I mentioned a film recently where the lead character was incapable of expressing emotions in case of embarassment. I suggested this changed as i entered the workforce, but then I thought about appraisals and…
I wasn’t bad at my job as a commercial lawyer. I wasn’t a bad manager of the department nor of the global group we formed after our firm merged with a series of European law firms in the 1990s and 2000s. But I was a dreadful interviewer (one of my colleagues put his finger on the problem: ‘You see Geoff, the idea is we get them to do most of talking’). I was an even worse appraiser of the associate lawyers and support staff, which sadly I had to do more often than was healthy, especially as I became more senior. Here are some examples; not all were my fault. It’s just that these tended to happen on my watch:
1. In at least three I dozed off; I know, that is inexcusable but in two case I’d been up for 24 plus hours without sleep prior to undertaking them (and that was also inexcusable, though in a different way) and in the third let’s say the person being appraised didn’t light many fires.
2. We had to abandon one interview when the toilets next to the meeting room flooded, and the stench was too much. For the first ten minutes, each of us assumed the appraisee must have been so nervous that he had had an accident… but even then, being British, none of us had the wherewithal to say anything.
3. We introduced an appraisal form that the lawyer took away to complete with our comments and then pass on to HR. We did this after several years when getting the partners to complete the forms rendered the whole thing meaningless because some are incapable of simple admin. We soon abandoned the new version after one appraisal form went forward with the summary paragraph saying that the associate was ‘one of the best, if not the best, four year qualified associate lawyer ever to work in [our] department’. Naturally, being lawyers, none of us who’d carried out the interview bothered to check the form before we signed it off.
4. One young man was already seated when I and my fellow appraiser entered the room. As we sat, we both realised he had the most tumescent and possibly fissile spot on his chin that we had seen. It was unstable in the way radioactive waste is unstable. And, of course, it was totally mesmeric. Neither of us could concentrate on the questions and his answers, and each time he put a hand to his face, I fear we may have quailed somewhat. I will now dream about that spot chasing me…
5. On another occasion one young woman, who I would have said before the meeting was of a reserved and nervous disposition, reacted so swiftly and violently to a large bluebottle landing on her papers that the fly’s remnants were spread over a significant area. She ignored the debris throughout the interview, carrying as if nothing had happened. Once again, we were mesmerised by extraneous matter, but once again, no one commented.
6. I took one lawyer to task over an especially shoddy piece of work that had caused significant embarrassment. The lawyer listened carefully, asked a couple of questions after I’d finished and then pointed out that it wasn’t him. Indeed it wasn’t; I’d muddled up the forms.
7. One of the more difficult appraisals was of those lawyers who were approaching the time when they might be put forward for partnership. This particular year, there were two who hoped to hear what we considered of their chances of going forward. The year before we’d made it clear to these two, there were significant hurdles to be overcome. Not least was the size and potential growth of the market they worked in. We were to disappoint them both. The first, Simon listened to my explanation and handed me an envelope. It contained his notice. Had we put him forward, he would have stayed; as we weren’t he’d lined up another job and didn’t intended wasting time. I was rather stunned and impressed. The next, Colin had a similar message. Possibly seduced by Simon’s clear-eyed response, I delivered the disappointing message briskly, possibly brusquely. Colin’s face went through several shades of green before he hastened round the desk to find a waste bin. He then sat down, cradling the bin for what seemed like an age. Neither of us spoke for fear of triggering something we’d both regret before he put it on my desk and left.
My colleagues never suggested I stop appraising, though. The thing was, I’m not sure they were much better.