Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: Practical Advice for New Lawyers

Q: I received some negative feedback from a partner, and I thought it was completely unfair. Not surprisingly our conversation didn’t go well. Any advice on dealing with this in the future?

A: Yes. Negative feedback can be difficult to hear. But it is one of the best ways to get information about what you need to learn and to do differently.

You don’t have to accept feedback. But if you don’t, you can make the situation worse. At most firms, the way associates handle feedback is a separate evaluation criterion. From the perspective of the person giving feedback, if you cause a problem and then reject the feedback, you have done two things wrong.

Some people are better at giving feedback than others, and firms can be high-stress environments. Thus, the feedback you receive may not seem constructive or fair. And the tone may not be measured.

Despite this, try to stay focused on how you can benefit the most from the discussion. Venting may be hard to resist in the heat of the moment. But venting (or having a meltdown) can keep you from learning.

Even if something was not entirely your fault, you had some role. Focusing on your contribution to the situation – and what you could do differently – will give you the best chance to grow as a lawyer.

As Randy Pausch said, “Experience is what you get when you didn't get what you wanted.”

Here are some tips to make discussions about negative feedback – and other difficult conversations with senior lawyers – more productive:

  1. Discuss in person. You should almost always have difficult discussions in person. Body language and other cues will give you much more information about the most productive way to respond. Having a discussion in person also shows that the conversation is important to you.
  1. Acknowledge the hierarchy. Don’t grovel, but show you respect the power and status difference. One way to do this – as difficult as it may be – is to thank the partner for the feedback. That can help the rest of the conversation go more smoothly.
  1. Give yourself time to collect your thoughts. If a conversation becomes emotional, take a time-out. When you are on the verge of saying or doing something that you might regret, try saying something like, “I would like to continue our conversation after I have thought about this more.” Then take some time, gather your thoughts, and schedule a follow up meeting. Before the meeting, think about the best possible outcome that could come from the conversation. Then think about what you could do to achieve that result.
  1. Listen. If the other person sees you are listening carefully, that can reduce the tension in the conversation.
  1. Don’t personalize. When someone is criticizing you or your work, it can be hard not to take it personally. But stay focused on discovering specific things you could change.
  1. Try to understand the other person’s perspective. Try to imagine how the other person feels. Understanding the other person’s perspective should give you insights about the best way to respond and steer the conversation to the best result.
  1. Be open to learning. Learn what the other person wants and thinks. Make an effort to understand exactly why the other person believes there was a problem. And ask for specific suggestions. You will learn much more if you are curious and not defensive.
  1. Instead of blaming, ask for advice. If someone else had a role in the problem, ask the senior lawyer for advice about handling your situation. Try to frame the question in terms of ensuring that the problem does not recur. For example, if someone gave you documents at the last minute, you might ask, “In the future, do you have suggestions on what I can do to make sure I get the documents on time?”

These situations can give you the choice to be proud or to learn. Learning will benefit you the most in the long run.

Good luck!

(And if you are a millennial lawyer, help us help you: Complete this 2-3 minute survey on recruiting and retention!)

Grover E. Cleveland is a Seattle lawyer, speaker and author of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer (West 2010). Grover specializes in programs to help millennial lawyers successfully transition from law school to practice, helping them provide more value and avoid common mistakes. He is a former partner at Foster Pepper PLLC, one of the Northwest’s larger firms. His clients included the Seattle Seahawks and other entities owned by Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen. Grover is a frequent presenter on lawyer career success for millennial lawyers at leading law firms and schools nationwide. Some of the questions in this column come from those programs. Readers may submit questions here or follow him on Twitter @Babysharklaw. He is not related to the 22nd and 24th President of the United States.


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