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Tips for Completing Effective Attorney Self-Evaluations

Posted on: 11/3/2011
Kathleen A. Lang, Jennifer L. Newby
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"If you want to succeed in the world you must make your own opportunities as you go on. The [woman] who waits for some seventh wave to toss [her] on dry land will find that the seventh wave is a long time a coming. You can commit no greater folly than to sit by the roadside until someone comes along and invites you to ride with him to wealth or influence." John B. Gough  

No one knows the total value you bring to your profession better than you. Perhaps that is why any opportunity for a self-evaluation is so important. At some firms, associates are asked to complete evaluations to show their development, progress toward meeting firm expectations, and reasons for any deviations from the guidelines. Partners are asked to complete compensation forms to account for their contributions and justify their allocations from the firm. In-house counsel are often asked to complete self-critiques of their overall performance and progress toward business objectives. Often, women have a more difficult time appreciating the importance of a self-evaluation tool as an opportunity to promote themselves and ask for what they deserve, whether in terms of compensation, advancement or expansion of responsibilities. As women, we sometimes have a difficult time with self promotion; it feels like bragging or being egotistical. However, it is critical to be able to effectively articulate your worth to your firm or business, particularly because many of your male colleagues are not hesitant or shy about promoting themselves and women can be undervalued in comparison. While not applicable to every firm or self-evaluation, here are ten tips (in no particular order) for completing a powerful self-evaluation:  

Remember the Purpose of the Evaluation. The evaluation is your opportunity to explain the value you bring to the organization, so use this opportunity to advocate for yourself. It is not a time to be shy or hesitant about your accomplishments during the year. In many firms, the self-evaluation is called a "bragging memo," so brag about yourself and do not assume that others will advocate for you.  

Understand the Business. If you are employed at a private business, you know that the goal is to make a profit at the end of the year. You should be able to articulate how your contributions worked toward the company's goals. Likewise, a law firm is a business, and one of the primary focal points in most evaluations is assessing whether you have met the firm's objective criteria, such as billable hour targets or revenue goals. If you have met the requirements, include hard numbers to show the value you bring to the firm. For example, "I billed 2000 hours this year, which is 200 more than the firm's billable requirements for associates." If you have fallen short of the requirements, explain the reason, but find ways to highlight other value you have contributed. For example, if you failed to bill the minimum number of hours required by the firm, identify particularly important non-billable endeavors outside of the firm, such as speeches, publications, or pro bono hours that add to the firm's reputation for public service.   

Stop Apologizing. Women too often apologize when they feel that they have not lived up to expectations. Because the purpose of the evaluation is to highlight achievements, do not emphasis failures. For example, if you did not meet some of the firm's benchmarks during the year, many women will start by saying, "I am sorry that I failed to take 10 depositions during the year as required by the associate benchmarking." Yet, many men would say, "Despite a reduction in overall litigation at the firm, I was still able to take seven depositions during the year, which is a remarkable achievement." Which do you think receives a better reception?  

Include the "Me" and Not Just the "We." Magnanimous as we are, women often speak only in terms of what a team did, which inherently reduces one's own individual value. To write an effective evaluation, you need to balance giving credit where it is due to others, with taking credit for your own contributions. In other words, include the "me" and not just the "we." For example, if you were part of a team on a successful case or transaction, identify your individual contributions to the overall team effort, such as, "I successfully drafted all motions which were filed with the court with no revisions by the partners on the file." Likewise, if you were part of a team that successfully made a pitch to a new client, explain your role in the effort: "While the initial contact for the client was John Jones, it was my expertise in consumer class actions that sold the client on choosing our firm for this matter."  

Know Your Audience. Evaluation forms are usually read by a committee or designated group of individuals. In law firms, these people may not all be in your practice area. In many businesses, these committees may include non-lawyer business people. If your evaluation is being read by others outside your practice area, you need to explain why an activity is important to your practice or why the outcome is a matter of significance. Without being condescending, explain that winning on a motion for summary judgment avoided a costly trial for the client or that you were able to counsel a corporate client in a difficult tax problem and created a solution that saved the client significant dollars. It is important that anyone reading your evaluation can understand the significance of your accomplishments.  

Keep Your Achievements Impactful. While it is vital to list your major accomplishments and demonstrate your value to the firm, the value is lost if you give so much detail that the reader becomes bored. Find a way to organize information, so that there is enough detail to highlight your main points but not so much that you overwhelm the reader. A good rule of thumb is to list the things that make you exceptional, not the things that everyone is expected to do. If you are an associate, do not merely list all of the motions you drafted or court appearances you made - highlight a few examples where you were given increased responsibility or there was a significant win on a complex issue.  

Explain the Short and Long Term Benefits of Participation in Organizations or Other Business Development Activities. When discussing bar, industry or other activities in which you participate, explain why you are a member and both the immediate and long term benefits of being part of that organization. A short term benefit may be legal education, while a long term benefit may be creating a referral network with attorneys from different states. Also, indicate if your participation in any organization provided you or will provide you with speaking opportunities or publication opportunities. In these days of tight budgets, you need to explain to your firm why these expenditures matter.  

Make the Reader Aware of Extraordinary Circumstances. If you had an extraordinary circumstance during the year that legitimately impacted your performance, make your reader aware. Do not assume that everyone knows you were on maternity leave or that you had a medical issue. In a matter-of-fact way, let your reader know that you have had a personal issue that impacted your practice. With that said, remember that we all have lives outside the office where unexpected events occur and not every negative event is worthy of consideration on your evaluation.  

Does It Matter? Before including information in any self-evaluation form, ask yourself why it is important to the firm. Some lawyers feel that they should identify every extra-curricular activity that they are involved with and non-billable or value related activity. Not every activity is valuable to a professional organization and listing activities that do not have a professional benefit only serves to lessen the importance of your substantive contributions. Before you list being a leader for your daughter's Girl Scout Troop or serving on a church board, ask yourself, whether this brings value to my professional reputation, whether it has potential to attract clients, and whether it can bring some benefit to my firm.  

Be Professional. It should go without saying, but nonetheless, some people undermine their credibility by complaining about firm policies or colleagues in their evaluations. Remember, you never know who may be reading your evaluation form or who may otherwise learn about what you wrote. Always be professional, and do not say things that you would not be comfortable saying openly. Second, complaining in your evaluation (particularly about policies or personalities that cannot be changed) takes away from your credibility and may make it seem like you are trying to shift blame for any areas of weakness. Your evaluation is not the place to air your grievances.  

Self-evaluations may be an important key for obtaining recognition for your hard work, your accomplishments and your positive impact on your firm or company. Make your self-evaluation count by following these tips and putting in the time and effort necessary to make yourself a stand out.  

Kathleen Lang is a member of and the Director of Strategic Planning for Dickinson Wright, PLLC in Detroit, Michigan. She is a trial lawyer, focusing on commercial and intellectual property litigation, and the defense of class actions and product liability matters.  She is active in DRI's Commercial Litigation Committee and is the Chair of its Class Action SLG.  She is a frequent author and lecturer for DRI and many other organizations.  

Jennifer Newby is an associate at Dickinson Wright, PLLC in Detroit, Michigan.  She focuses her practice in commercial litigation.  She is a former law clerk for two federal district court judges in the Eastern District of Michigan and is active in the Federal Bar Association.  


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