Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: Practical Advice for New Lawyers

Q: When I asked a lawyer for feedback on my work, the lawyer just said that it was “fine.” But when I got my review, the lawyer had given very specific negative feedback. What is going on?

A: Providing any feedback consumes precious time. Providing negative feedback can also be awkward – even for the most intrepid lawyers. Unfortunately, this lawyer decided to skip out on giving feedback by being less than frank.

Was this poor form? Yes. Inconceivable? No. Consider this story of a partner who once asked my advice about giving feedback to an associate.

A mid-level associate had recently joined the firm as a lateral. He had been asking the partner for work, and during those conversations had explained his credentials and past experience. He expressed significant confidence in his abilities.

The partner decided to go beyond her usual stable of associates and gave the lateral a project. They discussed it at length, and he assured her he was up to the task. When he had completed the project, the associate turned it in with much bravado. It was clear he thought his work was stellar.

When the partner reviewed the lateral’s work, she had a far different perspective. She thought the work was almost useless. The associate had analyzed issues at length that had little relevance. Worse still, he left critical questions untouched. To meet the client’s deadline, she ended up redoing the entire project herself.

The partner knew she should give feedback to the associate. But disincentives swarmed.

She was extremely busy, and redoing the associate’s work had put her even farther behind. Dissecting his work to provide advice would take still more time – time that wasn’t billable. She also did not want to hurt his feelings. She wondered if the associate would become defensive, which would be awkward and consume still more time. And given the associate’s demeanor when he turned in the project, she thought he might just ignore her advice.

Despite all this, she decided she had to give feedback. But for any lawyer in her situation, the easiest option can be to say nothing (or “it was fine”) – and move on. That is how associates end up without work and don’t know why.

To increase the likelihood that you will get feedback, ask for it after every project. Check in as soon as possible after you have completed an assignment. As time passes, memories fade and feedback seems less important.

Start by reviewing the final product and comparing it to your work. You need to understand every change the senior lawyer made to your work. Asking the senior lawyer to review the changes helps take any awkwardness out of the discussion. Scheduling a time makes it more likely to happen. If you can’t schedule something right away, be politely persistent.

Comparing your work to the final product and developing an organized list of questions will make the process easier and less time-consuming for senior lawyers.

Asking about specific aspects of your work and ways you could improve the work will help you get the most useful information. “How could I make this better?” (One wonders if the lawyer who responded that the work was “fine” would have been brazen enough to say that “nothing” could improve it.)

Specific questions also help show that you are eager to learn – and that you will be less likely to have a negative reaction to constructive criticism. Also try to make sure your demeanor doesn’t suggest that you are prone to blow up or melt down.

Remember that how you respond to constructive criticism is itself likely to be on your firm’s list of associate evaluation criteria.

At the outset of a new project for the same lawyer, consider asking for suggestions based your prior work: “Is there anything you think I should do differently this time?”

Finally, thank lawyers for their time and advice. When it appears that you appreciate feedback and want to learn, senior lawyers are more likely to want to invest in your career.

Good luck.

Grover E. Cleveland is huge fan of Ms. JD. He is also a Seattle lawyer, speaker and author of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer (West 2010). 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 new lawyer career success at law schools and firms nationwide. Some of the questions in this column come from those presentations. 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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