Most paralegals have an annual review with their employer, and many dread the day it arrives. But this meeting can be useful and informative. During your annual review, you can receive praise for hard work, learn about expectations, reevaluate your goals, and determine what about your workflow needs improvement. Furthermore, this is the time to ask your employer to sponsor education, additional training, and a conference, or even to negotiate salary adjustments. In order to have a successful review, you must come prepared. What should we as paralegals do to prepare ourselves for this usually dreaded event?
In this episode of The Paralegal Voice, Vicki Voisin interviews Ruth Conley and Linda Carrette, presenters at the National Association of Legal Assistants’ 40th Annual Convention, about why an annual review is important for paralegals, how we can prepare for the meeting, and mistakes to avoid.
- Employer reaffirmation about work quality
- Asking for evaluations when they are not offered
- Effective communication with your employer
- The history of performance reviews
- Tracking your accomplishments and billing statistics
- How to act when confronted with constructive criticism
- Setting personal performance goals
- Acting in a professional manner
Ruth Conley has been a paralegal for over 25 years, primarily working for defense law firms. She has been regional director for District 1, was a founder of the Houston Paralegal Association (HPA), and served as the first president of HPA. She works at Andrews Kurth, a law firm based in Houston, Texas.
Linda Carrette began her paralegal career in 1983. She has worked for small firms, legal consulting groups, mid-sized firms, nationwide firms, and international firms and currently works at Strasburger & Price, where she specializes in litigation.
Special thanks to our sponsors, Boston University, NALA, and ServeNow.
Paralegal Voice: Tips and Tricks for Your Annual Performance Reviews – 8/20/2015
Advertiser: Welcome to the Paralegal Voice, where you hear the latest issues and trends in the world of paralegals and legal assistance by one of the best known paralegals in the industry, Vicki Voisin. A paralegal for more than twenty years, Vicki is dedicated to helping legal professionals reach their goals. You’re listening to Legal Talk Network.
Vicki Voisin: Hello everyone, welcome to the Paralegal Voice here on Legal Talk Network. I’m Vicki Voisin, the paralegal mentor and host of the Paralegal Voice. I’m a NALA Advanced Certified paralegal. I publish a weekly e-newsletter titled, Paralegal Strategies. And I’m also the co-author of the Professional Paralegal, a Guide to Finding a Job and Career Success. You’ll find more information at ParalegalMentor.com. I have two guests with me today. The first is Ruth Conley, and the second is Linda Carrette. Both of them are from Houston and we’re going to be talking about your annual performance review. So welcome Ruth, welcome Linda.
Ruth Conley: Thank you.
Linda Carrette: Hi Vicki, glad to be here.
Vicki Voisin: I’m so glad you could take the time to be with me. So before we begin, our sponsors need to be recognized and thanked. That would be Boston University, offering an online certificate in paralegal studies. If you’re seeking a professional credential, or just want to further develop your skills, Boston University provides an affordable, high-quality 14-week program. Visit ParalegalOnline.bu.edu for more information. That’s ParalegalOnline.bu.edu. We’re also sponsored by, NALA a professional association for paralegals, providing continuing education and professional certification programs for paralegals at NALA.org. NALA recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. It’s a very stable force in the promotion and advancement of the paralegal profession. It’s been a sponsor of the Paralegal Voice since the beginning. And Serve-Now, a nationwide network of trusted, prescreened process servers. Work with the most professional process servers who have experience with high-volume serves, embrace technology, and understand the litigation process. Visit Serve-Now.com to learn more. The goal of the Paralegal Voice is to discuss a wide range of topics that are important to the paralegal industry and share with you leading trends, significant developments and resources you’ll find helpful in your career and your everyday job. Guests are usually included to help explore timely topics. For that reason, I’ve invited Ruth Conley and Linda Carrette to be with me today. And Ruth and Linda, I appreciate you being here. And the first thing I want you to do is tell our listeners about you, your career path, and just your role in the paralegal field.
Ruth Conley: This is Ruth. I’ve been a paralegal for over 25 years, starting my career in 1989, primarily working for defense law firms. Very early on in my career, I had decided to be involved in paralegal associations. And so I’ve been actually involved with there locally in the Texas area. I started in the Belmont area and now I’m in Houston. And when I found out about NALA, then I took the opportunity to be involved with NALA, which I enjoy very, very much.
Vicki Voisin: You’ve held several positions, a region director?
Ruth Conley: I have been a regional director for district one, which is Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas. And I was also on the continuing education committee for about three years.
Vicki Voisin: Okay. What firmware you with in Houston?
