Today's guest blogger is Jennifer Rakstad, the career development attorney at Mayer Brown. A former litigator at the firm, Rakstad is also a certified career coach.
It is that dreaded time of year again. Many attorneys are in the throes of their firms’ annual review process. Often, that involves a self-evaluation or self-assessment that asks about key accomplishments from the previous year and goals for the upcoming one.
Drafting an effective self-evaluation can be a time-consuming process, especially when it's piled on top of billable and non-billable work. Over the last several years, I have reviewed and provided feedback to attorneys on hundreds of self-evaluation drafts. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, there are a few things you can do to maximize this process for your career and professional development.
1. Just do it. Even if the buzz at your firm is that no one cares about or looks at self-evaluations, ignore the water cooler talk and do your self-evaluation. Consider the message you are sending if a supervisor looks for your self-evaluation and finds nothing. Even if you don’t see yourself at your firm long term, it is unwise to signal a lack of commitment to the firm and your career.
On the flip side, you can use your self-evaluation to raise your visibility with decision-makers and practice leaders. If nothing else, drafting a self-evaluation will help you get personal clarity on where you are in your career and where you want to go in the short term.
2. Take it seriously. Almost as bad as not doing your self-evaluation at all is submitting one that is riddled with typos and looks thrown together at the last minute. A good self-evaluation–like any other advocacy piece–takes planning, time, and effort. First, review your previous year’s self-evaluation, firm benchmarks or competencies, and any areas for growth identified in your last review. Consider having a colleague or trusted mentor review your draft, and leave sufficient time to edit and revise it.
3. It's about selling yourself. Most attorneys I work with are initially uncomfortable approaching the self-evaluation as self-promotion because they feel uncomfortable bragging about themselves. I tell them to get over it. Promoting yourself and your practice are key competencies for any attorney. You don’t need to brag—let your accomplishments do the talking. But avoid a laundry list approach. Instead, pick a few areas of focus as your theme (ideally tied to your firm’s performance competencies or evaluation criteria), lead with them in a strong opening paragraph, and then provide specific examples from client matters and other efforts throughout.
4. Watch your language. Take a formal, not a conversational, tone. Do not use self-deprecating language. Remove any qualifiers ("I think," "I believe," "I hope" or "I feel"). State what you have done and plan to do in an assertive and positive manner, focusing on key successes and accomplishments ("I took the lead role on," "I was the main point of contact for the client/opposing counsel," "I drafted a successful brief"). Where possible, include numbers, such as the dollar amount at issue or client billings, size of transaction, and names of clients and key team members. In stating your forward-looking goals, use language like “I plan to” or “I will,” and be realistic about what you can do over the next year.
5. Be positive. There will come a time when you have a setback, did not meet a stated goal, or just have a bad year. You will likely want to address this in your self-evaluation, but do so in a positive way and without making excuses. For example, if you dealt with a personal issue that took time away from the office, mention this toward the end of your self-evaluation. Provide a brief explanation (not an excuse), focusing on how you plan to move forward and address the situation if it is ongoing. Similarly, if you did not meet a goal you set for yourself the prior year, say what you will do differently to meet your goal in the upcoming year or if your goal has changed and why.
6. Don't forget your non-billable work. Though your self-evaluation should focus on your accomplishments on client matters, don’t give short shrift to non-billable contributions. Highlight your work on business development, firm activities, networking, and expertise development. These types of contributions often go unnoticed, and your self-evaluation is a good way to make them visible to firm leadership.
7. Ask for it. You have a captive audience for your self-evaluation, so use it to communicate commitment to your career and to ask for what you want. If you have a career or business plan, say so. If your goal is to work on a specific type of matter, for a particular client, or even to be promoted, say so. Be direct and diplomatic. You might be surprised at the results.
Even if your firm does not offer a formal opportunity to write a self-evaluation, consider writing one for yourself. Share it before and/or during your review meeting. This will impress your reviewers and convey your career commitment.
Now, you're ready for your review. All the groundwork you did on your self-evaluation should help make the in-person review meeting more productive. Use the self-evaluation to direct the meeting so that the focus is on your questions and areas of interest. And remember: Be deliberate and always keep your goals in mind.