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Law Practice Magazine

The Management Issue

Simple Steps: Evaluating Management Skills

Allison C Johs


  • Skills required to be a good manager, communicate with and inspire others, help to train them and foster their growth, are different from skills required to be a good lawyer.
Simple Steps: Evaluating Management Skills
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Most lawyers who find themselves in managerial positions at law firms, particularly small to midsize law firms, do so not because they desire to manage others or manage a law practice or have demonstrated any managerial skills. Few lawyers have taken management courses or undergone management training either inside or outside of their firm before being promoted to a management position. They find themselves in management positions at law firms because in most small to midsize firms, the only way to advance at the firm is to become a partner, and therefore, at least to some degree, a manager. As a result, most law firm partners or practice group leaders ascend to that position either because they are good lawyers or simply because they have longevity at their firms; they have been there long enough to be promoted. They don’t necessarily have experience managing people or teams, motivating or inspiring others, or running a business, and therefore find themselves unprepared for a management role.

At the same time, many a law firm partner has lamented the lack of “ownership mentality” of lawyers in the firm and expressed concern about the succession of the firm to the next generation. But how many of those partners, especially in small to midsize law firms, have given serious consideration to developing the management skills of the lawyers in their offices?

To make matters worse, typical law firm feedback centers around behaviors and skills the lawyer requires to be a successful legal practitioner, including knowledge and legal expertise, client communication, and quality of work product. While these performance evaluations are common in law firms, usually conducted once or twice a year by partners evaluating associates, few of those performance evaluations discuss or evaluate management skills.

How can law firms implement feedback systems to help lawyers develop the management skills they need to run their firms? Considering feedback mechanisms aside from the traditional performance review can assist in identifying candidates for managerial positions, helping them develop management skills before they are elevated to those positions, and helping existing partners and practice group managers hone their business and management skills.

Reviewing Management Skills

The skills required to be a good manager, to communicate with and inspire others, to help to train them and foster their growth, are often different from the skills required to be a good lawyer. But even once lawyers reach the partnership stage, many small to midsize law firms still design their evaluations around substantive work and billable hours, rather than management skills. Law firms need to identify a list of skills and behaviors, preferably tied to the firm’s vision, mission and core values, that they expect partnership-level lawyers to display or master, and include those skills in their regular evaluations.

Some of these skills and behaviors might include:

  • Inspires others and creates buy-in for firm initiatives;
  • Enforces and lives by the firm’s core values;
  • Puts the needs of the firm and the team over individual needs for achievement;
  • Delegates effectively;
  • Communicates effectively with the team, including providing constructive feedback;
  • Manages teams well;
  • Helps to establish priorities and goals for others or for the team;
  • Fosters good working relationships with other partners;
  • Displays emotional intelligence;
  • Acts as a mentor;
  • Deals appropriately with underperformers; and
  • Gives credit and encouragement when it is due.

The 360-Degree Evaluation

In addition to the traditional supervisor-subordinate performance evaluation, a 360-degree evaluation is a tool that can be used as an alternative feedback mechanism. Unlike typical performance evaluations, the 360-degree evaluation takes a more holistic view of a lawyer’s performance, engaging not just the lawyer and their supervisor but other stakeholders as well. A 360-degree evaluation obtains feedback from all those who work most closely with the lawyer, including peers, colleagues, direct reports and sometimes even clients. Usually feedback in a 360- degree evaluation is anonymous so that the lawyer does not know who provided which ratings or comments, helping the lawyer’s subordinates, colleagues and clients feel more comfortable providing honest and constructive feedback without embarrassment or negative consequences. The lawyer themselves will also complete a self-evaluation of the same behaviors and characteristics assessed by others in the evaluation. A supervisor or partner then reviews all the results with the lawyer.

No matter how self-aware a lawyer is, whether they are a new associate or a seasoned partner, their perception of themselves will likely diverge from the perception others have of them and their skills. The 360-degree evaluation can help all lawyers within the firm, regardless of their position, to understand how others perceive them; to understand how their performance relates to the firm’s vision, mission and goals; and to obtain a broader view of their strengths.

Obtaining Employee Feedback About Management

The most successful law firm partners and managers put their firm and their teams first, supporting them and helping them to grow. But how many law firms routinely ask for feedback about whether their employees—both lawyers and other legal professionals— feel they are receiving the support they need to succeed?

Beyond seeking feedback about lawyers in traditional performance evaluations or 360-degree evaluations, consider obtaining feedback from each lawyer about the role they perceive the firm plays in their success and how the firm helps them to overcome their challenges. The firm will receive valuable information about how the firm can improve the management skills of its lawyers and better support the work of each individual.

This process actively engages lawyers in thinking about what they need to succeed, while at the same time educating lawyers about the various behaviors that would make them a successful manager as they progress in their careers. Asking for this kind of input shows all of the firm’s employees that they are valued, that their opinion matters and that the firm is invested in supporting them.

Some sample questions might include:

  1. Do you receive enough instruction so that you understand your assignments and what is expected of you?
  2. Are you given clear deadlines for the projects or work you are given?
  3. Have you been given the tools and guidance you need in order to perform your job well?
  4. How can we help you do your job better?
  5. Do you have sufficient autonomy to do your job?
  6. Does your work allow you to focus on your strengths?
  7. Do you receive timely, sufficient feedback about your performance?
  8. When you receive criticism, is it given privately and accompanied by information about how you can improve?
  9. Are you informed of feedback received from clients about the projects you’ve worked on?
  10. How can our feedback and evaluation process be improved?
  11. How can communication within the firm be improved?
  12. Does the firm provide sufficient career opportunities or opportunities for advancement?
  13. How comfortable do you feel bringing suggestions to partners/management?
  14. Do you feel that your opinions and suggestions are heard  considered in the office?
  15. Have you been given opportunities to learn and grow?
  16. Are you clear about how your role fits in with the overall goals of the firm?

Follow Feedback With Action

Evaluations of any kind should be followed by action if you want them to be meaningful and taken seriously. If you’re going to ask for feedback, act on whatever you can, and if you cannot act on it, communicate the reasons why you cannot, or why you have considered the idea but decided not to implement it.

With both traditional and 360-degree evaluations, create an action plan that the management team or lawyer being evaluated can follow to improve, grow and address any gaps that have been identified.