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Check in (don’t check up) to stop lawyers from checking out

Law firms need to get their performance management processes right if they are to avoid HR claims such as bullying and harassment, or worse, have their employees leave for another firm, writes Maureen Kyne.

user iconMaureen Kyne 06 September 2022 Big Law
Check in (don’t check up) to stop lawyers from checking out
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The answer to this conundrum lies in having continuous conversations with staff.

Performance management, by its very nature, is difficult, and firms need to ensure the manner in which it is carried out doesn’t cross the line into bullying behaviour.

In the performance management context, an example of a bullying incident could be when a senior lawyer or partner steps in and makes inflammatory or aggressive feedback after a missed deadline or the firm loses a case or client.


Waiting for a case or a matter to end is not the time to check in with your team; firms have to hold themselves to account, too and deal with problems when they arise.

If firms don’t take the time to hold informal check-ins with their employees, when budgets aren’t met, deadlines are missed or matters aren’t dealt with in accordance with practice expectations, it’s too late to address core issues.

It’s really important to distinguish between performance and results. Regular advice, praise and constructive criticism are the responsibility of the firm and will help staff feel valued and engaged. 

Performance management and employee development should go hand in hand. The pandemic has shown us that employees want more meaningful work.

In the current labour market, employees can afford to cherry-pick roles that align with their values. Check-ins are like a routine workout; the more you do, the better everyone feels.

How your legal practice can help performance manage your employees:

Create structure and purpose

If you don’t have employee check-ins, introduce them. Block regular time in your schedule for one-on-ones. They provide regular formal reviews of an employee’s performance in an informal way. Structure the check-ins so there is purpose to the catch-up and you can gather the information you require regarding workload, deadlines, delivery or any roadblock

Identify issues before they become problems

Some managers only meet with their teams when something goes wrong or a matter isn’t going to plan. It’s poor management because it creates a fear culture that meetings only occur when things go wrong. Regular catch-ups build trust and rapport, provide clarity and create a sense of camaraderie, which make it easier to anticipate and resolve issues when they arise.

Acknowledge staff and recognise their worth

When managers don’t talk to their teams or cancel meetings, it sends a message they don’t care. It’s dangerous territory because it devalues the work of employees, and you risk disengagement. Employees will find themselves more valued when their work is regularly acknowledged and praised, and this will most likely motivate them to be more productive and increase their discretionary effort. 

Take the pressure off the annual review

Assessing an employee’s job performance must consist of more than one discussion — an annual appraisal isn’t enough. Short regular meetings offer employees a better idea of what they can expect at their end-of-year review because feedback has been given throughout the year.

Ensure employees are performing in line with the firm’s expectations

It is much easier for employees to know what is expected of them and why when they are checking in with their manager regularly. You can arrive at decisions of accountability and development more easily if there has been regular dialogue. Remember, meaning and purpose of the job comes from the regular check-ins.

Maureen Kyne is a workplace bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination specialist.