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June 28, 2023

The Thriving Lawyer: Transform Performance Stress into Retention Success

Anne E. Collier
Point out the positive and the negative to reduce the sting of critical feedback.

Point out the positive and the negative to reduce the sting of critical feedback.

John Wildgoose via Getty Images

If you’ve ever led a team, worked with associates or hired consultants, you’ve likely been disappointed, frustrated or even irritated because someone dropped the ball or delivered poor quality work. This person let you down, causing you to agonize as you hustled to pick up the slack. You’ve addressed your concerns on numerous occasions but have been met with defensiveness, placations or blank stares. Nothing changes, and you are about to give up on the person. Why doesn’t this person understand your expectations or care about meeting them? They should know.

There can be many reasons for the underperformance, none of which change the fact that there is a problem: You are not getting what you need. The phrase paralyzed by perfection describes many who are new to the practice of law. They trip over their desire to avoid failure and consequently procrastinate as they try to figure out how to deliver perfection. They get behind. The sense of overwhelm derails efforts to get back on track. They are afraid to ask questions because they are already “in trouble.” That discomfort only makes things worse as they avoid you. 

Then there are the disorganized but well-intended. These people mean well—they want to be team players but take on too much, failing to deliver quality, timely work. To relieve the stress of too much work, they develop “check-off-the-list syndrome.” They finish work as quickly as possible without regard for the quality of work or whether the work meets your needs. The ranks of the disorganized but well-intended can include partners, namely those who find themselves with management responsibility but haven’t learned how to effectively delegate. The basic problem is that the lawyer isn’t slowing down to self-organize and thoughtfully define the end product and manage workload.

Those who personify the phrase myopic but salvageable miss the big picture. They have the skills to succeed but haven’t fully matured as lawyers. Partners expect these lawyers—senior associates—to understand client needs, but don’t take the time to teach context, nuances and how the associate’s work fits into the larger scope of service to the client. When frustration reaches critical mass, the associate is written off as “not getting it.” The rub: The associates are on the precipice of being quite valuable, but because they don’t know what they don’t know, they can’t possibly ask the right questions to learn what they need to know to move their part of the project forward.

The paycheck collector is happy to collect a paycheck but not all that interested in providing service or meeting client needs. Related, but less nefarious, is disinterested and discontented. These people likely went to law school because they did not know what else to do after college and may have even enjoyed continuing their education but aren’t all that interested in practicing law.

Before rashly pronouncing that you’ll never use that associate again, remember that you need a team to serve clients; good associates are hard to find; and good lawyers require training, mentoring, and the opportunity to learn from successes and mistakes. And, before you say to yourself, “I don’t have time for this,” remember that you can’t possibly do it all on your own unless you are satisfied with a smaller practice or no sleep. If you want to build a practice, you have little choice but to develop the people who will make that possible.

6 Steps to Rescue Talent From The Abyss of Absent Management

If you aren’t getting what you need, it’s incumbent upon you to address it, notwithstanding your discomfort giving feedback. The discomfort can stem from the desire to avoid the self-assessment that you are a mean person, enduring the recipient’s (over)reaction or taking the time. You cannot control another’s defensiveness or overreactions. Nobody can. What you can do is provide the clarity, support, and objective feedback that can mitigate the reaction and improve the likelihood of success. It is vital that the feedback be positioned objectively because an objective measure of performance depersonalizes the associate’s underperformance by focusing on the performance—not the person—and objective standards—not your opinion. The point is to depersonalize the process so the focus remains objectively on the work. These steps can help you do just that.

  1. Clarify work product expectations. A mere “what and by when” are sufficient only when the associate is consistently delivering what you expect. If not, provide examples. Time spent early in the process ultimately saves time and reduces frustration. This is particularly important with the paralyzed by perfection.
  2. Provide context. Providing the big picture, complete with a robust description of how the associate’s work contributes to the client’s success, is essential to the associate taking ownership of the matter, delivering high-quality work and growing as a professional. This is how you salvage the seemingly myopic but salvageable associate.
  3. Master the 10-minute touch base. Especially with more junior associates and for those you recognize as paralyzed by perfection, regular engagement to review progress and provide input is critical. If you just cringed at the thought of the time this will take, consider that a few 10-minute conversations to talk through an associate’s thinking and analysis is a fraction of the time you won’t spend redoing the work. Not only does this level of engagement early on minimize the likelihood of suboptimal work product, but regular engagement will reduce the associate’s perfection-induced paralysis.
  4. Assume a calm demeanor. Your goal is to address concerns in a manner most likely to result in a better work product. Especially with paralyzed by perfection, creating a calm, safe learning environment can help the associate gain the confidence needed to move forward. Use neutral language and don’t rush. Coach the associate to identify and remove barriers to successful performance.
  5. Depersonalize but empathize. Reinforce the nonpersonal nature of the feedback process by focusing on client needs. It isn’t about personalities or personal. Don’t forget to express appreciation and acknowledge the challenge presented by the project.
  6. Debrief after every project. This normalizes objectively evaluating both process and outcomes. It also reinforces that openly discussing “opportunities for improvement” is just what you do and part of the process. Point out the positive and the negative to reduce the sting of critical feedback. Convey that it’s about the work and the outcome—not the person.

Some will appreciate your investment in them, develop and stay at the firm. Others will decide the firm (or the practice of law) isn’t a fit for them. Expect both results and either way, you’ve dealt with the underperformance and are on your way to getting work done in a more efficient manner as you boost retention of associates who can deliver and make those who do not succeed as helpful as possible while they are with you. 

Anne E. Collier

CEO, Arudia

Anne E. Collier, MPP, JD, Professional Certified Coach, is the CEO of Arudia, a firm dedicated to improving leadership, culture, collaboration and communication. She is an expert leadership coach steadfast in her commitment to excellence and her clients’ goals. She coaches and delivers programming designed to support individuals, teams and organizations in amplifying their accomplishments. With confidence, intentionality and resilience, individuals and organizations alike manifest the extraordinary as they actualize greater financial stability and outcomes. [email protected]

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