Tools to Improve Morale, Promote Retention and Train Mentors

Volume 38 Number 5

By

About the Author

Naomi Beard is the president and CEO of Naomi Beard & Associates, which provides executive coaching, career transition mentoring and talent development consulting services to law firm attorneys and law firms. She has expertise in running both large- and small-scale law firm upward reviews. 

Law Practice Magazine | September/October 2012 | The Recruitment and Retention Issue
Participating attorneys must feel that the feedback they provide will be kept confidential.

Law firms of all sizes face the problem of losing good associates after the firms have spent years of time and a great deal of money training them. Often, those good associates will move to seemingly greener pastures—other firms, in-house jobs or into their own solo practices.

To protect their investment and to avoid losing talent, smart firms continually examine what they can do to promote the retention of their associates. Law firm leaders find themselves needing to take measures to improve associate satisfaction, increase associate engagement and promote retention. Traditional strategies usually include comprehensive skills-focused training programs, individual coaching for attorneys and formal mentoring programs.

CHANGING THE FOCUS

Those traditional retention programs are focused on associates, but an innovative approach used by some law firms focuses on the performance of the partners and law firm leaders whose job it is to oversee the care and feeding of associates. This approach, sometimes called the “upward review process,” examines the performance of law firm partners and senior management as mentors and supervisors of associates, and it can be effective in ensuring that associates receive proper mentoring, training and career development.

Simply stated, upward review feedback identifies which supervisors are effective mentors and which would benefit from training to improve their performance as mentors. Those who emerge as being effective mentors are celebrated and rewarded for their performance. Those needing further training are provided with the opportunity to receive that training—to learn how to communicate better and provide more feedback, for example. The ultimate beneficiaries of this process are associates, who reap the rewards of improved mentoring, and the firm, which may experience a higher rate of associate retention.

HOW IT WORKS

In an upward review, law firm associates are asked to provide feedback, typically to an outside consultant hired to conduct the review. If preferred, feedback can be gathered by law firm professional development staff or via confidential online surveys. Whatever the method, the project manager will solicit input from associates—either in writing or in confidential, in-person interviews—about the performance of the partners with whom they are working. They may also be asked to provide feedback on senior law firm management on issues such as compensation, communication and training programs. The responses are then synthesized into written reports, taking precautions to preserve the confidentiality of those who provided their opinions, and the reports are shared with partners and management. These reports will often recommend courses of action to be taken to further improve performance among firm partners and leaders as supervisors and managers.

These reports become roadmaps that both individual partners and firm management can follow when evaluating how to better manage and engage with their associates. Law firm management may review upward review feedback and decide to make adjustments in how to manage, train and communicate with associates. Individual partners might be inspired, for example, to more routinely give feedback to attorneys regarding those attorneys’ performance on a given matter.

A well-handled law firm upward review will identify both a firm’s top supervisory performers and its underachievers. In accomplishing this, the upward review process has an additional important benefit: improving associate morale, engagement and retention.

A firm must take a few key steps to get the most from an upward review process. Some firms, particularly those with multiple offices and a large number of new associates arriving each year, will likely take a comprehensive approach to the process. Others—including smaller firms—will use an abbreviated process that might entail limiting upward reviews to particular offices or practice groups, or soliciting feedback solely by means of online written submissions rather than through in-person interviews. Most firms, however, will find that in-person interviews across all offices will yield the best results. Whichever methodology is used, the upward review process assumes that the law firm’s culture is open to the idea of having associates evaluate partners.

KEY ELEMENTS OF AN UPWARD REVIEW

Foster a supportive culture. The success of an upward review depends largely on the buy-in a firm gets from its leadership regarding the benefits of the review process. Firm leadership must be publicly supportive and encouraging of the process. Having the commitment of leadership is critical to set the right tone across the organization and send a message to everyone, from senior associates to mid-level partners and above.

Encourage visible participation by key firm leaders. Firm leadership and professional staff must be prepared to promote the upward review process, educate associates, counsel and partners about it, and encourage participation by associates and counsel in in-person interviews. Once the upward review process is launched and in-person interviews are about to begin, the law firm may find it useful to have the consultant participate in office-by-office meetings, either by having him or her visit the offices in person or conducting the meetings by teleconference, in order to connect directly with the people involved and answer any questions about the process.

Achieve a high associate participation rate. The higher the participation, the more rich and nuanced the feedback will be. This accomplishes several goals: It gets associates communicating about what’s working and what’s not in their practice experiences; it ensures the collection of richer, more nuanced data to share with law firm partners and other leaders; and it gives the associates themselves a sense that the process has integrity and will yield constructive feedback that can have a positive impact on their experiences.

Protect confidentiality. The most fundamentally important component to the development and execution of a sound, thorough upward review process is the taking of various measures to ensure confidentiality. Participating attorneys must feel that the feedback they provide will be kept confidential, and supervisors who receive written reports must also feel that their privacy is protected.

