Mastering Your Performance Review: Strategies for Success”By Chere Estrin

Let’s get some definition here. What is a performance review?

“A performance review is a two-way, individualized conversation between a manager and an employee about performance impact, development, and growth. It is a critical component of an organization’s overall performance management strategy.”

Reality check: Rarely, does the “two-way conversation” happen.

If the mention of “performance review” makes your heart race and you start sweating in places you didn’t know could sweat, you’re not alone. Many people get unnecessarily anxious when it comes time for the common annual evaluation. I am pretty sure this is what happens with most everyone: You start thinking of those times you were just a “little late”. Then there’s the time you couldn’t understand what the assignment was and had to not only ask once but, well, several times and still didn’t get it right.

Of course, we are not going to go back to when you were carrying a huge box of exhibits to the courtroom, (who does paper anymore, anyway?), tripped over the curb and all those ancient documents landed in the wet gutter because after 6 months of no rain – it rained. Yep, all that stuff starts to come back to you. 

Personally, I’m not a huge proponent of the performance review as I believe feedback should be ongoing, but I understand why firms rely on them and how they’re used to help employees grow within their role and practice specialty. But rather than approaching this with an overblown sense of dread, let’s view this as an opportunity. Along with receiving feedback on your past year’s performance, you’ll also have a chance to confirm your accomplishments, address shortcomings, ask questions, reveal your goals and get direction for the upcoming year. 

If you are prepared to make the most of this sit-down, it’ll be a relatively painless process. In fact, it might even be eye-opening and super insightful. Think of how you can self-promote and be prepared to respond to your boss’ feedback. 

Don’t walk in naked.

Throughout the year, keep track of your assignments. The truth is, no one can remember what you did more than 3 months ago. They just can’t. So that “hot doc and smoking gun” you found that saved the mega case may be long forgotten. By keeping track of all your assignments, you can a) demonstrate what you have accomplished and b) show a progressive move upwards in terms of level of assignment. 

Look for accomplishments that are both measurable and unmeasurable to back up your claims. 

Put together a review package and include:

  • Quantitative metrics that measure your performance.
  • Qualitative data that build an engaging story.
  • Your goals for the coming year.

Meeting or exceeding quantitative targets presents an important picture of your performance and capabilities. For a revenue generator in a law firm, quantitative metrics would include billable hours, minimum write-offs, and profitability. For a manager, quantitative targets include retention rates, department profit, and increased utilization of paraprofessionals. 

Qualitative metrics also bring immense value to the organization. They can help you build an engaging story that fosters empathy between you and your supervisor. For a paralegal, that might include how you built affinity for a software platform previously bought by the firm but underutilized. A manager might bring up their ongoing mentorship of their staff. 

The following phrases can apply to numerous situations and will help you turn that dreaded meeting into a pleasant conversation while at the same time, giving you more confidence.

1. Can You Tell Me More About That?

Maybe your boss throws a surprise your way during the evaluation, or perhaps she vaguely comments on upcoming expectations. Let’s say she says, “I’d like to see you write better.” There is zero context or further explanation, but as this is your evaluation, you have every right to ask for clarification. 

You might say, “I’m a little surprised to hear that. As you’ve seen from the accomplishments I shared with you, I had a productive year. Can you tell me more about what you mean and specifically what I have written that was not acceptable?” Ask follow-up questions. Understanding your supervisor’s feedback and acting accordingly may help you be even more successful in the year ahead.

2. Let Me Be Sure I Understand

Maybe your boss tells you she wants you to take the lead on some database project this year (good news!), but by the time you are wrapping up, she still hasn’t volunteered any specifics. This is your chance to have her elaborate. 

Say to her, “I want to be sure I understand your expectation with the Donald Duck project. I’m really pleased to have the opportunity to start taking the lead on some of this. We have a meeting with the vendor later this week, and I think this would be the perfect opportunity for me to step into a lead role. Does this align with your expectations, or did you have something else in mind?”

3. Let Me Provide a Little More Context

You know what you do every day, but your boss can’t possibly know everything you do because she’s not with you every second and is busy leading her department. So, if your supervisor brings up a situation that doesn’t exactly show you in a good light, you should feel at liberty to speak up. I’m not advocating that you make excuses or avoid ownership but find out exactly what the issues are.

