Advice for New Attorneys Tasked With Evaluating Staff Members

Mindy Pava

You expected demanding clients, never-ending hours, and a schedule that could only be managed by constantly relying on your Microsoft Outlook calendar. You didn’t expect—as a new attorney— also to be considered “the boss.”

Many new lawyers are flummoxed to learn that they will oversee paralegals and other staff members. These staff members boast an intimidating knowledge of relevant cases and organizational culture—and sometimes have worked at the office for longer than even the most senior partners. How, then, should a newbie attorney approach the difficult prospect of formally evaluating experienced colleagues?

I asked paralegals at my firm to determine the type of feedback they consider helpful. The advice they gave me was consistent and helpful—and can be used for any person you review.

Formal, Year-End Evaluations Are Not a Forum for New Revelations

If you decide to put constructive criticism in a paralegal’s evaluation, you should have already met with him and addressed the issue—ideally when the issue first arose. The goal? To ensure that nothing written in a year-end evaluation comes as a surprise. Telling a paralegal that his cite-checking is sloppy during an annual evaluation will cause the paralegal to wonder which brief or assignment is being referenced. Instead of letting an issue build over a span of several months only to unveil it during evaluation season, provide feedback on assignments throughout the year.

Provide Feedback on Big Assignments Throughout the Year

If a paralegal helps you prepare for a deposition but organizes the exhibits in a way that does not make sense to you, it’s best to address your preferred organizational approach immediately. Sending the paralegal a simple email thanking her for her help after the fact will cause the paralegal to think she did a sufficient job. Similarly, radio silence—otherwise known as no feedback—leads the paralegal to assume that everything went according to plan. Providing detailed feedback on a case-by-case basis on what went right and what went wrong helps everyone meet one another’s expectations on future projects.

Take Ownership of Your Own Performance

Before you attempt to evaluate anyone else, evaluate yourself. Did you always make your expectations clear to staff members during the year? Did you give paralegals enough advance notice of an upcoming assignment so that they could (realistically) fit it into their schedule? Evaluations shouldn’t be a time to lay blame. Evaluations should be when you assess how each member of a team can make progress. You aren’t immune from such a review, and all team members will appreciate if you couch any suggestions of improvement for them with ways in which you will also try to enhance your own performance.

Evaluations Can Be Positive, Too

Are you hoping that senior partners will sing your praises during your evaluation? Paralegals also hope you’ll provide them with a list of positives. While you shouldn’t run away from tailored, constructive criticism, there’s no rule preventing you from using annual evaluations as a time to underscore how much you appreciate one staff member’s consistent attention to detail, another person’s desire to stay late and see a project through to completion, or a third member of the team’s creative problem solving. When listing positives, try to give specific examples so that the paralegal can remember the exact project that caused such encouraging remarks.

Free Food Always Helps

Evaluation time doesn’t necessarily need to feel like a parent-teacher conference. If you have worked closely with one paralegal during the year, ask if she’d prefer to hear your feedback on her performance over lunch. Use the meal as a time to discuss last year’s highlights and to set goals for the upcoming year. Even if you need to bring up constructive criticism, such comments always sound better along with a side of fries—especially when you’re picking up the tab.

Mindy Pava

Mindy Pava is an associate at Hausfeld LLP in Washington, D.C.