Denver Bar Association
October 2003
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Making the Most of Professional Growth: Encouragement, feedback are all part of the equation

by Marian Carlson

Most firms recognize that developing young associates into strong lawyers requires a conscious effort. However, many shy away from structured professional development programs for fear they will be costly and require too much "down time" by their lawyers. Fortunately, there are many ways to advance the growth and skill of a firms’ lawyers without elaborate programs. The following are just a few examples of how a firm can strengthen the development of its lawyers through simple enhancements to existing processes.

1. Use evaluations as a road map for future development.

Associate evaluations are perhaps the most underutilized tool at a firm’s disposal for associate development. Most firms recognize the need to conduct formal evaluations on at least a yearly basis. However, too often, these reviews amount to vague, generalized, post-mortems that comment on past work but provide little guidance for the associate going forward. By ensuring that your evaluation forms identify specific behaviors rather than general characteristics, and by pressing the evaluating lawyers for specific examples in completing these forms, the evaluation process can become a springboard to improved associate performance and accelerated professional development.

After evaluation forms have been thoughtfully completed, use the evaluation conference to motivate your associates. After summarizing the written reviews, set goals for the coming year. These goals should build on the associate’s strengths, such as moving to the next level of complexity on a type of assignment he successfully completed, and also challenge the associate to improve in the areas of weakest performance.

2. Encourage Your Associates to Plan Their Development.

Once the evaluation has identified areas of strength and challenge for an associate, a professional development plan provides a useful tool for helping the associate reach his/her goals. Such a plan need not take any particular form. What matters is that each associate give careful thought to what skills they would like to sharpen, what capabilities they would like to acquire, and the means by which he/she is going to achieve those objectives. There are few experiences more demoralizing than trying to meet standards that are never disclosed, trying to jump as high as we can but never knowing if it is high enough. In contrast, the process of identifying goals helps to focus and motivate the associate.

In addition to setting performance goals for the coming year, the development plan should describe the new kinds of assignments the associate will tackle, what training may be required to achieve the desired growth, and how the associate will develop greater expertise in a particular practice area. Ideally, the associate should review the plan with his or her mentor or a senior lawyer so that the selected goals are level-appropriate and suited to the firm’s practice needs. This process also helps make supervising lawyers aware of the associate’s goals, so they can keep an eye out for assignments that help meet them. Once the plan is prepared, the associate should review it every month or two to maintain awareness of larger objectives and set interim, specific goals for moving toward them. At the next evaluation, the plan provides a framework for assessing the associate’s growth and measuring the accomplishment of specific objectives.

3. Give associates prompt, frequent, and constructive feedback on completed work.

Although formal evaluations are important, they should not be the firm’s primary method of giving performance feedback. The most effective way to promote desirable behaviors and discourage undesirable behaviors is to give the associate constructive feedback as soon as possible after each assignment is completed. Often, time pressures make it difficult for supervising attorneys to sit down with an associate to discuss a completed assignment in detail. However, even a small amount of feedback is more helpful than none. In each assignment, try to find at least one aspect of the associate’s work on which you can provide useful comments, preferably both positive and negative.

Often, lawyers forget to give positive feedback, assuming the associate will assume "no news is good news." However, associates, particularly those who are recent law school graduates, are used to getting a steady stream of feedback in the form of grades. When no feedback is given, they often fear the worst, especially if they are top performers. Making the effort to give positive feedback can reap substantial rewards in associate performance, attitude and loyalty.

Although many supervising lawyers are uncomfortable about giving negative feedback, following a few guidelines can make the process easier. As an initial matter, feedback must be given promptly after the assignment is completed, while the thought process that went into the work is still fresh in the associate’s mind. To make feedback constructive, it is helpful to (1) make it about the work, not the person; (2) make it as specific as possible, so that the associate knows what particular aspects of the assignment are being discussed; and (3) make it forward-looking, providing the associate with guidance on what to do more, better, or differently the next time.

4. When allocating work assignments, consider the opportunity for professional development the assignment may provide.

Depending on the size of your firm and the nature of its practice, you may have little flexibility in choosing work assignments for particular associates. However, when possible, keep the associates’ development plans in mind when delegating work. Try to vary the assignments given to each associate, either by the substantive nature of the assignment or the degree of responsibility she will assume. Consider the extent to which an assignment you might not have delegated, or would have delegated to someone else, might help expand the capabilities of a particular associate. In short, look for opportunities to assign work that will challenge each associate and allow her to grow.

