There was a knock at my office door. “Hello Jathan. It’s the Associate Review Committee. Do you have a moment?”
Background: Every December, my law firm conducted a review process in which a committee of partners canvassed their fellow partners about the performance of associate attorneys during the year. “Did you work with Jathan this past year? If so, how did he do?”
From the information gleaned, the Associate Review Committee created your annual report card. During its visit to your office, you’d find out about your bonus for the year—if any; your raise for the coming year—if any; and your future in the firm—if any . . .
In a pitch higher than usual, I replied, “Uh sure. . . . Come in.”
The Hammer Comes Down
After the preliminaries, the Chair got down to business. “Jathan,” he said, “One of our colleagues expressed serious concerns about the quality of your written work product. He recommends that you be required to take a remedial writing class.”
I felt my face flush. In addition to feeling blindsided, a fundamental part of my identity was under attack. I’ve always loved to write. And I’ve felt good about my writing since at least first grade when, at a parent-teacher conference, Mrs. Parker said to my parents, “Jay’s a gifted writer.”
I did my best to conceal my real feelings and said, “Who thinks I need to take such a class?”
The Chair replied, “Why do you want to know?”
“Maybe I can speak with this attorney and find out information that will help me improve.”
“Well, if it’s for a constructive purpose,” the Chair said, “I guess it’s appropriate. It’s Michael.”
I instantly thought, “Wow! He gave me an assignment almost a year ago, never said a word, and hasn’t worked with me since. Now he tees off on my annual review!” But I said nothing and did my best to smile.
Responding to the Criticism
A couple of days later, I went to Michael’s office. When I brought up the review, he seemed uncomfortable. He scratched his head and said hesitantly, “That assignment you did was a long time ago. I’m afraid that I don’t remember a whole lot about it. It just wasn’t what I was expecting; it wasn’t what I needed.”
I thanked Michael for his “feedback” and left his office. Determined to show that I didn’t need to take a remedial writing class, I approached Sarah, a senior associate, who worked extensively with Michael. I asked Sarah for a document she knew that Michael liked. After rummaging through a few files, she handed me a legal memorandum.
I quickly grasped the problem. To me, this memorandum was nothing more than a glorified outline—lots of headings and subheadings with a little text thrown in. By contrast, my writing at the time was influenced by my favorite writers such as Proust, Joyce, and Faulkner. It struck me there might be a point to Michael’s criticism. Lawyers call them, after all, legal briefs.
Armed with the new information, I went back to Michael’s office, and said, “I’ve been working hard on improving my writing. I’d like an opportunity to show it.”
Michael agreed and gave me an assignment. After completing the research, I began to write. I laid it on thick—Roman numeral “I,” capital “A,” Arabic numeral “1,” lower case “a,” lower case “i,” and so on. My memo read more vertically than horizontally.
After submitting the document to Michael, I worried he’d think I was being a smart aleck (no doubt true.) However, Michael had the opposite reaction. He got very excited about my “astonishing turnaround.” Indeed, for the remainder of my years as an associate, and into my early years as a partner, Michael became my No. 1 source of work. I even moved up a floor when the office next to Michael’s became available. I had to be right next door!
If the Chair of the Associate Review Committee read this story, he might say, “See, our system worked. Young Jathan needed to learn the importance of taking initiative. He did, and was duly rewarded.”
Don’t buy it. That wasn’t initiative. I was ticked off! How dare Michael tell the Committee that I should be required to take a remedial writing class! Without Mrs. Parker to defend me, I had to show him that he was wrong.
In your experience, how many annual performance reviews don’t have happy endings? How many Jathan-Michael relationships don’t get fixed?
What if instead of cutting me loose for the rest of the year while saving up his criticism, Michael had pointed out the problem as soon as it arose? Better yet, what if he didn’t wait to be disappointed but explained up front what he considered good writing and shared an example? What if all managers took such an approach with their employees?
Moral of the story: The performance review should never serve as a substitute for real-time feedback. It should be a summary of what has already been communicated.