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 program entitled, “The 9 Steps to Successfully Finding and Hiring 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 on a list.  This duties list will be an important point of reference for the employee’s evaluation. Normally, we have each person’s duties list prepared 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”.  We use the Employee Report Card to rate employees based on a number of different characteristics, grading the employee as either an “A”, “B” or “C” Player.  Whenever an employee 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.

If you have an Office Manager or another employee who supervises the staff member to be reviewed, that individual 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.

We provide our Employee Report Card in modifiable form in our in-depth program on how to conduct performance reviews (more details below).

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 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 in 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 Director (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.

Our Employee Report Card has a number of categories which 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, attitude and willingness to work than have specific technical knowledge or ability.  If someone comes in with the right attitude and limited experience or even education, we have found that we 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.

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.

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).


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 how to conduct these employee 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.





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.

Leave a Comment