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Seeking effective feedback from supervisors is essential in legal career development

Seeking effective feedback from supervisors is essential in legal career development

By John Glynn

In order to excel in the legal profession, lawyers must develop professional goals to seek and receive feedback effectively from supervisors and colleagues, experts said during an American Bar Association Career Center panel on “Motivating Your Supervisors to Give It to You Straight.”

“When we talk about feedback, we are not talking about the feedback you may or may not get in a performance evaluation,” said Kathy Morris, founder of Under Advisement Ltd. “We are talking about getting feedback before you receive assignments, while you’re working on the assignment, after the engagement and so forth.”

Lawyers should develop a strategy of asking for feedback or advice about handling a particular task in advance when working on projects. Ideally, lawyers should develop specific questions that demonstrate that they thought things through.

“For example, ‘I’ve tried two versions of a story or preliminary versions for a brief. Could you take a quick look and tell me what you think?’” said Steve Armstrong, principal of Firm Leader Inc. “If you get into that habit, it shows a certain kind of ambitiousness and forward-looking attitude that shows you are working toward certain developmental goals rather than just an open-ended way of asking how did I do.”

It is also a good idea to seek feedback from clients, as long as you follow your firm’s protocol.

“If you’re in a large firm where there is a more senior lawyer who is the actual client contact, you’d have to talk to them before you seek feedback from the client,” said Sue Manch, firmwide director of learning and development at Bingham McCutchen LLP. “But if it is your client or you’re working with a client on a regular basis, it is a great opportunity to ask ‘Is this the information you needed?’ or ‘Was this helpful?’”

Lawyers should be sure to stay confident and seek feedback with a  customer service mindset, Manch said.

Occasionally, lawyers will face feedback that may be overly harsh, unfair or unwarranted.

“The trick is to swallow your sense of injustice — swallow your anger. Focus instead on what you need to get out of the conversation, which is to build your reputation by the way you handle those things and respond to the not entirely fair feedback,” Armstrong said. “If you try to get into an argument and debate the issue, you’re going to lose by definition and you will not be strengthening the relationship.”

Lawyers should understand how to handle situations when the feedback is falsely attributed to them.

“If the feedback is based on a factual mistake — you’re not actually the person who fell down drunk at the holiday party, or you didn’t actually miss the filing deadline despite what the person has heard  —you obviously need to step up and correct that,” Armstrong said. “Address it not defensively, with a smile on your face, and do it nonaggressively.”

Lawyers should listen, take feedback constructively and ask questions.

“It’s perfectly fine to say you would like to think about this and how you want to respond to it, and you would like to have a second conversation,” Armstrong said.

In order to receive useful feedback, lawyers must identify their professional development goals.

“One of the best practices is that if you want to get more feedback, you need to know your own development goals,” Manch said. “The more self-aware you are of your personal career goals, the more likely it is that you will ask for feedback and the more likely a supervisor can target it effectively.”

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