Ruth Conley: I am with Andrews Kurth, it’s a law firm based out of Houston but we have offices in LA and Washington and in London and in Beijing, around the world.
Vicki Voisin: Alright, and Linda.
Linda Carrette: I began my paralegal career in 1983. I don’t know if I should be admitting that, but anyway. I have worked for small firms, worked for legal consulting groups, I’ve worked for midsized nationwide firms, international firms, and I also have the fortune of working in several different positions. I’ve been a paralegal, I’ve worked in practice support group for a national law firm, I’ve also been a firm administrator. About the only thing I haven’t touched I think, so far, is marketing and recruiting.
Vicki Voisin: Okay. Now, Ruth, I know you’re an ACP. I want to get back to Linda though, because I think you’re a paralegal with a ton of initials behind your name, so tell me about those.
Linda Carrette: Well, I became a certified paralegal through NALA back in ‘91 I believe. Some time later, I was living in San Antonio and felt a little antsy in my job. My husband suggested, “You love to go to school, you love to learn. What about going back to school?” So I ended up going back for a masters in business administration, relocated back to Houston. And I guess probably in ‘96 or ‘97, the state Bar of Texas finally reached a result with regard to voluntary certification and partnered with the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. And TBLS is the entity that offers specialization to attorneys, and they now offer – since, I guess, 1996 – they offer specialization to paralegals in a diverse practice area. So I am board certified through TBLS and civil trial law.
Vicki Voisin: Both of you were co presenters at the NALA convention, and you talked about the annual review. I want to give our listeners a little bit of information about what you shared there. I’m going to start this by admitting to you, I’ve never had an annual review my entire paralegal career. So I understand that I should have, what do you think?
Ruth Conley: Well, maybe you had one but you just didn’t know it. Over the years, did you ever just sit down and ask your employer if he thought you were doing what you were supposed to be doing? Did you have any goals, any areas, that he wanted you to learn more on?
Vicki Voisin: Actually, no. And I know you don’t want to hear that either, and I know many people dread an annual review. I didn’t want any bad news. So tell us why we want an annual review. Do you want to tell me that, Linda?
Linda Carrette: I think what you just said, the first thing I thought of was it’s not necessarily no news is good news. You still would like some reaffirmation from an employer that you are meeting or exceeding their expectations and everyone wants to know, I guess sit down with their employer and hear the god and the bad and the ugly. I think there’s room for improvement in everyone. And I think what you mentioned about never having a review, what I would say to someone who says my employer does not do that, they don’t go through the process or the motions of that, whether it be a self evaluation or a formal evaluation from your employer, there’s nothing wrong with taking the initiative and asking. Like Ruth said, to sit down with someone for twenty minutes and just talking about your performance, whether it was the last six months, the last twelve months. When you start a new job, perhaps after the first ninety days, “How am I doing? Are there things I could improve on? Am I following protocol? Are there things that I should be aware of?”
Vicki Voisin: Okay.
Ruth Conley: It’s all about communication. I think that’s what is the importance of a review process. Do you have really good communication with your employer or are or aren’t you on separate tangents? Do your goals align with your employer’s expectations of you? And that’s why it’s important for you to have reviews.
Vicki Voisin: Okay. Now how do performance reviews start? We haven’t always had performance reviews. And I noticed that actually, it started with the federal government wanting performance reviews.
Ruth Conley: Real performance reviews mandated and did start with the federal government after World War II. But basically, evaluating employees started before that when the Industrial Revolution happened in America. And people were looking at ways to make employees work better, more efficiently, doing quality work. That’s how it started, but it wasn’t until after World War II that they started evaluating people. And then the government in the 50’s, in 1950, the US Congress passed the Performance Ratings Act, which mandated annual reviews of federal employees. And then of course, other large companies followed on and now it’s just something that they do every day.
Vicki Voisin: Actually, I think it happens more in larger firms than it does in the smaller firms, but it’s still really important. Now, when you’re getting ready for your performance review, what tips do you have? I know that there are mistakes that people can make. What would those be?
Ruth Conley: When you learn your review is happening, let’s say in thirty days, you should have also already been preparing for it. It’s important to track your accomplishments over the year. It’s almost like billing, keep track of what you’ve done. It’s also important to have past reviews in your little file. Did you meet your expectations of the last year? Did you set any goals? Did you meet them. It’s very important. It’s also important to have your statistics. Since I’m coming from a defense perspective, we of course bill, and you should know your billing statistics for over the past year. Did you do better than you did last year or were things slow? And it’s not your fault if you didn’t keep up but they understand those type of things. But that’s what you need in your performance review file.