But, if there are some missing pieces in the history of events that your boss is recounting, then it is your right to enlighten her as professionally as you can. 

If, for example, you deftly handled a messy document production, but your boss is under the impression that you screwed up because it wasn’t done in six hours as planned, setting the record straight helps her understand what really happened. It may positively influence her opinion of you and your abilities, and that’s something you obviously want to go forward.

4. What Would it Take to Get a Better Evaluation?

First, keep in mind that some firms won’t allow supervisors to give perfect scores. So, if you get a couple of “4s” instead of a top ranking of “5” on every section of your evaluation, it may have more to do with firm restrictions than your performance. Nonetheless, you are certainly within your right to ask how you can improve, or what it would look like if you performed at a top level. 

Additionally, if you truly believe you deserve a higher score, asking your supervisor what it would take to reach that score makes him think his way through his expectations. If your performance closely aligns with his answer, you just might earn an upgrade.

5. I Would Like to Discuss My Goals for the Upcoming Year.

Always wrap up an evaluation by ensuring that you know what your supervisor is looking for over the next year. If your review includes reasonable goals for the upcoming year, be sure you have a clear grasp of what they entail. The last thing you want is miscommunication on what your supervisor is expecting and what you think he is asking of you. 

And if your evaluation doesn’t include goal setting, you’ll want to be sure to address agreed-upon priorities and a vision for future years so you have something to point to in next year’s review. 

6. How Will I Know If I Am Hitting the Mark?

Hopefully, you have a supervisor who communicates with you more than once a year (and if not, you may want to think hard about your future with your firm). However, if you feel there is room for improvement in your communication with each other, don’t be afraid to ask a question like, “how am I doing?” 

As with anything else, your word choice is key. Even a slightly more pointed, “It would really help me to have some specific and more frequent feedback about my performance between evaluations. What would be a good way to make that happen?” invites conversation about your needs and the way feedback is communicated. 

The performance review is a benchmark and should not cause so much anxiety. Come into it with ways you can learn from the conversation, and don’t forget that for many managers, the yearly evaluation is a chance for them to dish out the praise and thank you for your hard work. 

When firms finally learn that the yearly performance review is out-of-date and no longer effective in today’s modern workplace, it is entirely likely that your performance will soar. However, until that time, it’s best we know how to play the game and come out the winner that you are. 

About the Author

Chere Estrin has over 20 years of experience in the staffing arena, including executive positions in law firms, litigation support companies, and the legal staffing divisions of a $5billion publicly held corporation. She is CEO of Estrin Legal Staffing, a nationwide staffing organization. Ms. Estrin was founder of the Paralegal Knowledge Institute, an online CLE organization. She publishes the prestigious digital magazine, KNOW, the Magazine for Paralegals, and is the former Editor-in-Chief of Sue, the Magazine for Women Litigators. She is also the author of 10 books about legal careers for attorneys and legal professionals.

Ms. Estrin’s contributions to the legal industry have been significant, and she continues to play an active role in shaping the future of legal staffing and training. She writes the popular,

award-winning blog, The Estrin Report, and has been interviewed by CBS News along with many top publications, such as The Wall Street JournalFortune Magazine,, Los Angeles Times, Entrepreneur Magazine, Newsweek, The Chicago Tribune, The Daily Journal, ABA Journal, Above the Law, ALM, Law360 and many others. She has also been a speaker for many prestigious organizations and written hundreds of articles.

As the Co-Founding Member and President of the Organization of Legal Professionals (OLP), Ms. Estrin has guided the association’s development and implementation of the eDiscovery and Litigation Support certification exams (first in the country) along with Pearson Publications, a $7 billion corporation specializing in certification exams and educational publishing. She was also the Education Director designing, creating and executing online, live training programs with an on-call roster of over 500 instructors throughout the world. Currently, she provides webinars on legal career matters for LawPractice and Lawline, two of the largest attorney CLE online training organizations.
Ms. Estrin is a co-founding member of the International Practice Management Association (IPMA) and the Organization of Legal Professionals, composed of a prestigious Board of Governors inclusive of judges, an ABA President, and well-known attorneys. She is the recipient of the Los Angeles/Century City “Women of Achievement” award and recognized as One of the Top 50 Women in Los Angeles. Ms. Estrin has been writing The Estrin Report since 2005 and most recently launched her podcast, “Lawfully Employed”.

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