Should Law Firms Eliminate Annual Appraisals?

appraisalLet’s face it, associates hate receiving appraisals and partners hate giving them. They’re probably doing more harm than good in many cases.

A lot of talented people are being left confused at best and demotivated at worst.

It is important to remember why annual appraisals were introduced. They exist to motivate, direct, and improve the performance of individuals and organizations.

Those who advocate eliminating performance appraisals don’t disagree with these needs, but they point out that good managers can and do this anyway, and that therefore performance appraisals are a redundant and bureaucratic activity.

It is hard to argue with the point that some partners do on a day-to-day basis what a good performance appraisal is supposed to do. The fact that some partners provide good coaching feedback supports the argument that appraisals can be eliminated, or at least, radically simplified.

The problem is that many partners do not manage in ways that make performance appraisals unnecessary. If an associate isn’t performing to the standards expected by the partner, typically nothing is said – they are just not given any more matters to work on – slow and painful atrophy! Not pleasant!

Organizations do not have to make a choice between no performance appraisals and everyone having a performance appraisal. Edward E Lawler III, Professor at the University of Southern California, points out that an interesting alternative is to require performance appraisals only where they are necessary.

He goes on…

‘One approach organizations can take is to focus on identifying those managers who have the motivation, management skills, and behaviours that make their doing formal performance appraisals unnecessary. In essence, this approach identifies managers who are good managers and leaders and, as a result, do not need to do performance appraisals. They can be certified as not needing to do performance appraisals with their direct reports and their part of the organization can be declared performance appraisal-free.

The challenge in operating with this approach, of course, is deciding which managers in an organization need to do performance appraisals and which do not. Part of this process needs to be training managers to be sure they have the right skills, and gathering data showing that the people working for them have been treated in ways that make traditional performance appraisals unnecessary.

A clear advantage of this appraisal-free approach is that it will motivate managers throughout an organization to become certified as performance appraisal-free managers. It can make being appraisal-free valued as a part of a manager’s package of skills. Without this approach, there often is little incentive for managers to learn the skills that are necessary to do good performance appraisals, and to learn the skills that make them unnecessary.

One needed feature of an appraisal-free approach is a training course for employees about what they should expect from their manager given that there will be no formal performance appraisal. Unfortunately, in most organizations today, employees are not even trained in how they should behave in the performance appraisal. This is one of the many reasons why they are not particularly effective in most organizations.

Of course, even the best performance management system cannot make all managers effective at setting goals, coaching, and giving feedback. The answer for them is not eliminating the appraisal system; it is eliminating them!’

I welcome comments on this idea of scrapping annual performance appraisals in law firms.

A more complete article from Professor Lawler III is available at

This entry was posted in Coaching and Training, Leadership and Management and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Should Law Firms Eliminate Annual Appraisals?

  1. Pingback: Here’s Some Feedback for Law Firms – Your Feedback Isn’t Working! | Tony Reiss

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