If You Don't Want The Answer, Don't Ask: Upward Reviews - Evaluating Law Firm Partners

Now that associate retention has firmly established itself again as a management issue at many law firms, upward review programs are not surprisingly back on the agenda. Over the last year or so, the post-recession balance of power has shifted back to the associate body in many law firms. With that shift come renewed calls from associates for the opportunity to evaluate senior colleagues. Firms are increasingly responsive to the concept. In broad terms, implementing an upward review program demonstrates that the firm is committed to best practices in the context of performance management and demonstrates that they are listening to their associates. But we’ll come back to this. So, what are the potential benefits of an upward review program?

  • Identifying gaps between institutional values and individual behaviors;

  • Uncovering hidden problems or unknown issues;

  • Identifying top performers among the partners in relation to non-financial performance;

  • Building a more collaborative work environment;

  • Improving efficiency and enhancing client service; and

  • Improving associate morale.

An upward review, ideally biennial, enables the firm to understand who has leadership and management skills. This can support succession planning and firm governance. It also highlights those partners who may need support with honing their people management skills. An upward review can  provide a rich data-set that can be sliced and diced to identify any key professional development and management themes by seniority, by practice group, by office. In turn, it enables the firm to prescribe specific individualized development plans for partners and appropriate interventions, whether by coaching and/or training. Support can be tailored for those who need it.

Self assessment is a recommended as a key component of any upward review. It serves as a useful starting point for any feedback, particularly if there’s a gap between how the senior attorney sees his or her behavior and how those on the team see it. Also essential to the success of an upward review program, apart from needing to ask the right questions, are confidentiality and minimizing the fear of retaliation. These can be managed through structure, design and implementation of the program.

And yet, despite all the potential positives… an upward review program comes with a big caveat:

If the firm is not willing to do something with the feedback received on its senior attorneys, it is simply better not to ask. 

An upward review program requires courage on the part of the firm and trust on the part of those giving feedback. The firm has to have the courage to act on feedback regardless of the value and influence of the partners with “development issues”. And the associates have to trust that if they give feedback, not only will their identities be kept confidential but also the firm will act on the feedback. Absent that trust, the upward review program will not achieve its goals. And if the firm fails to act on negative feedback, it will undermine all the effort and expense of the program and set itself back in terms of associate morale. So, if you can’t or won’t act on any feedback you may receive, don’t ask for it.