Staff appraisal systems across barristers’ chambers are best described as ‘variable’ – from non-existent to well-established. Not surprisingly, those chambers with human resource managers practise good staff performance methods, systematically developing people throughout their career. For many sets, the implementation (or lack of it) depends on the attitude of the senior practice team or management committee towards developing their staff.

Recently, staff appraisals have become a popular topic. The management of an agile workforce, and the younger generations’ changing attitudes towards their own life goals, are becoming increasingly challenging for chambers’ management.

There are no legal or regulatory requirements to appraise your staff, so why do so many organisations invest their resources into appraisal systems for their employees?

The business case – why do it?

On the very highest level, members’ contributions fund their practice management teams to run ‘the business’. Therefore, chambers should collectively want the best return possible for their investment, or to use a common phrase, ‘more bang for their buck!’ Not only are members of chambers in competition with other lawyers, but so are their practice teams who compete in an increasingly commercial environment.

A well-designed and run appraisal system can deliver value for chambers in the following areas:

  • Staff development: A fundamental part of an appraisal system is to identify personnel training needs on both an individual and team basis. A full understanding of the competences required to perform to expectations can be underpinned by a systematic training procedure.
  • Staff retention: By investing time in a performance management system, underpinned by training, you are telling a practice manager that the organisation cares about their development and career. Approaches from other sets and higher salaries could become less attractive if they feel valued and appreciated in their current role.
  • Organisational alignment: Periodic appraisals are the perfect opportunity to ‘enforce’ the brand of chambers and underpin its strategic direction by ensuring personal development is in line with chambers’ overall objectives. Any obstacles or difficult components can be highlighted and addressed.
  • Team motivation: The easiest way to demotivate people is to ignore them. During a two-way appraisal, goals are set, feedback given and listened to. Staff members should feel fully involved in the success of chambers and its future direction. They will have personal goals and objectives to achieve and a full understanding of the part they play in the success of the organisation will help them feel valued, appreciated and add to their wellbeing.
  • Business progression: Performance is often determined by the skills and knowledge of senior practice management. If you develop your practice team by facilitating professional training, over time, they can exceed the current highest skill levels. Spending chambers’ funds on staff training that is not underpinned by a performance management system is not optimal.
  • Feedback: During the formal documented appraisal, objective feedback should be encouraged. This flows both ways. It is an ideal opportunity for chambers to ‘listen’ to their staff and gain feedback on the management team’s performance. Valuable constructive feedback is also given to the member of staff identifying development needs. Without using this valuable feedback system, the opportunity for misunderstandings and conflicts run high.

Considerations for planning appraisal systems

A staff appraisal is similar in so many ways to a practice development meeting – in reverse – between barrister and clerk. Build a system that answers your needs, is pragmatic and effective. Below are the three basic stages of a staff appraisal:

1. Preparation: Pre-meeting questionnaires are circulated to appraiser and appraisee so they can separately prepare for the discussion and raise any concerns or give credit. This should be done two weeks in advance of the meeting.

2. Meeting: Consideration should be given to the format, time and venue of the meeting. This will all set the tone for this important discussion. The meeting should be formal and documented. The information given and received should be objective, balanced and in line with the employee’s job description.

3. Review: Periodic reviews should be undertaken which track progression on goals achieved or projects completed. An annual appraisal followed by quarterly review meetings is good practice.

To achieve the best results:

  • Objectives: Be clear on what you want your appraisee to achieve and what competences and levels of attainment are required for their position.
  • Budget: Training budget should be accounted for to underpin any development needs.
  • Feedback: Objective and honest feedback should be given. This can sometimes be difficult to administer and accept. The dynamics between a member of chambers and practice manager who manages their career can create challenges in this area.

Where can it go wrong?

The devil is in the detail in most management systems and the appraisal system is no exception. Here are a few common areas where it can go wrong:

  • Lack of chambers’ goals: This is common in many organisations. It is difficult to align the efforts of your staff if the collective brand of chambers does not know what it wants. This ‘North Star Thinking’ is often absent in organisations when there is a lack of an overall strategic business plan.
  • Lack of planning: The meeting should be seen as important and valuable. Poor preparation, being off-hand, moving the time and date of the meeting or being slow on documenting the conversation – these all set the wrong tone.
  • Too vague: Both appraiser and appraisee should be very clear on what objectives (and how they are to be obtained) have been set for the coming year.
  • Dictatorial: This is not about telling your practice manager where they are going wrong. It should be a conversation discussing both strong and poor performance. The appraiser must be prepared for, and seek, feedback also.
  • Credibility: If actions or agreements are not followed through, belief in the process will diminish.
  • Lack of resource: Agreed actions, such as training, not being supported. Funds spent on staff training not in line with a performance management system is also not ideal.
  • Fear: The appraisee must be very comfortable about giving feedback without reprisals. Any concerns regarding negative consequences for being honest will result in dishonest feedback, which is not helpful for either party.
  • Attitude: This is the last point but the most important. If the appraiser does not 100% believe in the system, it will fail! Many organisations falter at this point, perhaps with management frustrated at the lack of resource to develop their staff (or themselves) or cynical about the principle itself. A lack of commitment by the appraiser can turn a good appraisal system into a ‘box -ticking exercise’ very quickly, making the whole process a waste of time. External training for appraisers can help to resolve this issue.

In summary, this business function gives the opportunity to be objective and clear about individual and team performance. A good staff appraisal system can bring growth to your practice team and shape it to conform to the growth strategy of chambers. You can tackle any difficult components through this professional performance management function.