Communications: Tips on giving feedback to associates

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As the year draws to a close, associates will be receiving their annual performance reviews.  How they receive that information will depend in large part on whether the review takes them by surprise or confirms the feedback they have been receiving all year.

Giving feedback to junior attorneys is an essential part of being a more seasoned lawyer.  Every time we convey to someone how they have performed on a task, it is an opportunity to not only develop that person professionally, but to build a relationship that says, “My job as a more experienced attorney is to help you grow and become a better lawyer.”  The tone of the conversation conveys that point.

Feedback is most helpful to your associates if it is delivered in a consistent manner, with clear expectations on both sides about the purpose of the conversation. The first

expectation should be that feedback will be given every time someone completes an

assignment, and as soon as possible after the assignment is complete. Whether you are

giving the feedback immediately, in a few hours, or in a few days, when you return a document to a junior attorney marked up with your comments, the conversation should sound like this.

Here’s the red-lined document.  Don’t panic when you see the changes.  When we meet, I will show you what changes are stylistic and what changes are substantive.  Let’s schedule some time for later in the week.  Then, schedule some time with her for the next few days, even if only 15 minutes.  You can’t expect someone to perform better if you don’t show them what “better” means.

When you do have a chance to review the work-product with the associate, consider following these steps.

  1. Raise a specific issue.I’d like to go over with you the memo you prepared on the Acme matter.
  2. Ask permission before you explain.Is now a good time?  The answer will probably be “yes,” but you don’t want to take time giving someone feedback if he or she is focused on meeting an imminent deadline.  If the associate can’t meet at that time, she doesn’t get off the hook.  Ask, When would be a good time later today?  I think it will take __ minutes.
  3. Give the big picture.  Let’s assume the associate is available to meet with you.  Start by providing the feedback in context.  Overall, I think you did a great job.  I just have some comments on a few specific issues.  Or, The document really missed the mark, and I want to find out if I didn’t explain the issue well or where the disconnect happened.  Or, you did a great job explaining the law, but I didn’t quite follow how you connected it to the facts of our case.

Make sure the associate has a context for how she is going to hear the rest of the feedback.  She needs to know up front whether the work was a 90 percent success or a complete disaster.  The associate also needs to know that your job is to develop her as an attorney.  Once you begin getting into the details, you may need to say the words, My job is to make sure you are gaining these skills.  That’s why we are going to go over this.  I want to make sure the next time you hand something to a partner, it’s exactly what they are looking for.

  1. Identify successes and challenges. Let the associate know what worked well and what didn’t.  We often just point out the negative.  Comment on specific things that the person did well.  Very often in life we do things really well completely by accident.  Let the associate know that the structure of the document, or the word choice in a few instances, or the clarity of the message were positive elements of the work-product.  Then, of course, let her know how she could improve, using specific examples in her document.  If the feedback addresses how an associate performed in a client meeting or on a conference call with the client, give specific examples of what you are talking about.  When you addressed the settlement options, you said the same thing three different ways.  Then quote the language she used.  The specific comments are much more helpful than saying: You tend to be too repetitive.
  2. Solve the problem collaboratively. Your job is to help develop the junior attorney.  Ask what steps you think she can take to improve her performance.  Then offer your own advice.  Obviously, the options will depend on the nature of the individual’s challenge.  She may need to attend a writing course or a communication skills course.  You may need to meet with her after the first draft of the next document to make sure she is on the right track.  You may need to give her other samples of similar work-product so that she has a guide.
  3. Establish clear next steps. It should be evident at the end of the meeting, who needs to do what by when in order for the person to improve.  So, you will investigate some options for a legal writing class either online or through the local bar. I will look for additional samples for you to review. Most of the initiative should be left to the person who needs development.

Ultimately, we are each responsible for our own professional development.  You can’t make junior associates better attorneys.  You can only give them the guidance they need with the tone that conveys your sense of commitment to them.  If you give sound advice for development and convey that you are truly invested in their success as attorneys, you have done a great job in conveying effective feedback.

Jay Sullivan, a former practicing attorney, is a partner at Exec|Comm, a communications consulting firm, where he heads the firm’s Law Firm Group.  He can be reached at [email protected].

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