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How to Ace Performance Reviews for Paralegals

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"Every time I sit down for a review with my boss, I feel like a deer caught in the headlights. Talking about myself makes me incredibly uncomfortable, so I can go the whole hour without saying a word. My boss will ramble on and on, and I'll just sit there and nod dumbly like an idiot. When he's done, he'll push the review in front of me and ask me to sign it. I'll do it, no questions asked, but as soon as I leave the room, I'll think of 20 things I should have gotten off my chest before signing that paper. By then, though, it's too late."
- Debbie, 23, Texas

Most paralegals become fearful and stressed when it comes time for performance reviews. This is because the review is, by nature, an uncomfortable and contrived process. In most companies, reviews happen once or twice a year, and, during this time, every employee is forced to sit in a room with his boss and talk turkey about how he's progressed and how he's screwed up. Performance review documentation is notorious for being generic and vague, complete with ratings that are totally subjective and impossible to measure.
Unfortunately, many reviews also take place in a vacuum: the items discussed are often not mentioned again until the next review. Twenty-something’s may perceive reviews as yet another bureaucratic exercise that wastes valuable time and need not be taken seriously. However, for all its flaws, the performance review is the only door to promotion inside much of the business world, so you must take advantage of it if you want to get ahead.
If you don't care about your review, no one else will. The worst thing you can do for your career is to go through the process passively. Whether your company's review cycle takes place annually or biannually, your preparation should typically start weeks before. Think of your review as an opportunity to sell your manager on your value to the company. If you've mapped out clear career goals, and you and your boss have discussed them on an ongoing basis, you'll have a great head start. Take your last review out of the file cabinet and dust it off. Look at the goals and/or action steps outlined last time around, and gather facts to support how you've progressed in each area. Brainstorm concrete examples that illustrate outstanding performance, and practice communicating them so they're on the tip of your tongue. Then make a list of all the things you would like to cover in the review meeting, independent of your manager's agenda. Your objectives will probably include soliciting feedback on your progress, identifying new goals and growth opportunities, and hammering out a long-term promotion plan. This last item is particularly important. While you can't reasonably expect to be promoted after every review, you should at least leave with an understanding of where your current responsibilities are leading.
When it comes time for the actual review, make sure your boss gives it to you. This may sound ridiculous, but you'd be surprised how many companies will allow managers to get away with skipping the review process entirely. After all, bosses are busy, and employee reviews are not on the top of their list of priorities. Remember, though, that it's your right to request a timely appraisal.
During the meeting itself, maintain a good balance between listening to what your legal hiring manager has to say and playing an active role in the conversation. Just because your boss offers constructive criticism doesn't mean you won't get a promotion or a raise, so keep your defensiveness to a minimum. Even though a casual chitchat session might be more comfortable and fun than a serious conversation about your career aspirations, insist on getting through your objectives for the meeting. To paraphrase career author Harry Chambers, your performance review is your best-if not your only-opportunity to get a clear understanding of how you are perceived and what you need to do to ensure your future success.
Don't be afraid to ask questions about your boss's feedback, and make sure you read over your written review carefully before signing it. Once the cycle is complete, your manager might be perfectly happy to forget about your performance for the next five or 11 months. Don't let her. Be proactive about setting up regular meetings to review your progress, address potential problems, and incorporate new responsibilities and priorities into the master plan. If you keep the lines of communication open, nothing that comes up in your next review will be a surprise. Who knows, maybe you'll even look forward to it!

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