April 12, 2021

Ask the Section: How Can I Recover from a Negative Evaluation or Capitalize on a Positive Review?

William H. Knight – June 6, 2014

Most junior associates begin their employment between August and October following bar examination season. Since most employers do performance reviews for new hires around the six-month mark, the JIOP Alumni Committee has unsurprisingly received several evaluation-related questions between February and March of this year. In an effort to reach the widest audience, "Ask the Section" has chosen two opposite dilemmas:

Dear Section of Litigation:

I am a first-year associate, and I just had a disappointing six-month evaluation. How can I recover from this setback and excel at my firm?

[Discouraged in Dallas]
Dallas, TX

Dear "Discouraged in Dallas":

Don't let the review undermine your confidence (unless, of course, the issue was your misplaced level of confidence); this is an opportunity for you to grow as a lawyer. If you were given specific directions about things you needed to do, do those things immediately. Let your supervisor know that you did them and what you learned. 

If the review was more general, then a good place to begin is with senior associates—both those who have worked with your supervising attorneys and others.  What do the supervising attorneys do to make sure they are meeting their senior associates' expectations? Or what do the supervising attorneys do to meet a client's expectations (because remember, your supervisor is your first real client)? You may also want to speak to other associate attorneys and ask them for their thoughts on what has helped them to be successful. If you are talking to associate attorneys who have worked with you in the past, ask if they have any suggestions about areas in which you should improve.

Remember that the tone of your discussion is important—don't whine about your performance review, because that whining is likely to get back to your supervisor and reflect poorly on you. Instead, demonstrate (and have) an enthusiastic attitude (tempered enthusiasm, of course) about your quest for an understanding of how to better meet your supervisor's expectations and be the best lawyer you can be.

Angelina LaPenotiere is an employment litigation partner at Carrington, Coleman, Sloman & Blumenthal, L.L.P. in Dallas, Texas, and a member of the JIOP Committee working group.

Dear Section of Litigation:

I am a first-year associate, and I just had an outstanding six-month performance review. Because it was such a positive review, however, I received very little constructive criticism. Should I just stay the course, or is there something I should do differently to ensure my next review is equally positive?

[Rising Star]
Miami, FL

Dear "Rising Star":

Congrats!  You have apparently made a good first impression with your new firm.  Enjoy the moment (and maybe even a celebratory libation), and then promptly and permanently forget that useless review.

As a six-month lawyer, you are at the bottom of a steep and grueling learning curve. Whether through a formal performance review process or during a casual conversation at happy hour, all feedback given to a junior attorney—even genuinely positive feedback—should include lots of constructive criticism. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work that way.  Nevertheless, under no circumstances should you interpret an early positive evaluation as a proclamation that you are an "outstanding" lawyer or that you can simply "stay the course"!

Regardless of what categories are listed on your firm's "Associate Evaluation Form," you are actually being judged on the following: (1) are you reliable, (2) are you personable, and (3) do you have good judgment. My advice:  Listen closely for and to any feedback, and try never to make the same mistake twice (especially with the same partner). Also, figure out at what point the senior associates at your firm started to handle certain milestone tasks (e.g., depositions, dispositive motions, mediations, etc.), and try your best to match that timeline by actively seeking such opportunities. Finally, grow a thick skin so that you are able to handle, and even solicit, meaningful advice and criticism. This is a tough gig, and glowing praise is far less valuable than rigorous mentorship.

Alastair Gamble is a senior associate in the Phoenix, Arizona, branch of global employment and labor law firm Littler Mendelson P.C and is a member of the ABA's Section of Litigation.

The common thread seems to be that, regardless of whether you need to improve, or you need to seek ways to improve, persistence and confidence are your best friends. Best of luck going forward, and please let us know how you do after finishing your first year!

Very truly yours,

JIOP Alumni Committee

"Ask the Section" is a recurring column where JIOP alumni can submit anonymous career development questions and have them answered by specially selected Section of Litigation members who are the most qualified in that area. The JIOP Alumni committee developed this column to serve as a tool both for individual mentoring and to learn collectively from each other's professional growth. To submit an anonymous question, please e-mail the editor, Will Knight.

William H. Knight – June 6, 2014