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June 02, 2023

Transforming Associate Performance Evaluations into Meaningful Training Opportunities

Associate evaluations can be stressful – and not just for the associate. Evaluations are critical opportunities to align your associates’ performance with demands from clients, the firm, and the associates themselves. Clients expect your associates to be well-trained, productive, and efficient, while the firm makes a significant investment in each hired associate and wants to see a return on that investment. And, of course, associates themselves have a stake in evaluations: they want to reach their full potential and you need to keep them motivated to do so. 

A smart approach to associate evaluations can help address these demands, ensuring associates are producing for clients, contributing to the firm overall objectives, and staying satisfied with their career development at your firm. In this post, we dive into best practices for effective associate evaluations and share how evaluators can overcome common issues that arise. 

Best Practices for Associate Evaluations

Running associate evaluations should be a consistent and regular process. If your firm hasn’t yet developed such a method, it’s crucial to create one. Here are a few key considerations:

  • Frequency of reviews: Many firms often favor traditional yearly reviews, but conducting more frequent check-ins can be useful in keeping performance on track and maintaining morale. It also helps eliminate surprises when annual reviews come around. Some firms prefer formal quarterly reviews, whereas others task supervising attorneys to conduct even more frequent pulse-checks with their associates.
  • The evaluators: Naturally, the majority of the assessment burden falls on the supervising partners. However, firm leadership, peers, and the associates themselves may also play a role. Requesting that associates perform self-assessment as part of their evaluation encourages self-awareness and an understanding of how their work is perceived by others. In addition, giving an opportunity for associates to upwardly evaluate their supervising attorneys in “360° evaluations” allows them to feel heard and communicate what they need to succeed at the firm.
  • Areas of assessment: Evaluations should provide feedback on areas such as communication, collaboration, teamwork, problem-solving skills, work quality and accuracy, reliability, contribution to firm culture, and the ability to meet goals and deadlines. Supervising attorneys should keep ongoing notes of concrete positive and negative examples in these areas. Specific feedback such as, “Your draft of the Acme Corporate NDA was two days late, and you requested an extension on the XYZ contract work,” is more impactful than vague comments like, “Your document drafts tend to be late.”
  • Focusing on strengths: While performance reviews may seem like an ideal time to discuss an associate’s weaknesses, it’s better to address those issues as they occur. This way, negative aspects of the review can be tackled pragmatically rather than emotionally, focusing on how the firm can help the associate improve. Evaluations should highlight what the associate is doing well, acknowledging their positive contributions and using those as a foundation to grow and improve.
  • Forward-thinking While reviews are inherently retrospective, they’re most productive when used to set a path for future growth. Be sure to set goals, and take a collaborative approach to solving any problems the associate might be experiencing, rather than resorting to punitive measures. These discussions provide a roadmap for the associate’s development and set the stage for the next evaluation, allowing the associate’s progress to be benchmarked against the specified goals.

Common Gaps in Substantive Skills that Arise During Evaluations

Each associate brings a unique set of strengths and weaknesses to the table. However, when it comes to substantive or technical skills, performance issues often emerge from a few common problem areas: 

  • Seeing the big picture: Requiring associates to conduct self-assessments during their evaluations can offer valuable insights into their performance. There’s an inherent learning curve in the transition from law school to a professional law firm that involves understanding how things are done. Oftentimes, associates get lost in the weeds of their day-to-day work assignments, and it’s helpful to take a step back and ensure they have a strong foundational understanding of the practice. Here are some questions to consider:
    • Does the associate understand your firm’s or practice group’s service offerings, target clients, and what your specific practice actually does? 
    • Are they fluent in industry issues, terminology, and document types? 
    • Do they understand the nuts and bolts of the transactions they’ll be working on, who the key players are, and the typical legal arguments/positions of your clients and opposing parties/counsel?

  • Comprehending processes, structures, and key tasks: Junior associates need to have a thorough understanding of transactional structures and processes, including knowledge of deal mechanics, due diligence, closing of deals from start to finish, and their specific role in the process. Practice group leaders can’t always control the deal flow to each associate, resulting in gaps in mastery that can hinder an associate’s productivity within their team. 
  • Spotting issues: Junior associates need to constantly build their knowledge and ability to proactively identify issues that are relevant to their clients’ deals or matters. While some issues can be learned through explanations, there is nothing better than actually working on real matters or deals to build those issue-spotting muscles. This typically comes after being exposed to a good number and variety of transactions, but, depending on the situation (e.g., deal flow, office, work distribution), it may not be possible for all associates.   
  • Resolving issues with practical solutions: While identifying the right issues is an important developmental skill for junior lawyers, equally important is their ability to resolve or come up with practical solutions to those issues. Are they thinking through what solutions can be both advantageous to their client and at the same time be a reasonable compromise to the other side based on market dynamics or standards? Are they applying the right context to the situation (e.g., deal size, leverage/power of the parties, client size, etc.)? Similar to the skill of identifying issues, this skill typically comes after being exposed to a good number and variety of transactions, but, depending on the situation (e.g., deal flow, office, work distribution), it may not be a possibility for all associates. 
  • Developing the skills for best practices: As your associate settles into their role at the firm, you may start to identify areas where they require further skill development to increase their effectiveness. For example, they may need assistance with better drafting techniques or require more experience with a particular type of deal. Tailor-made training programs can provide the essential foundational skills and confidence needed to elevate the associate's practice to the next level.