Vicki Voisin: Okay. Well, Linda, why does keeping an updated list of your accomplishments important? Why do we do that and what if the firm doesn’t normally keep those for you? Should you make sure that that happens?
Linda Conley: I think there are several reasons that you need to be responsible for keeping up with your own accomplishments. First, you’re in charge of your own career, you’re the steward of your own career. You shouldn’t expect your employer to keep up with your accomplishments. The employer’s job, unfortunately, is to document the negative things sometimes, not the positive. So the positive, you have to take responsibility for. Second, it’s really important to have the information readily available when it’s time for your annual review. It could really go a long way towards justifying your existence at the firm, so to speak. And also when you go and expect a bonus or you would like an increase in your compensation, it helps to have something to document that. I also tell people it’s really beneficial to have your accomplishments tracked at all times because it helps you when you’re building or updating a resume. It’s unfortunate, I hear from a lot of people that resumes are not up to date. You get a call from a recruiter at 10AM one morning, they’ve got the perfect dream job, and it takes you a week and a half to update your resume. That window’s passed, probably closed, shut, locked, by the time you finish and get the resume to them. It’s also, in this day and age, really important to keep track of your accomplishments. That file that you’re building towards your performance review can help you build a profile on LinkedIn. I think LinkedIn is a great tool for networking and you want to put information out there that’s going to grab people’s attention and give them a good snapshot of what it is you do and your specialty, what you’re great at. And then obviously, if you keep track of your accomplishments, when you go to interview for a job, it really gives you an idea or indication of the types of things that a prospective employer might be asking you. So you can use that information and expand on some great answers.
Vicki Voisin: Okay. And do people usually do that electronically, Ruth?
Ruth Conley: I think it depends on the paralegal, how comfortable you are with data keeping. Most people do it through trackers. It could be a Word document, it could be handwritten; it’s really a personal choice as to how you track your accomplishments.
Vicki Voisin: Actually, your topic title at the NALA convention was Are You Sabotaging Your Annual Performance Review. Give me an example, or more than one example, of how you would be, how people do sabotage their annual review. Do you want to start with that, Linda?
Linda Carrette: I think the first, the most obvious thing you could do to sabotage your review is not being prepared. Not having the documentation, not having the tools that you need, and going in blind. That’s first and foremost. The second reason that a lot of people sabotage their own performance reviews is going in and having the wrong form of communication, being perhaps a little too defensive, not being open minded. Sometimes things can be unfair. Perhaps you’re evaluated by a few attorneys on a bad morning for them, the morning it comes across their desk. You have to take the constructive criticism, and sometimes you have to take what I call a breather. Ruth and I were talking about this earlier today. It helps. If you’re blinded, shell shocked, you don’t know what to do, how to respond, rather than be defensive, going into that mode-
Vicki Voisin: Or crying.
Linda Carrette: Yes, crying, just losing your composure. Sometimes it’s good if you can just listen and then sit back and ask if you can absorb everything, have some time to process it all and get back together with the person in either twenty four hours, a week, or a month. And a lot of people will respect that. It just shows that you take it serious and that you’d like time to gather your thoughts and it’s really beneficial. It’s kind of like firing off an email or acting impulsively. You don’t want to do that at a performance review because it defeats the purpose.
Vicki Voisin: Okay. Do you have any other ways?
Ruth Conley: Well I wanted to add that. Mainly, it’s hard for people not to get defensive when you hear some criticism from your employer. And most people want to react and start making excuses, I think that’s common. But one thing maybe you need to think of saying instead of making excuses are saying it was a bad time, I was under all this pressure. Just turn it around and say, “Well, what would you have had me do in this instance instead? What would have been the appropriate channels?” Turn it around and let them respond. But you’ll be surprised,d it may not be as negative as you think it is. They’ll probably say, “Well, you did this right but maybe you should have done this one little step further instead.” And so it wasn’t really all negative, it was sometimes positive. But it’s hard when someone comes at you with this criticism not to just hear the bad stuff and not listen to the overall pitcher of what they’re saying.
Vicki Voisin: Okay. Linda and Ruth, it’s time to take a short break to hear from our sponsors, Boston University, NALA, the association of legal assistance paralegals, and Serve-Now, a nationwide network of trusted, prescreened process servers. And when we come back, we’re going to continue our discussion of performance reviews.
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Vicki Voisin: Welcome back to the Paralegal Voice. I’m Vicki Voisin, and my guests today are Linda Carrette and Ruth Conley, two paralegals from Houston, Texas. And what they’re doing is talking about preparing for your annual performance review. Now I talk frequently about setting career goals and how you have to have short term and long term goals and all of that. But what about setting performance goals, Linda? How do you set those and what exactly are employers looking for?
