Articles for ELC Members

A Good Staff Evaluation Calls for a Lot of Points That Often Get Overlooked

Volume XIX / Number 7, JULY 2010
(Reprinted with permission of Ardmore Publishing Company)


Don’t look at evaluations as a perfunctory exercise to give employees a raise. They are the administrator’s greatest opportunity to give employees reinforcement on what they’re doing well and direction on how to improve, says legal management consultant JAN HENDERSON of RJH Consulting in Jackson Hole, WY. They are also an opportunity to help staff understand their part in helping the firm reach its goals. And they are the one opportunity that managers most often miss.


Time counts. Don’t skimp on it. The average 15 minutes with a raise at the end is nothing more than “an empty exercise that everybody dreads.” A good evaluation should take an hour’s preparation and another hour with the staffer. That’s not excessive. “It’s somebody’s anniversary.” During the past 12 months, that staffer has made a 2,080-hour investment in the office; two hours to evaluate more than 2,000 “is not a huge sacrifice.” And the benefit is that “employees feel valued when they see they’ve earned that much time from the manager.”


There also needs to be input from other people in the office. Henderson recommends giving out a short anonymous form to the attorneys and peers the staffer works with and, if the staffer is in a leadership role, to the reports. On it, summarize the staffer’s job description and then ask:

Do you believe this employee:
– accomplishes these tasks?
– helps others accomplish their tasks?
– adheres to the values Of the firm?
– Do you have anything to say that you would like for me to share with the employee?

Expect different types of comments. One person will write four or five words while another will turn in a typed page of comments “that are very well thought out.” Also expect candor. Some people say negative things. But some will also say good things, perhaps that the staffer is a team member and willing to help others. And if somebody gives permission to share those positive remarks, that staffer is going to come away from the evaluation “feeling really, really good.” Even if there is a whole list of things cited as needing improvement, she says, “that one positive comment is a real morale boost.”


Also have the staffer fill out a self-evaluation. Ask these questions:

What have you accomplished this past year?
What have you done for professional development?
How do you think the firm can best use your skills?
Do you have some skill we aren’t taking advantage of?
What can I do better for you?
Am I doing anything that is getting in the way of your productivity?
What goals would you like to set for next year?
Is there something you’d like to improve?

Get that form completed several days before the review. Often it will reveal information the administrator hasn’t been aware of and that can affect the outcome of the review.


Review more than the technical skills. Include the soft skills of teamwork, client service, honesty and integrity, and mentoring. In those categories, the comments from the attorneys and peers are valuable. Also, Henderson says, include those elements in the job descriptions so staff know they are part of what’s expected of them.


Next, set the goals.

At the same time, decide if the staffer will need training to reach them, and if so, decide what training the firm will provide. Goals can be anything from getting work turned in on time all the time to getting a more client friendly attitude, and the training can be anything from a course in time management to a seminar on client service.

Set a date for an interim evaluation at the half-way point. Don’t wait the entire year to see if the employee is on track with meeting the goals.


Henderson recommends setting four levels of raise amount and four levels of performance. Then put the staffer in the appropriate level.

– Level I is the highest raise amount, and it goes to the staffer who rates high in both competence and attitude.
That’s the employee everybody wants, she says.
– Level 11 is the employee who has a good attitude but lacks some of the skills needed to do a top job.
That too is an employee everybody wants, because the skills can come with training.
– Level III is good skills but poor attitude. That’s invariably the employee who consumes the most of the manager’s time.
During the review, it’s important to give specific examples of the poor attitude such as “you’re highly competent and we value your being here, but you need to knock off the gossip about other employees.”
That staffer gets only a minimal raise and, if appropriate, training. To do more than that “is demoralizing to the other staff.”
– Level IV is the bottom of the barrel. That’s the staffer who has poor skills and an equally poor attitude. It’s also the staffer who needs no encouragement to stay. Give no raise. Give only an ultimatum to improve drastically or be fired.


The administrator can make the written evaluations especially effective by getting the managing partner to write comments on them, or at least sing them to show approval of what’s said.

Any positive comment from the managing partner goes a long way, Henderson says. The staffer thinks “wow! the managing partner notices me” and works even harder. The comment need be no more than “thanks for being or our team” or “we value your being here” or “keep up the good work.”

The same works in reverse. In fact, on a poor evaluation, the partner’s signature alone is enough to let the staffer know that the call for improvement comes from the top and is something to be taken seriously.
And beyond staff’s reactions, she says, “it’s good for the managing partner to know what everybody’s doing.”

Principal and Lead Instructor Scott Solkoff is a member of the above assocations.


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