Since having first emerged in the 1960s, performance reviews have been an annual source of dread and worry for many.
For in-house legal professionals, the performance review process is sometimes seen as an annoyance and a waste of time in the face of an overwhelming workload.
However, with the right preparation, performance reviews can become a force for progress, both professionally and for the legal function.
As legal workload becomes increasingly diverse and more integrated into the DNA of a business, preparing effectively for your performance review not only reduces anxiety but can also be the difference between staying ahead of the game and falling behind.
To help you get the most out of your performance reviews, let's explore how to prepare, how to participate, and how to follow up on these development sessions.
Traditionally, performance reviews - also known as annual appraisals, annual reviews, or performance appraisals - were an annual session where employees receive big-picture feedback from their managers.
However, over time, the format of performance reviews has evolved and many companies are now conducting them on a semi-annual or quarterly basis to enable a more continual feedback loop. In addition, they are becoming more of a two-way process; gathering feedback from the employee and collaboratively exploring how to set the individual up for success. Rather than focusing on solely performance, your review might now also include check-ins on how happy and engaged you feel at work.
Performance reviews can take a number of different formats, including self-assessment and 360-degree feedback, but the common threads are feedback on job performance in relation to the achievement of expectations as well as guidance on how to achieve goals and professional aspirations.
If we're honest, many of us view performance reviews as a needs-must. However, they have the potential to make a huge difference to your professional development and career satisfaction.
There are many benefits for in-house legal professionals who decide to fully embrace their performance reviews. The most obvious is that it is an opportunity for you to receive feedback and advice around how you can improve and perform better, resulting in a better skill set to help you develop professionally. However, it is also an opportunity for you to air your thoughts; whether that's asking for support with a particular matter or offering feedback to your manager to help you work better together.
In addition, discussions during these sessions can support pay raises, bonuses, and promotions (as well as termination decisions). Therefore, if you're hoping to progress, it's important to prepare a solid argument for your promotion. If you're not ready to be promoted but you aspire to be in the future, performance reviews are the ideal time to understand what you need to do in order to work towards this.
Another benefit is that performance reviews can strengthen the relationship between employee and manager as well as drive how engaged an in-house professional feels towards the business. If a business invests time in helping you develop, you're more likely to feel connected and loyal towards your employer.
Particularly as the role of in-house legal evolves, performance reviews should be approached with a "you get out what you put in" attitude. This means that you should prepare well, participate with enthusiasm and follow up with purpose in order to get the most out of your performance review. Let's explore how to do this.
There are a number of things that you can do ahead of your performance review to get the most out of it.
Particularly if your performance reviews are on an annual basis, be sure to log achievements, challenges and feedback throughout the year. It can be difficult to remember everything over a longer period so consider keeping a performance journal to keep track of anything noteworthy. Being able to speak in detail about your experiences over the last year, quarter or month will help you create a plan for genuine progress.
Ahead of your review, take some time to assess your own performance against your responsibilities. Think about what impact you've had as well as any evidence that you've displayed key skills such as problem-solving, leadership, project management and communication. You'll also want to think about how well you have fit into or added to the company culture as well as the steps you've taken in terms of professional development.
Reviews are pointless if you don't act on the outcomes. Therefore, before your performance review, be sure to remind yourself of what was discussed and agreed during your previous review. How have you progressed since then? What have you achieved? Are there any areas for development that you haven't had a chance to focus on yet? This information is a good reminder of how far you've come (or of the lack of progress which you will also need to discuss with your manager).
You won't be able to drive the conversation or influence what happens next if you don't know exactly what you'd like the outcome to be. Do you want to understand the next step in your career and how to get there? Do you want to build on your presentation skills or take on a leadership role in the future?
Whatever it is you want to get out of your performance review, make sure you have clarity over this before going into the session so you can guide your boss towards the outcomes you want.
If you're looking to take the next step in your career, be prepared to make it easy for your manager to back you. For in-house lawyers, you need to help the business understand your worth or why you should be promoted to a more senior role. One example might be that there is a business need for a more senior role to work on strategic matters in the coming year. You might explain this need to the business and articulate examples where you have shown strategic thinking. To strengthen the argument, you might then highlight that it would cost less to hire another lawyer to replace your old role than it would to hire outside counsel to do the same work.
Discussions around salaries, pay raises and promotions can be a source of friction for many. However, performance reviews are a gateway to secure higher pay and promotions. To go into these conversations with confidence, take time to research and benchmark salaries for your role in your industry. Your manager will likely be happy that you're openly exploring this with them rather than letting it fester and resigning as a result.
How are performance reviews conducted at your company? Is it seen as a tick-box exercise that people see as a burden or are they truly understood to be a beneficial mechanism for progress? Understand the context and fill any gaps in preparation. Understand what you want to achieve and plan out what you'd like to cover in order to make this happen. Share this with your manager in advance to set their expectations (and show that you mean business).
So, you're fully prepared. You have everything you need up your sleeve to get the most out of your performance review. Now you need to apply this preparation during the session and deliver it in an impactful way. Here's how.
Going into a performance review can often feel like you're in the line of fire. After all, by the very nature of reviews, your superior is judging how well you've done your job. However, aim to walk into (or click into...) your review with confidence and as an equal with your boss.
If you've prepared effectively, then you know what you're hoping to achieve from the session and can direct the conversion towards this goal. You might have prepared a rough agenda and you'll know what you want to speak about. Don't be afraid to drive the conversation, ensuring you get what you need out of the meeting.
To get the most out of your performance review, you need to be honest with your boss (and yourself!). Effective reviews are open and vulnerable. Be prepared to share your mistakes as well as your achievements. Don't shy away if your manager challenges some of your past work. Taking responsibility will help you develop and understand how you could respond to situations better in the future (and it shows your manager that you're serious about progression).
No matter how good you are, you manager will aim to provide you with some constructive feedback - after all, it's important to always be learning and growing! It can be easy to take criticism personally but remember that it is a gift that you can use to develop. Listen carefully to feedback. Take it graciously and with the intent to digest it and improve as a result.
Performance reviews should output a set of clear next steps to achieve your goals and work towards your professional ambitions. For clarity and to avoid misunderstanding, verbally summarize your key takeaways and both you and your managers actions from the review.
Great, so your performance review was super valuable! Here's a few tips to make sure that the value isn't left in the past.
Following your review, send a note to your manager to thank them for their time. Share the next steps that you discussed to ensure it can be followed up on with ease. Also take the time to share your thoughts on how the review session went. Did you find it useful? What would you change next time? Feedback in a constructive manner.
It can be easy to agree on grand plans during your review which then fall behind when it comes to prioritizing work. Set a check-in with your manager a month or so after your review to ensure you're both acting on your agreed actions and moving towards your goals. Check-ins will foster accountability for both you and your manager as well as a culture of professional development.
The role of the legal department is evolving rapidly. This likely means that you will be participating in new activities, learning new skills and collaborating with a wider array of stakeholders. Particularly if your company's standard is an annual review, request feedback on a more regular basis to ensure continual progress and avoid development stagnation.
To get the most out of your performance review, there are a few things should you avoid.