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Dealing with Subjective and Objective Promotion Criteria

21 June 2019

At some point in their career, almost every lawyer is going to be looking at career advancement. While many firms have documented criteria associated with obtaining the next level of seniority, the actual criteria by which a firm makes a promotion decision can seem to be a little opaque.

And, if you look around, it can be difficult to identify consistent characteristics among those people who have received promotion. In particular as you look at promotions between different workgroups or industry areas, promotion under certain other partners, and ways in which promotions are dealt with at different firms it becomes obvious that there is no immediate common universal connection that gets applied towards promotions.

So if that is true, what general principles can we consider that might assist you to prepare for, work towards and ultimately achieve promotion to the next step at your firm?

Find the policies

If a promotion policy exists, most likely it is generally available in your firm’s manual or intranet materials. It’s entirely possible that you haven’t spent much time looking through those materials after the first few days of induction.

So, the first port of call is to look at the firm’s policies and find out whether there are any which apply to promotions. These might give you the absolute fundamentals of promotion inside your firm.

Of course, if your firm does not have a policy or a documented manual of any kind that deals with career advancement (as is often the case in small or newer firms) then the easiest place to start is to find a senior person inside the firm and have a conversation with them about how promotion works inside the firm you’re at.

The Objective Criteria

Inevitably if you find a policy or a documented path to promotion you’ll also find that it lists a set of objective criteria.

Sometimes these might be clear and unassailable: for example, that no lawyer will be promoted to associate unless they have at least two years post admission experience.

At times, things might sound like objective criteria but in fact be subjective. For example, the criteria that you must “comply with relevant policies regarding file administration and review” sounds straightforward. However, if the file administration policy is, itself, not very clear and you may find yourself in more vague territory.

Whatever the case, if you’re going to prepare for promotion then you need to understand the objective criteria that are going to apply to that decision, and this is a good place to start.

The subjective criteria

The subjective criteria often give you an indication of the firm values at a culture and business level.

For example, some firms place a high value on participation in firm relationships. This might, in fact, be one of the subjective criteria associated with advancement. It might be phrased in different ways, but might mean the same thing. For example, it might be “well-known around the firm” or “trusted by multiple partners” or “plays nicely with others” or similar.

For this reason, as you consider the subjective criteria associated with advancement, take it as an indication about the things the firm most highly values concerning the operations of its business and its team/s.

It is also a good opportunity for self-awareness. Many people will immediately consider themselves as meeting the subjective criteria, however an honest conversation with an experienced and trusted colleague might offer a different perspective and give you something to work on.

So pay close attention to the subjective criteria, not just for the terms that they are expressed in but also for the real indications that they give.

The real criteria

Beyond the policies, whatever they might say, is the reality. This is where the things that everyone knows but nobody wants to say out loud generally factor in.

For example, perhaps in a firm of three partners there is one partner with whom you must absolutely have a good working relationship in order to have any prospective career advancement. Do you know who that is? Is there a small core group of people who wield more decision-making power? Will their attitudes towards your promotion have a more significant impact than the attitudes of other, less influential, individuals?

There also seem to be some subjective criteria which are more relaxed than others. This is where looking at the true meaning behind the subjective criteria becomes important. There might be 10 individual dot points under a particular heading but if they all basically mean “do people like you” then there is a good chance that you can secure a promotion without needing to pedantically tick every single criteria at an individual level.

So know and understand the real criteria. If we’re honest, almost inevitably the most “real” but difficult to express criteria is going to be about the strength of your relationships with others around the firm. So if in doubt: focus on that.

How to make it work

it can be useful as part of your career planning to have an identifiable list of things that you are looking to achieve, how you are going to achieve them and when you are going to achieve by. You might like to write them down to help you remember what you’re aiming towards.

That’s fairly easy to do with the object of criteria, but significantly more difficult with subjective criteria that might involve the opinions of others.

But if you pay attention deliberately to the criteria, identify things you can do (or not do) to work towards the attainment of them, and devote yourself to developing good relationships with people around the firm then you’re most likely on the right track – irrespective of what criteria might be in the policy itself.