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Should Your Firm Drop Performance Reviews?

By William Vogeler, Esq. on May 15, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

One of the world's largest law firms has stopped performance reviews, at the same time leading the way against evaluations that have disfavored women in the past.

Allen & Overy, a London-based firm with more than 2,800 attorneys worldwide, piloted a program last October to dialogue with employees rather than formally appraise them. It started at offices in London, Singapore, and the Middle East, but the firm will expand the program to more offices this year.

"The feedback on this has been positive, particularly in engaging with female associates on their career development," said Elizabeth Mercer, the firm's public relations manager. "We didn't do it originally to retain female talent, but the positive feedback has been noticeable."

Past Performance

According to studies, women have not fared as well as men in performance reviews at law firms. A Hastings law professor led a study of evaluations of 234 lawyers at a Wall Street firm in 2011, and found that men's evaluations translated better for promotions.

In a new report this year, researchers said evaluations still have not been fair towards women. A Harvard behavioral economist said women are 1.4 times more likely to receive subjective feedback, which "opens the door to gender bias."

"The good news is that the performance appraisal system can be fixed," wrote Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio. "By using more-objective criteria, involving a broader group of reviewers, and adjusting the frequency of reviews, it is possible to remove subjective biases that creep in."

In the meantime, Allen & Overy is fixing the system by eliminating performance reviews. Of course, the change also affects men because they also are no longer subject to formal reviews.

Changing Reviews

"We are always looking to evolve what we do to ensure that we have the best possible platforms for the development of our people," said Sasha Hardman, the company's global human resources director.

Performance reviews are traditional in many firms, but business advisers say the main point is to keep communications open between bosses and staffers. Employers can learn from employees and develop them at the same time.

William Peacock, writing for FindLaw's Strategist, offered three questions to ask associates for professional development and feedback:

  • What do you think about this case?
  • Where do you want to be in five years?
  • Do you have any comments or concerns about the office?

Small firm partners may have more opportunities to communicate without formal reviews because they work closely with associates. But now more BigLaw managers -- like those at Allen & Overy -- are using dialogues instead of performance reviews.

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