If your practice area or firm structure is not amenable to varied or expanding work assignments, consider accepting pro bono matters as a way to broaden your associates’ range of experience. Associates can benefit not only from the training pro bono work provides, but also from the personal rewards that come from community service.

5. Share experience within the firm.

A firm’s lawyers represent a gold mine of intellectual capital, a bank vault full of valuable experience. Yet, too often, firms neglect to spread the wealth of experience among their lawyers - from the top down, and from new associates upward as well. By making a conscious effort, firms can design meetings to share experience among their lawyers. For example, when an attorney has closed an unusual deal or tried a case of particular interest, have him share the experience with the firm or practice group. Require the presenting attorney to take their work a step further, by identifying lessons that others can apply to their own cases or matters. Or, when new developments arise in a particular area of law, have a senior lawyer who specializes in that area take the opportunity to share past experience, then explain how the new changes would have affected the outcome of the case or matter, and what implications the changes have for the future.

6. Share newly-gained knowledge.

Similarly, when an attorney in the firm has attended a continuing legal education program on a subject of widespread interest, have him present a condensed version of the program to the attorneys in the firm, particularly those in the relevant practice area. This not only shares the information presented in the CLE program, but for junior associates, it also provides valuable practice in presentation skills. Afterward, make all CLE outlines available in the firm’s library and provide extra copies to the attorneys most likely to use them.

Knowledge can also be shared by organizing completed work, such as best examples of a form of document, or research on a commonly encountered subject area, in a brief bank or document file. By making your best examples of past work accessible, developing lawyers can learn from them and use them to shape future projects. Your system can be as elaborate as an intranet with portals to multiple databases, or as simple as a file cabinet with file folders of hard copies. While many firms have some kind of “brief bank” or knowledge organization system, keeping the content up to date often falls by the wayside in the press of day to day business. Consider assigning a junior lawyer to update the database at a scheduled time each week or two, as simply working with the material will make her aware of the resources to be found in the database. By taking time to organize completed work examples, either as they are created or on a scheduled basis, you will improve the quality and consistency of your associates’ work product.

7. Encourage internal marketing presentations.

In addition to discussions of particular cases, deals, or newly gained knowledge through a CLE, hold periodic meetings at which the firm’s attorneys describe the kinds of work they do and tell perhaps one or two interesting “war stories.” Quite frequently, even within a relatively small firm, there are attorneys who have no idea what their colleagues do all day. Holding periodic “practice description” meetings creates this awareness, serving several purposes:

  1. It informs all attorneys of the firm’s capabilities, for future client referrals. When a potential client describes a need for the particular capability, the colleague will spring to mind;
  2. It lets all attorneys know where they can go for help in particular subject areas, when issues arise outside the scope of their day to day practice; and
  3. Particularly for newer lawyers, these meetings provide a valuable opportunity to develop marketing presentation skills. Every attorney should be able to give a cogent summary of what he or she does for clients, describing his work in a way that is both informative and interesting to the listener. Encourage constructive feedback on how each attorney can improve his presentation in the future.

8. Make your own training videos.

Consider having your firm’s more experienced lawyers create training videos for the newer lawyers. The technology is cheap, and your own experienced attorneys can tailor the material to your firm’s particular practice preferences and client needs, unlike an outside CLE presenter. Videotapes have the added advantage of being easily accessible to learners, and can be especially valuable when an attorney needs “spot” training shortly in advance of having to apply a new skill.

Conclusion

Even in a small or medium-sized practice, the professional growth of a firm’s attorneys is too important to be left to chance. There is no end to the list of ways a firm can enhance its learning environment, whether through formalized programs or modifications to existing procedures. The key is to make a conscious decision to plan for - and make policy decisions around - the professional development needs of the firm’s lawyers.

Marian Carlson is a consultant specializing in attorney training and professional development. Before starting her consulting firm, Carlson Performance Strategies, Marian practiced law for fifteen years as a commercial litigator in Denver. She can be reached through her Web site, www.carlsonperformancestrategies.com.


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