Bridging Performance Gaps in Substantive Skills

Evaluations serve dual purposes. They not only aid in an associate’s professional development but also demonstrate the firm’s commitment to investing time and energy in their associates. Once any performance gaps have been identified, it’s time to effectively address them. 

Develop a Targeted Training Cirriculum

Once the areas for improvement have been identified and communicated, the next step involves creating a precise, actionable plan. The supervising attorney, firm leadership, and the associate should agree on a targeted curriculum addressing the substantive challenges identified during the evaluation. Furthermore, the firm should provide the necessary resources to implement this plan and adjust the associate's workload to facilitate their participation. Depending on the associate's requirements, this program could involve targeted skill-building work or adopt a more holistic approach, where a firm foundation is established and subsequently built upon.

For example, if an associate has gaps in understanding the big picture, courses that target foundational knowledge about the relevant practice group will be important. In an M&A practice group, that foundational overview course would typically tackle key terms, terminology, structures, typical players, and motivations behind different deal types. 

If the associate has gaps in understanding typical deal processes and key tasks, courses that focus on deal mechanics would be helpful. In a Real Estate practice group, that targeted course will cover what typical real estate deals look like from start to finish, types of approvals needed, and what a junior associate role would be when working on those deals.

Offer the Most Effective Training Modality

While the number of courses can be plentiful as you start to map out substantive gaps with topics, assignments and needed skills, there is only one type of training that produces the best results - experiential training. Lectures are not nearly as effective in developing skills that can be put into real-world practice. Videos, no matter how nice their graphics are, won't do the trick either. (Imagine learning how to swim by watching videos!) Even having issue-spotting workshops, where a presenter reviews deal documents and issues, won't really get the associates there. Associates learn best by doing, engaging in live synchronous instruction, repetitively applying their skills, and receiving ongoing feedback and course-correction. Mentorship also plays a crucial role: the associate should feel that someone is looking out for them, advocating for their needs, and holding them accountable to the firm’s expectations.

Of course, learning by doing real client work is experiential training and can help build the needed skills, but that is way too expensive. Clients won't pay for a junior associate training on their dime, and, as a result, a supervising lawyer has to typically  write that time off, correct mistakes, and find time to give real time feedback to a junior associate in the middle of a transaction.

Instead, learning by doing simulated client work (i.e., mock deals and transactions) is the better way to go. This involves taking past client deal documents and scenarios and turning them into simulated deal assignments. To get the most out of the learning exercise, it’s important to make the fact patterns and documents as close to the real world experience as possible. This means that the assignments must be imperfect in substance and form. Like a puzzle, there should be missing client facts that the associate needs to identify, business issues, loopholes and conflicts. Lots of gray areas that require analytical thinking. Like a workout, if the assignment does not make the associate sweat a little, it wont work.

This type and level of training and oversight requires time, commitment, and human resources. In this current environment, however, it may be difficult for firms to allocate such a significant endeavor – especially for foundational level training across all key practice areas. If this is the case at your firm, consider outsourcing foundational content training, skill-building, or mentoring to a trusted training partner. This approach can ease the strain of developing internal training programs and provide everything you need under one roof.


How AltaClaro Can Help

AltaClaro is a preferred and trusted solution for law firms that recognize the value of personalized experiential associate training in maximizing their associates' potential. Our online boot camps enable attorneys to harness technology and efficiently acquire practical legal skills. This hybrid format incorporates mock transactions and live feedback sessions with experienced practitioners. 

Our extensive course catalog covers beginner to intermediate levels across various topics, including Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A), Corporate, Capital Markets, Technology Transactions, Real Estate, and Lending Transactions. AltaClaro's cutting-edge learning technology platform also facilitates monitoring and tracking of training engagement and performance, so you can see exactly how your training is driving better results for your associates as well as your ROI.

New associates crave reassurance and support, and providing regular feedback is a great way to show his commitment from the firm. For this feedback to matter, however, it needs to be accompanied by opportunities to change and improve. Evaluations that result in personalized training and mentoring for each associate is a crucial step toward fostering an effective and engaged associate cohort. For help turning your associate evaluations into opportunities for growth, contact us.

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