I am not sure why senior lawyers aren’t giving their junior lawyers more useful feedback. After all, we know:
- how important it is for lawyers to get everything right and manage risk
- how important it is to work efficiently, particularly given fee pressure from clients
- how important it is for people to be motivated, so they give their best.
Surely senior lawyers can be playing a more active role in coaching and giving feedback? The alternative is to do nothing, take a view that the other person is incompetent and just not work with them in future. That’s such a waste of talent and potentially rather hurtful to the junior lawyer.
When I deliver workshops on this topic, I ask lawyers to remember back to times when they’ve received feedback. I ask what the other person did when the feedback was helpful and motivating and what they did when it was unhelpful and demotivating. I usually get a list a bit like this:
- The feedback needs to be balanced – we need to hear positive feedback to be able to take on board negative feedback. Otherwise we tend to argue back, saying something like ‘but I only did it like that because…..’
- The feedback needs to be specific – otherwise it isn’t heard or understood. To hear ‘I didn’t like how you presented in the client meeting’ isn’t helpful. But to hear ‘ I noticed that the client looked confused and asked lots of questions when you presented the financing options’ would usually be more helpful.
- The feedback should be provided in a timely fashion – not ‘in that meeting a year ago…..’ when it’s highly likely you’ve forgotten the details
- The feedback should be factual – not judgmental. To hear ‘you are slow’ is potentially demotivating. The statement ‘the draft document was expected on Thursday and you delivered it on Friday’ is not judgemental .
- Feedback needs to be delivered in manageable chunks – otherwise key points are likely to be missed. If you find yourself saying ‘…. And the 92nd point I want to make is….’, you know you’re risking over doing it!
- Another important point is that a good feedback review meeting should include checking out that the feedback has been understood.
- A final point is that, in more sophisticated practices (such as the Big 4 accounting firms), the culture might allow the feedback process and content to be more controlled by the learner. The supervisor might ask at the start of a project ‘what role would you like to play?’, ‘What support would you like from me?’ and ‘What would you like feedback on?’
This is a good list. It shows that lawyers know what works for them and what doesn’t work. They know in their heads how to give feedback. So what’s stopping them giving it?
Giving Difficult Messages
During my workshops I’m invariably asked how to give difficult messages. I think it is widely recognised that many lawyers might seem super confident, but deep down they can be rather fragile.
The first thing I say is that it makes a big difference if you are motivated by a genuine desire to help. What I see happening a good deal day-to-day isn’t really feedback – it’s the more senior lawyer venting their frustrations! My advice is not to do that if you want to help the other person. Go home and punch a few cushions to get any annoyance out of your system. Prepare your feedback session and have an unemotional and constructive discussion the next day.
Then I would seek the recipient’s views on how things went. I would specifically ask ‘what went well’ and ‘what they might have done differently’. On at least half the occasions, they say what I was going to say. So that makes the whole conversation a lot easier.
Ideally negative points should be sandwiched between positive points. For example you might start by talking about doing a good job here, then point out that this area needs work, and finish by saying well done for doing that. But this approach needs to be genuine. A junior lawyer can tell if you’re just using this as a technique and not meaning it. Your positive points need to be heart-felt and real.
If recipients push back and deny there is a problem, they may have a lack of self-confidence. Show you value their work and express confidence they can deal with the issue.
Once the issues have been raised, a joint discussion needs to be held on what could be done differently in future. What tends to happen in real life is the senior lawyer tells the junior what to do differently. This doesn’t work as well because it doesn’t generate as much ownership of the solution. Senior lawyers would benefit from asking before telling.
But you need to be realistic. Some conversations, for whatever reasons, are likely to fail however well they are planned. Balance your effort to deal with the problem and maintain the relationship – not an easy task!
A Process for Giving Feedback
So in a nutshell, here’s my suggested process for having a constructive feedback discussion:
- Prepare beforehand
- Ask for recipient’s views on what was done well and what could have been done differently
- Deliver your comments (balanced, specific etc)
- Discuss jointly ways of changing performance
- Check understanding, commitment and confidence
So Why Don’t Lawyers Give Constructive Feedback
I think several factors are at play here.
1. The culture in law firms doesn’t encourage it – their boss didn’t give it to them and we all tend to model the behaviour of our seniors
2. Junior lawyers don’t ask for feedback – like most human beings they judge that it might be better to imagine how you’re doing rather than risk being told
3. Senior lawyers fear that the conversation might be difficult. Emotions might get raised.
But now we know how to do it, let’s see more conversations offering constructive feedback in law firms. Partners should lead by example. It may take a few minutes, but it will lead to a greater transfer of knowledge and skills and lead to less time wasting in future. After all, an important part of the role of senior lawyers is to develop the talent of the junior lawyers.