Most law firms have an annual (at least) review process wherein attorneys and managers reflect on a lawyer’s work in the preceding year and determine points for improvement. This usually involves an attorney writing a self-review, typically in response to a series of questions posed by managers at a law firm. Then, attorneys often sit with their managers to review what the lawyer wrote in the self-review and to also review the observations that management had about the lawyer. Since attorney reviews usually involve the exchange of sensitive information, law firms should try to keep details of the exchange during the review process confidential to the fullest extent practical.
I had to complete an attorney review process at three of the four law firms at which I worked before starting my own shop around five years ago. Generally, I thought that the attorney review process was a waste of time. Everyone reviewed had a vested interest in discussing only positive things about the attorney’s performance in the preceding year so that they could optimize their chance of receiving a raise or a bonus. Moreover, the law firms at which I worked never took suggestions seriously, so it was usually best to stay quiet about feedback which could improve the firm.
At some of the shops at which I worked, the attorney self-review asked for comments concerning other lawyers with whom an attorney worked and feedback about management at the firm. I generally did not feel comfortable providing such feedback. If I was too honest with my feedback, I could come off as being somewhat abrasive toward others at the firm. Sometimes, I just wrote “N/A” or something similar in these sections of self-reviews so that I could try to skirt the responsibility.
One time, I did write a comment about a junior partner at a shop at which I worked. I thought that his management style could use some improvement since he had a tendency to micromanage and give artificial deadlines that were not related to any of the hard deadlines in a case. I did not expect that this junior partner would participate in the attorney evaluation process or read my self-review. The managing partner of the office seemed to be the only partner in charge of the review process, and he sent and received all of the emails related to annual attorney reviews. Regardless, it seemed obvious that given the sensitive nature of my self-review, it should not be shared with anyone who was mentioned in the document.
When it was time for me to meet with the managing partner about my review, I was peeved when I saw the junior partner I discussed in my self-review in the office with the managing partner. It was clear that this junior partner had printed out and fully read my entire self-review, including the comments about his own management style. Some might think I should have known that the information related to the attorney review would be shared among the partners at the firm, but I really did not think this was the case. It definitely felt like the managing partner had violated my trust by not keeping my comments in confidence, and this made it more difficult to be transparent during the attorney review process.
To be clear, certain aspects of the attorney review process should not be kept confidential. For instance, people should widely discuss how much money they are paid in salary and bonus, since this can help everyone advocate for more compensation and could shed light on illicit pay disparities at a firm. In addition, if people are made promises during reviews about the length of time it might take to be promoted or about other career advancement details, it might benefit others to know this information so that people can compare notes.
However, it should go without saying that if one person provides negative feedback about another individual at a law firm in good faith during the attorney review process, this should be kept confidential. It is important that people be permitted to provide candid and frank feedback during attorney reviews so that attorneys and their managers can improve. Moreover, leaking confidential information shared during the attorney review process can violate the trust that employees put in management at law firms which can have a negative impact on morale.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.