Define the scope. The review process is scalable and can be firmwide or more targeted in scope. A firm that commits to a full-scale upward review is committing to having consultants visit all of its offices to gather feedback, in person, about the supervisory and mentoring performance of their partners and counsel. A more targeted approach might involve a limited number of offices or practice areas. Whichever approach is selected, the review can be leader-focused (that is, assessing the performance of selected partners and law firm executives as leaders) or seniority-focused (examining a high-priority group, such as senior associates, practice group leaders, office heads, work coordinators, etc.).

Determine the structure. The logistics of an upward review process are established in close coordination between a firm’s leadership and the consultant. A questionnaire is developed and circulated for feedback and changes. In some cases, an online survey system is also developed as a back-up for those attorneys who can’t participate in the in-person interviews. A firm must also decide how many reviews a supervisor must receive before he or she will receive a written review while preserving the confidentiality of participating attorneys.

Identify the focus and objectives. A firm needs to be clear on what feedback it specifically wants to receive from its associates. The questionnaire used in the in-person interviews can be tailored to meet the firm’s particular areas of interest. A questionnaire might be divided into two parts, with the first part reviewing supervisory performance and the second part reviewing firm-wide themes. Questions addressing supervisory performance might request feedback regarding, for example, a supervisor’s performance in delegating work, clarifying questions, being available for clarification, demonstrating patience, team building, reflecting the firm’s values and mentoring. Questions addressing firmwide themes could include questions regarding firmwide communication, diversity, work coordination, office morale, practice group morale, firm training and mentoring programs, performance reviews and bonus structure.

DELIVERABLES AND RETURN ON INVESTMENT

The most concrete benefits of an upward review process are these:

  1. Improved morale among attorneys from having had the opportunity to participate in the in-person interviews and express their feedback.
  2. Detailed written feedback and coaching points for the majority of the firm’s supervisors.
  3. Detailed written feedback on firmwide issues of interest.
  4. Celebrating talent and identifying those needing improvement, thereby reinforcing organizational cultural norms.
  5. Establishing metrics by which the firm’s performance can be evaluated over time. Some firms will find that the benefits of the process begin immediately, while others may go through the entire review before seeing any benefits.

Improved morale. The performance of the in-person reviews should themselves be therapeutic for attorneys, offering them a safe, confidential space to provide praise, express any concerns and simply be “heard.” Follow-up on the data gathered is key to preserving that boost in morale. The data gathered from these interviews are used to celebrate strong supervisors and mentors, coach others who would benefit from improvement, and adjust aspects of talent development initiatives and firm management to respond to issues of concern.

Written feedback and coaching points to teach supervisors and leaders. Beyond the interviews themselves, the firm receives a rich set of data to which it can refer for months, even years, following the upward review. The execution of the review process itself can have a profound impact on the performance of many supervisors. Those identified as top mentors and supervisors feel recognized for their efforts. Those identified as needing real improvement in their supervisory style often step up and, in many cases, show a willingness to engage in executive coaching for the first time. Delivery of the reviews not only affects each supervisor receiving a review but the entire organization. The reviews remind supervisors of the standards and firm values to which the firm holds them and serves as a powerful reinforcement of those standards and values.

Rich data regarding firmwide thematic issues. The written reports covering thematic issues—including communication, diversity, work coordination and the like—serve as a resource for refreshing or reshaping a firm’s talent management efforts and initiatives. Firms may refer back to these reports repeatedly as they advance their talent management agendas and track their own progress. Upward reviews can open up a dialogue between law firm management and attorneys regarding various issues of concern. Issues of which the firm was not aware may be flagged, issues of import may be highlighted, and frank feedback can be gathered. This feedback can provide guidance for firm management regarding priority issues. These issues might include adjusting communication approaches, shifting recruiting efforts or changing firmwide systems (e.g., work coordination, training and mentoring, etc.).

Celebrate talent, and reinforce cultural norms and core values. Each firm has its core values, and the very issues assessed in an upward review can serve to reinforce those values. Outlier behaviors can be identified and addressed. Excellent supervisory and mentoring behaviors can be reinforced. The best performers can be celebrated, and those needing improvement can receive feedback from the written review and, if amenable, coaching.

Measure progress. The talent management professionals at law firms that perform upward reviews on some sort of routine basis create a way to measure progress of, for example, their partners as supervisors and mentors, and their efforts to improve training, communication and diversity.

ASSOCIATES HAVING A VOICE

The entire course of an upward review—from the firmwide discussions of the process to the in-person interviews with attorneys to the delivery and constructive response to upward review feedback—provides multiple avenues by which associate morale, satisfaction and ultimately retention can be improved. Associates who feel that they have a voice, that what they say matters and will be heard, that action will be taken in response to their input, and that their firm is listening and trying to “get it right” feel far more invested in their firm than those who feel stuck in an environment where they see themselves as merely “fungible billing units.” Will associate attrition still be an issue with which law firms continue to grapple? Definitely—but those that implement law firm upward reviews may fare far better on this front than those that don’t.

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