Staff Reviews & Setting Goals at the Beginning of the New Year

staff-reviews-setting-goalsBy Philip J. Kavesh, J.D., LL.M. (Taxation), CFP®, ChFC, California State Bar Certified Specialist in Estate Planning, Trust & Probate Law

In successfully running a law practice for over 40 years, I have found that it’s vitally important to periodically meet with each of my staff members (even ones that may be part-time or independent contractors) to review their job performance and set clear and defined goals.  Once you do these reviews on a regular basis, you will be amazed how much more motivated and productive your staff will be!

I do these reviews semi-annually, at the beginning of January and again in the middle of July, rather than just once a year, so that I give people enough of a timeframe to accomplish their stated goals and to give them critical feedback and readjust their goals, if need be.  Holding employee reviews twice a year does not, however, mean that you must increase their compensation twice a year.  In fact, I normally only adjust compensation at the beginning of each year.  The key reason for two reviews each year is to keep people on track!

This article will not address performance reviews for associate attorneys, as they are far more complex.  For more information regarding attorney reviews, please see our On-Demand Program entitled, “How to Hire, Train, Manage & Keep Associate Attorneys”.

STEP ONE: Make sure all employees have a clear understanding of his or her specific duties, utilizing a written Duties List.

There are a number of preparation steps involved in conducting effective staff review meetings.  First of all, each employee should not only have a clear understanding of his or her specific duties, but should have these written down and memorialized in a list.  This duties list will be an important point of reference for the employee’s evaluation. Normally, we have each duties list written at the time that a staff person is hired and modified, as necessary, when they take on different tasks.  If you do not already have such a duties list for every one of your staff, you should have them create such a list.  For an example of a duties list for my executive assistant, click here.

STEP TWO: Conduct an Annual Employee Survey.

The second important step I take in preparing for staff reviews is an Annual Employee Survey.  This survey is distributed in December and is required to be returned in plenty of time to utilize the results of the survey in the January performance review meeting.  As stated in a previous newsletter article, this Employee Survey is also very important in establishing the firm’s goals for the year that you should present at the opening “Kick-Off” meeting with your entire firm (that should take place before your individual reviews).  The Employee Survey could be used again prior to the July performance review, if you feel that you need additional employee feedback.  The Employee Survey can often help you spot certain issues, from the employee’s standpoint, that you should address at their review meeting.  To view a sample of an actual Employee Survey that we have developed for my firm, click here.

If you are implementing good ongoing supervision, accountability and feedback systems within your firm, which I will talk about briefly later, you should already have a very good idea of any special issues that employees have.  However, the Survey tends to “clean up” or otherwise disclose items that may have been overlooked in your normal firm processes.

STEP THREE: Prepare an Employee Report Card.

The third step in preparing for the staff performance review meetings, is putting together what I call an “Employee Report Card”.  To view a sample of an Employee Report Card, click here. (NOTE: You can download a modifiable Microsoft Word version of these forms at the end of this article.) You will note that the Report Card rates the employee based on a number of different characteristics, grading the employee as either an “A”, “B” or “C” Player.  When staff is hired and again when they have their first and succeeding performance reviews, it is made clear to them that the firm will only accept “A” Players for any length of time and that a “B” must be upgraded to an “A” quickly in order for them to continue their employment (see the “A”, “B” and “C” Explanation at the bottom of the second page of the Employee Report Card).  If you have an Office Manager or another employee who supervises the staff member to be reviewed, that person should prepare the first draft of the Report Card for your review.  You can then give your feedback to be incorporated on the Report Card prior to the review meeting with the staff member.  This “first draft process” empowers the Office Manager (or direct supervisor), relieves you of a lot of time that may be involved in the review prep and, as the person who has the greatest knowledge of what that employee is doing and achieving, can provide the most detailed and insightful review comments.

STEP FOUR: Hold the Employee Staff Review Meeting

Now, let’s address the conduct of the meeting itself.  When holding review meetings with staff members, I will typically have my Office Manager/HR Director attend as well.  If the employee has any other staff members that may directly supervise them, they may also be present during the review meeting.  There are several reasons for this.  First, I like to have my Office Manager/HR Director take notes during the meeting and place these notes in the staff member’s employee file as a witness to what was stated.  This can be very useful if you have any labor dispute later on.  This also empowers the Office Manager/HR Director (or the direct supervisor, if applicable) by having that person actually lead the review meeting while I sit there and only make a few comments, as necessary.  This can also give the Office Manager/HR Director (or direct supervisor) far more authority by having the staff member see them handling the review meeting in front of “the boss”.  The only difficulty of having a staff member’s direct supervisor in the meeting could be the issue of compensation if you are trying to keep that information confidential.  In that case, I would conduct the whole meeting without discussing compensation and then dismiss the direct supervisor in order to address this privately with the employee.

