Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Fair Evaluations as a Business Strategy

We're all familiar with the lawyer performance evaluation process -- that nerve-wracking annual rite that partners don't have time to do and that can make or break an associate's career.

What we may not be familiar with is how performance evaluations -- which could be a strategic tool to improve the performance and profitability of lawyers and law firms -- often are based on hidden biases that disadvantage women and minority lawyers. A book released last week not only explains how bias is manifested in annual reviews, but gives step-by-step instructions for eliminating bias and turning a law firm's evaluation process into a mechanism for developing excellence.

Fair Measure: Toward Effective Attorney Evaluations, Second Edition (ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, August 2008), written by PAR's Joan Williams and Consuela Pinto, begins with a discussion of how providing bias-free evaluations fits within a law firm's business strategy. Among other things, the authors note that such evaluations improve firmwide performance and client satisfaction, while also making sure the firm is focused on keeping its "keepers."

Joan and Consuela then provide a thought-provoking discussion of ways in which bias shows up in evaluations. One common pattern involves attributing men's mistakes to external factors and women's mistakes to internal characteristics, with the result that men's mistakes tend not to be counted against them in decisions about retention and/or promotion. For example, if Paul and Paula have a secretary who made an error that resulted in a missed deadline, Paul's evaluation might read, "Paul had some difficulty this year with a missed deadline. It was ultimately found to be his secretary's fault, and it is unlikely it will happen again." Paula's evaluation, on the other hand, might go like this: "Paula missed an important deadline in one of our cases this year. I have some concerns about her organizational abilities and her ability to supervise her secretary. I'm not sure she is a good fit with our department."

Another common pattern involves promoting men based on their potential, and women based on their accomplishments. If Paul and Paula are up for partner and neither has developed much business, it would not be unusual for the partnership committee to go along with a partnership recommendation for Paul if he shows promise as a rainmaker but deny partnership to Paula because she did not yet have a book of business.

Following PAR's practice of not discussing problems unless solutions are also provided, Joan and Consuela spend the remainder of the manual describing how firms can create evaluation systems that correct for bias and providing practical tips for writing effective performance evaluations. They also include materials for law firms to use to educate their partners about how to conduct bias-free evaluations, including a CD of forms.

To help firms put the wisdom of Fair Measure into practice, PAR has developed a presentation that firms can use to brief their attorneys on effective, strategic, and bias-free evaluations. The presentation is customizable, and can be given either by PAR or by firms' professional development staff. Additionally, PAR has consultants who can help law firms implement improved evaluation procedures. To learn more about PAR's resources for law firms, please visit PAR's website, send us an email at info at, or call us at 415-565-4640.

And be sure to get your copy of Fair Measure today!


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