Recently, I listened to Donald Miller’s interview with astronaut Lerry Linenger, who spent five months with two cosmonauts on Russia’s Muir Space Station. Throughout that period, the communications system in the space station was broken, and except for staticky correspondence with Moscow every 90 minutes, Linenger was confined to communicating only with his two Russian comrades. He said there were many days where an exercise in willpower was what got him up and working on the 120 experiments it was their mission to accomplish. Every once in a while, they would receive feedback from Moscow, with information like, “The physicist in the Czech Republic was excited about your findings in yesterday’s experiment.” Statements like this, reflecting the real-world effects of the work he was doing, acted as a catalyst for Linenger, who was encouraged to re-engage in his work. In his interview with Miller, Linenger emphasized, “Words of encouragement really do matter.”
Lawyers Aren’t Very Good about Giving Feedback
Lately, I have been on a journey of self-awareness and self-development. I read The Road Back to You, about a personality-typing system called the Enneagram. I’m currently reading Susan Cain’s Quiet, about some of the differences between introverts and extroverts. It’s been really interesting to better understand various parts of my personality and the driving forces behind my behaviors. But more importantly I’m learning how to be a better version of myself.
I also have a better understanding of the things that are not particularly strong motivators for me. One of those is words of encouragement, which is good because none of the folks I work for a very forthcoming with compliments. And to be fair, neither am I. Based on innumerable conversations I’ve had with other lawyers over the years, it’s pretty safe to assert that we, as a profession, do a pretty poor job of providing feedback to those in subordinate roles.
Here’s an exchange an associate shared with me. At his year-end review with the managing partner, the associate expressed his gratitude for the feedback he’d received from the lawyers he was working for over the previous few months. The managing partner responded, “That’s interesting, because back when I was a new associate, the only way you ever knew if you did good work was if you got more work.” That response pretty closely aligns with my own experience.
This past fall, I tried a case with a partner who gave me the responsibility of doing the opening statement and cross-examining the Plaintiff. I hadn’t previously had an active role at trial this particular partner. Once we were back at the office, another associate asked, “Have you asked how you did?”
Other Associate: “Are you going to?”
Other Associate: “You’re not?! Why?!”
Me: “We’ve got another trial coming up. If she lets me handle more stuff, then I’ll know it went fine. If not, then I guess I’ll have my answer either way.”
Giving Effective Feedback
And that’s how the legal profession has gone about providing feedback from time immemorial. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best way. Usually, if there is to be any feedback, it’s a meeting at the end of the year that’s either a glorified “Atta’ boy, now go bill some more hours,” or something along the lines of, “This isn’t really working for us. We’re not going to fire you (yet), but maybe you should find somewhere else you’d like to work.” This kind of feedback is only marginally helpful. The most effective kind of feedback is timely and specific. Consider these statements from the Office of Personnel Management:
- Timeliness: “Employees should receive information about how they’re doing as timely as possible. If improvement needs to be made in their performance, the sooner they find out about it the sooner they can correct the problem. If employees have reached or exceeded a goal, the sooner they receive positive feedback, the more rewarding it is to them.”
- Specificity: “Telling employees that they are doing well because they exceeded their goal by 10% is more effective than simply saying ‘you’re doing a good job.'”
For associates: Maybe you’re in a situation where the partners you’re working for don’t realize that feedback is desired or an important part of your development. I’ve been fortunate in that while the folks I’ve worked for may not be naturally inclined toward encouraging words, their doors have always been open so we can talk through things, whether its case-specific issues or daily operations and case management. If you find that your superiors aren’t providing the sort of commentary on your performance you’d like, maybe you can initiate those conversations.
For partners: Your associates need to know how they’re measuring up. They need to hear from you whether they’re meeting expectations and what they can do to improve. If you want to put them in the best position to succeed, your associates need specific, measurable goals that will create the opportunity for you to give performance feedback. Some will have the vision and assertiveness to set goals for themselves for purposes of self-evaluation and development. More will not.
Photo by Alan Levine.