Linda Carrette: Well, in setting personal goals and professional goals, the first thing you need to ask is what do you want to accomplish and also what do you need to improve upon. Think about areas in which you could truly improve; performance, your knowledge, training. Second, ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. Why is it that you go through the steps that you do and do what you do each day? Next, how well must I do it? And those would be quantifying and using metrics by how many, how much, to what extent, those types of questions. The goal is that you just don’t do the minimum and you just meet your employer’s expectations, but try to meet and exceed them. And then how am I doing them? Look inside yourself and try to be fair and realistic. How am I doing? Did I do a poor job at this? What could I take from that experience and improve upon next time. So it’s all about quality versus quantity. Quality hours are much more beneficial to a client and the attorneys you work for than quantity of hours. You can be the top biller, but if you’re not performing at a high level and you’re not meeting deadlines, then actually, you’re not ahead.
Vicki Voisin: Okay. Now Linda, I know that in your presentation, you talked about the five golden rules of goal setting. Can you explain that? I hadn’t heard of that particular issue.
Linda Carrette: Sure. There are five golden rules when sitting down and putting together your goals for the year. Rule number one, your goals should motivate you. They should make you want to perform and want to achieve the goal that you have in mind. Second, the goal should be smart, and that’s an acronym that we’ll take about later, perhaps. Rule number three, put goals in writing. If you see them in writing, you’re more likely to reach those goals, versus having them in the back of your mind, you’re going to forget them. So reducing them to writing will help out a lot. The fourth golden rule is making an action plan. How are you going to get to that goal? For example, the CP exam, how are you going to get there? You don’t just go and show up to take the test. Ordering the materials, putting together a calendar, do I sign up for a study group, what nights am I going to study, what will I tackle on each night, that kind of thing. And then, rule number five is sticking with it. You can’t get frustrated right out of the gate when you feel like you’re not working towards your goal fast enough. YOu have to keep going and put your negativity to the side and keep your eye on the ball.
Vicki Voisin: I’ve always said that unless you write that goal down, it’s just a wish. So it’s very important to write that goal down or maybe even share it with a friend or something so that it keeps you on track. The other thing that I think is important in goal setting is to set – in your calendar, if you can – when you’re actually going to accomplish this. For instance: on Friday, whatever date you choose, you’re going to send in your application to take the CP exam. It has to be very specific and broken down so that you can get that done. I like those golden rules, that’s terrific. I want to talk to you Ruth, just a little bit, about the actual performance review. I want to talk about some tips to actually communicate effectively and the important parts of getting ready, being prepared for that.
Ruth Conley: At the meeting itself, be open to your evaluation. All the remarks, all the criticism, all the praise. Be honest and take responsibility of your actions when someone has said to you, “Well this past year, you didn’t perform in an area as well as you did the year before.” Like I said, be honest, take responsibility and say, “Yes, I did not, but I plan to do better next year.” Just be that quick, be easy, you don’t need long explanations.
Vicki Voisin: So in other words – let me just interrupt you here – you don’t just give excuses.
Ruth Conley: No excuses.
Vicki Voisin: Because it would be hard to not be defensive and want to say, “Oh, I was sick for two weeks,” or something like that.
Ruth Conley: Well we all have personal issues that happen and employers understand that, especially if you’ve had a major tragedy in your family. They’re going to expect that your job performance is going to decrease somewhat, it’s going to be acknowledged. But again, as Linda said way earlier in the interview, employers don’t really track your accomplishments, they always talk the negatives. So they understand what’s going on, things happen. But in your review meeting, if you want to have more training, this is the time to discuss it. You’re not going to get an opportunity, usually you only have these performance reviews once a year. So now’s the time to discuss those types of issues. It doesn’t mean that your reviewer’s going to have a response, you may need to go to another committee, go to the firm manager. So this is when you ask, “When can I have another meeting about this?” I think that’s really important. Not everything has to be accomplished at your annual performance review meeting. You can ask for another meeting at a time to discuss your salary. You can ask for another meeting to discuss the time for training. Or maybe you would like to bump up more education, CLE education, have them pay for it. But remember, when you ask for these meetings, give some time for you to become prepared. See how many hours of CLE you want and be ready for that. Say, “I know this is going to happen in July, NALA has their annual convention every year. I’d like to go next year, I haven’t been in five years.” And so it gives them some time to respond and look at and see whether they feel it’s a good fit for them.
Vicki Voisin: When you do that should you come prepared with what it’s going to cost, how much time it’s going to take, or does that happen later?