When the staff member first comes into the meeting, I will already have the Office Manager/HR Director (and/or direct supervisor) seated and present.   I explain to the employee that the reason why the Office Manager/HR Direct (or direct supervisor) is there is to provide comments and constructive feedback and also that they will be assisting me in taking notes during the meeting.  If this is the first performance review a staff member has had with my firm, or simply as a reminder, I will take the time to explain the Employee Report Card and how it is utilized during the review process.  Also, the staff member is handed a blank copy of the Report Card to follow along while being given oral feedback during the meeting.  I indicate to the staff member that he or she is welcome to take notes if they wish, but that they are not required to, as the specifics of the review will be in writing on the Employee Report Card, which he or she will be given a copy of at the conclusion of the meeting. This keeps the employee from wandering off while reading ahead on the Report Card or taking notes.  The employee will be more attentive to the items being discussed, in their proper order.

You will notice on the Report Card that most of the characteristics upon which staff are graded have nothing to do with their technical work.  This is because, normally, if you’re doing a good job supervising, you will be continually giving them feedback regarding the quality of their technical work.  The other reason this Report Card goes way beyond technical work is that I have found over the years it is far more important for people to have the right mindset and attitude and willingness to work than have specific technical knowledge or ability; if someone comes in with the right attitude and some minimal smarts, I can train them to do the technical aspect of the job.  It is the other non-technical aspects of the job that really affect not only that staff person’s production and results, but the overall team morale and results of the firm as a whole.

I will not go through each item on this Employee Report Card, as you can read for yourself how “A”, “B” and “C” are defined.  Typically, we just place a checkmark in the appropriate “A”, “B” or “C” box and write in any short comments that may elaborate with respect to that person’s specific tasks and duties.  Or, we may elaborate as to areas where we specifically think they can improve within that characteristic.  Below Box 11, “Track Record”, we will typically write in the staff member’s overall grade average and some positive comments.  This can hopefully offset any critical comments that may have been made about the employee’s performance, so that the employee can feel better about the review and will then buy into the goals and actions that you specify on the last page of the Report Card.

With respect to the goals and actions that you want to see achieved within the following six-month period, you need to be extremely specific.  To the extent that you can, define things in numeric terms.  This will be helpful in keeping the employee on track, but also in measuring the results of the employee.

Note that just below the list of “GOALS/ACTIONS” and before the final sign-offs, we address the compensation level of the employee.  At the January performance review, we like to give a quick summary of the total compensation that employee made the prior calendar year in both hourly or salaried compensation and any bonuses. This gives the employee a clear picture of what they actually made in the prior year, in total, before withholdings.  This tends to make them more appreciative of their current level of compensation.  Then, we indicate how much their base hourly or salaried compensation will be increased both in dollar terms for the entire year and as a percentage over the previous year.  This way, people can appreciate both the percentage amount, versus for example normal inflation, as well as actually see what the gross difference will be over the course of the year (which might be much smaller if you only explain it in terms of an hourly rate change).  We also detail out any bonuses that the employee may be able to earn, either by referring to a set formula or as a discretionary amount (bonus or incentive compensation is way beyond this article, but will certainly be addressed in a future newsletter article).


At the conclusion of the performance review meeting, the staff member is given their Report Card and told to read the review, make any comments that he or she may have about their review where indicated and then sign and date at the “Read and Acknowledged by” line.  The Office Manager/HR Director (and/or the direct supervisor) as well as the owner/President will have already signed and dated the Report Card.  The staff member is then instructed to make a copy for his or her own records and then return in a sealed envelope the original Report Card to the Office Manager/HR Director.

We have found this performance review process to work extremely well.  Staff members like to get feedback more than once a year, so everything doesn’t come down to “one final exam”.  It is a fair and thorough review process with clear goals and actions established so that the employee understands exactly how he or she will be evaluated at the next review meeting.  This helps promote and maintain high employee productivity and morale.  However, two semi-annual performance review meetings are, alone, not enough to keep people on track.  You need to have continuous systems of supervision, accountability and feedback on a daily, weekly and monthly basis within your firm – – but those are topics for another newsletter article!

I hope that this article helps you and your staff to successfully build your practice!


If you would like further step-by-step guidance on conducting performance reviews, you might be interested in our Instant Download entitled, “How to Properly Conduct Employee Performance Reviews”.  This is a 36-minute audio/video presentation with PDF handout materials where you will take a deeper dive into this topic.  Your purchase of this Instant Download also included a modifiable version of the Employee Report Card that you can use right in your practice.



  • The above educational programs and many more are offered for a discounted bundle price in our complete Ultimate Practice-Building Library.  You will get over 40 hours of in-depth training that Phil has developed throughout his years of building his own successful practice and many years of trial and error.



Attorney Philip J. Kavesh is the principal of one of the largest estate planning firms in California – – Kavesh, Minor and Otis – – which has been in business since 1981. He is also the President of The Ultimate Estate Planner, Inc., which provides a variety of training, marketing and practice-building products and services for estate planning professionals.

If you would like more information or have a question for him, he can be reached at or by phone at 1-866-754-6477.

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