations are conducted, the length of time involved, how final results are reached and when evaluation results will be shared with employees (e.g. objective and/or subjective evaluations, work-in-progress reports and observations, including specific examples of work well done and/or of poor work product).

4. Design an evaluation checklist or form to be used by everyone in the firm to record topics to be discussed and responses of the employee – and which supervisors and employees both sign and date at the conclusion of the evaluation process.

5. Determine if your firm will ask employees to submit self-evaluation checklists. If so, create one, hopefully after asking for attorney and staff input as to the form’s content. The same holds true for establishing a method for employee feedback regarding co-workers and supervisors. Establish a policy that ensures confidentiality and that all employees are held accountable to participate.

6. Provide detailed, written instructions regarding employee rebuttal/appeal options (e.g. during the interview, after the interview, how to submit concerns, to whom, within what time limits, and what response time is to be expected from management, etc.).

7. Know how confidentiality is protected and explain safeguards within your policy (e.g. how many copies of the evaluation documents are kept by the employer, who has access, the firm’s non-retaliation policies and how to report alleged retaliation, breaches or potential breaches of confidentiality, etc.).

8. Provide clearly written documentation as to how the firm follows up on decisions made as a result of evaluations, including possible outcomes for typical areas needing attention (e.g. mentoring of employees, one-on-one coaching for organizational or better communication skills, anger management, conflict resolution, additional substantive training, etc.).

9. Create an annual “employee action plan” form, which includes goals expected to be reached, areas of improvement needed, new skills to be learned, etc.

10. Have your evaluation policy and process reviewed by outside, experienced employment counsel to ensure that all related laws, regulations and other guidelines are strictly followed in the design and actual implementation of your system.

The list above is not intended to be all-inclusive, but as a starter road map to assist small law firms in strengthening, creating or overhauling their current systems.

The huge majority of attorneys and staff I’ve been blessed to work with through the years are strongly in favor of fairly and comprehensively designed and regularly implemented evaluation systems. 

Editor’s note: Byerly Jones assists law offices, businesses and individuals with leadership and personnel development, strategic planning, systems and risk management. A former practicing attorney, she also serves as a mediator. For more information, check out www.nbjconsulting.com or www.lawbusinesstips.com.

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