Ruth Conley: You could have an idea, you could give them a general idea. “Last year it cost five hundred dollars, so I expect the cost – unless they increase – it should be around this amount.” So you can give them some expectation. That’s why you come prepared. We usually know when the annual convention is going to be. And so you can say it’s going to be in Las Vegas next year, plane fares at this time cost this much. I don’t know what they’re going to cost a year from now, but at least you can have a general idea and give it to them. And that way they can put it in their budget for next year. And then you also know, I’d like for them to send me this way so you do not ask to be sent to some other-
Vicki Voisin: You’re specific, then.
Ruth Conley: Right. I think it helps to be specific.
Vicki Voisin: Ruth, we’re about done for today. We’re running out of time, but I would like to know, do you have any tips for effective communication during the performance review? I know it’s important to be able to communicate and you have to do that so that you’re not offending anyone. So tell me about some of those tips that you might have.
Ruth Conley: Well tips in communicating, it’s not just about your verbal skills, it’s not all about what you say. It’s also about how you act in this meeting. You need to maintain eye contact, you need to have an attentive posture that’s erect. Don’t go slouching, which I’m sure most paralegals would not do. And also have a professional manner. We’ve said this before, try not to be emotional. When you do receive a negative criticism or feedback, it’s hard. Maybe not cry, specially if it’s extremely harsh, but you need to maintain that professional manner. Another thing you can do is to listen and take notes. When you’re sitting in this interview, it may be hard for you to remember. I don’t know how long they last – thirty minutes to an hour – it may be hard to remember everything that you heard, so go ahead and take notes. And also, I think it’s very important for you to ask for specific examples, especially when you receive negative feedback. A lot of times, HR people, I feel, are taught to be very general, say things in general terms. “We don’t think you were an effective employee this year.” “Well can you tell me how? Can you give me a specific example?” It’s important for you to do that or else you can go back to your office and think everything you did was not as good as it was last year. So ask for specifics.
Vicki Voisin: Good tips, good tips. Linda, do you have any tips?
Linda Carrette: The documenting of file is really important. I think that you need to keep track of all of your CLE hours, all of your training – whether it was required, in house, or something that you did at your own time at your own cost. Presentations you may have given, articles that you’ve written. I think that that demonstrates your commitment to the profession and your career. And I think it goes a long way with employers because if you have a team of paralegals at your firm and perhaps others aren’t as gung ho and have the same initiative you do, that’s information whether the firm paid for you to attend that training and gather that knowledge or whether you did it on your own. It’s kind of sharing the wealth and paying it forward, sharing that with other paralegals at your firm. And an employer appreciates that shared knowledge and they like the knowledge base. It makes them feel better that they have paralegals on staff that know what they’re doing and that they’re anxious to further their own career.
Vicki Voisin: Okay. Good tips, good tips from both of you. Now we’re about out of time and what I’d like to know, just before we leave you today, is if any of our listeners wish to get in touch with you, how would they do that?
Ruth Conley: They can email me at my work address, which is [email protected]
Vicki Voisin: Okay. Thank you, and Linda.
Linda Carrette: I’m with the law firm of Strasburger & Price. We’re based in Dallas and we have offices in Houston, San Antonio, Austin, DC, and Mexico City, and I can be reached at [email protected]. And I am also reachable through a different email. I am a director for the state Bar of Texas for district one, the greater Houston area, and I can also be reached at the email, [email protected]
Vicki Voisin: Okay. Thank you both for being with me today. I appreciate your taking the time and I look forward to learning more about the annual review which I hope I never have. How’s that?
Ruth Conley: Thank you.
Linda Carrette: Thank you, Vicki.
Vicki Voisin: Well, let’s take another short break now, but don’t go away because when I come back, I’ll have news and career tips for you.
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Vicki Voisin: Welcome back to the Paralegal Voice. I’m Vicki Voisin and we have been talking today about your annual review. This is the time of the program where I give you some tips and I’m going to continue with Ruth and Linda’s advice that they’ve had for you today. And that is to be sure you’re keeping track of all of your accomplishments. If you attend a conference, if you write an article, if you speak at a meeting. Be sure you keep track of that so that if you do have to update your resume, if you have to prepare a CV as I did once, and I had to go back and really almost look through twenty years of accomplishments and get those written down. Wouldn’t have been so difficult if I had kept track. So that’s my advice for you. Email those to me at [email protected]. And don’t forget to check out my blog, ParalegalMentor.com/blog. And the resources available there will be wonderful for you. I’ve designed them to help you move your career in the right direction, and that’s forward. This is Vicki Voisin, thanking you for listening to the Paralegal Voice, and reminding you to make your paralegal voice heard.
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