By Alain Villeneuve
Chapter 2: The Annual Review
As a young associate making my way to partnership, each year in the early fall, I felt myself slowly become more agitated and a feeling of unease arose within me. Routine criticisms about my response times, my legal work, or even clerical mistakes somehow punched deeper under the armor. I figured it was due to the arrival of fall or the workload of the yearly billable hour clock about to hit noon.
Being promoted to partner did not resolve the problem; in fact, it was just exacerbated. After years of therapy, I was finally able to pinpoint the source of my unrest and put a name to this inner demon: The Annual Review.
Numbers do not lie. Some experts have found the LGBTQ community is at most 7% of the population. Since high school, I slowly managed to increase the proportion of LGBT people around me. On social media I joined LGBTQ groups, and my network of friends is almost exclusively from my community. But, at work there is no hiding the fact most everyone around me is not LGBTQ. In fact, at a minimum, 93% of my work colleagues are straight. That number in large law firms can reach a whopping 98-99%.
At the time of the annual review, even in the most diversified of firms, almost everyone entering reviews for me is different from me in this fundamental way. Straight associates are reviewed almost entirely by straight lawyers, but LGBTQ associates are also reviewed almost exclusively by straight lawyers. These reviewers are then asked to converge into a computer system and give their opinions. It is natural to fear this process.
But, each year, to my surprise a strange thing happens. I resent and worry about the process, feel vulnerable, brace myself for the worst outcome, and with amazed relief, each time the review comes back positive. The annual review feels to me like a six-month wait for a cancer screening. My mind braces for discrimination and strangely, like a tornado warning, it leaves in silence without destruction. Each year I tell myself next fall will be different and each year the problem is back.
I know as a diverse associate, this annual feeling of powerlessness adds to the heavy workload and stress facing you. Why do I fear these reviews so damn much? My experience shows me that it makes no sense. And yet, my mind inevitably goes directly to imagining the worst possible outcome.
Unlike work criticism, discrimination hurts on a much deeper level. It does so for a simple reason: discrimination attacks who you are and not what you do. It chips away the fabric of your inner self. The same way you cannot force another to fall in love with you, it is impossible to fix any problem at work based on bias, discrimination or personal animus. If your work was shoddy or rushed, you know the problem and can fix it. Discrimination or bias is a different beast.
Diverse attorneys must triage any criticism. They ask themselves, “Is this poor, fixable performance or bias?” I won’t lie, the months before my annual review, I tend to slide more things into the “bias” column than the “poor performance” category. Then I put names to my fear. Let’s not kid ourselves, I won’t pretend to fix this problem, the world is what it is and honestly these odds are what they are. But, at a minimum, what we can do is see this problem as it approaches. At my first firm, the review came in November, and at the second it took place in February. Each time, I would start being rather insecure 2-3 months before the review. This feeling actually got better weeks before the results. What you need to do is to perceive and quantify the unease you’re experiencing so you can better name it and manage it. I had a calendar and I would put a red marker on the day of the review.
So next time you get nervous, anxious, and feel like you are frustrated by negative feedback, ask yourself what time of year it is. If you are close to your review, I have a little tip. I love the real Starbucks coffee from across the street—its half-decaf triple lattes, the non-fat kind. The drink is nothing short of $6, which I reserve for my special occasions. So, in the two months leading up to my review, each time that I get something that sends me to a bad place I simply grab my coat and walk to Starbucks without my cell phone. Don’t bring the emails along. Give this 30 minutes, that’s all.
*This blog post series has been created to celebrate Pride.