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The Myth of the Annual Review and 3 Tips for Improving Your Firm Management This Week

by Erik Mazzone |

The annual performance review is the dental visit of firm management. It must be done. It is sometimes painful. And basically nobody likes doing it. (Apologies to the lawyers out there who are married to dentists.)

There are better tools available for firm management.

Imagine you are coaching a children’s sports team. Doesn’t matter what sport. Your team plays seven or eight games throughout the season. Each game is a new chance for your team to perform, to try their best, and – hopefully – to get better.

Now imagine it is the first minute of the first game of the season. Your team is primed and ready to play. Your team finishes that game (a win, yay!) and your team continues on through their season and plays all eight games. Let’s say they win five and lose three, not a bad season.

You gather your players for a final celebratory pizza lunch and only then do you give them the first bits of feedback, pointers, and coaching. All season, you stood silent as they played, good or bad, huge wins or painful losses. Joy, tears, frustrations. You never said a word until the end.

At that pizza lunch, you spend an entire hour (so much time! I hope they appreciate what this says about how much you value them!) with each of your athletes giving them thoughtful, pointed insights into their play and how they can improve next year. Well, at least as much feedback as you can remember, since the season started three months ago, and you have forgotten some details. You see the looks on your players faces as they try to absorb your coaching, but you also notice that after about 30 minutes of feedback, each player is on overload. They have taken in all the feedback they can in one session. But you have so much more to share. And notes!

This sounds absurd, right? I mean, nobody would try to coach a team like this. Not only would you lose countless opportunities throughout the season for your team to play better, for you to bond with your athletes, for your players to win more games… but you also would kind of ruin the celebratory pizza lunch. It is a ton of work for you, it would have minimal impact on your players’ growth, and nobody would have much fun. Which is why nobody would ever coach this way.

As strange as it is, this is the default management setting for lots of law firms. All the coaching, feedback and insight from a year gets packed into a one-hour annual review with an employee. Assiduous managers will have notes gathered from things throughout the year, while those who shoot from the hip will focus on things that have happened in the last month or so, because let’s be honest… that is all they can remember. It's no way to coach a kids’ sports team and it’s no way to manage a law firm. For pretty much all of the same reasons.

If this has been the way you have been managing your firm, this is a great opportunity to try to pivot to some new strategies. Here are a few basic thoughts to help you get started.


Give Feedback Frequently

I would almost say “constantly” instead of frequently, though there is a law of diminishing returns at play. Don’t wait for the annual review to give feedback to your team members. Give them your thoughts, insights and feedback as the day, week and year is progressing. When you find them doing something great, tell them right then and there. It does not have to be a huge separate conversation; just a quick, “wow, you really did an awesome job with this, keep it up!” 

Same goes when you find them doing something that isn’t quite right. Do not save it for a discussion months from now; pull them aside and show them what is wrong and how to do it right. It does not need to be an emotionally significant or a difficult time for the employee, it can just be a minor instruction like you might give to a player during a game. Fix it and move on.


Balance Positive and Negative Feedback

Make sure you are giving both positive and negative feedback. Giving corrections and negative feedback is an essential part of managing an employee, but it cannot be the only kind of feedback they receive. Or you will not have that employee in your firm for very long. Make sure you find opportunities to catch them doing something right and provide the feedback for those times, too.

If you are unsure of how to make the balance work in the beginning, I am a fan of the Toastmasters’ approach: sandwich the correction in between two positive interactions. I do not mean every actual interaction needs to be sandwiched between two positive bits of feedback; but when you are giving negative feedback or constructive criticism, try to make sure over the course of the week it is balanced out with a couple of positive reflections for each instance of correction. 


Set Aside One on One Time Each Week

Those little coaching bits of feedback might only take 30 seconds a piece. They are not extensive time commitments, which is great for fitting them in your schedule. But they also do not have context, perspective, or history. Think of them as just nudges on a steering wheel to keep the bus in the right lane.

If you really want to help your team grow and perform, you need to also set aside one on one time with each of your direct reports, each week. I give this advice to lawyers, and it never fails to elicit groans and eye rolls as they mentally scan their weekly calendar and try to figure out where they are going to find time for another four weekly meetings (or however many direct reports you have).

I know, lawyers running law firms do not generally suffer from an excess of free time. Every minute given needs to be taken from someplace else. We only get 168 hours each week. 

You are the boss of your firm, and you make the final decisions about what does and what does not find its way into your management culture. My agenda is just to share what I have seen work in some firms and share what helps my clients. I will say this, though: if you do not put in the time to help your team members grow and progress through feedback and one on ones, you will very likely spend that time on management anyway. Either fixing mistakes or hiring to replace departing employees who you might have rather kept on. There are no shortcuts, unfortunately, though I would dearly love to have some to share with you.

Okay, there’s three tips for you to incorporate in your management operations of your firm starting this week. Try them for a few months and see if you notice any improvements.

At least it will be better than going to the dentist.



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