Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: Practical Advice for New Lawyers

Have a burning question about your career? Just send an e-mail here or tweet to @babysharklaw. I will answer in a future post.

Q: I got my performance review. I thought things were fine, but my review was pretty negative. I mostly just listened. I don’t know if I should start looking for another job – and of course, the review didn’t give me information about which lawyers have concerns. How do I find out what I should do?

A: Unfortunately, negative reviews sometimes come as a surprise. And as you note, the comments are typically anonymous. Here are some thoughts on navigating the situation.

  1. Try to stay focused on positive action. It can be easy to become paralyzed by worry in these situations, particularly if you have not received concrete advice about what you need to work on. But rumination will sap your energy and can be an obstacle to making the changes you need to implement. If you find yourself worrying, one question you can ask yourself is whether the worry is productive or unproductive. If it’s unproductive, try to come up with a specific action you can take to improve the situation. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell whether your worry is productive. Here are a couple of tests you may want to try. If your worry is about a specific question that has a definite answer, it is probably productive. One example would be, “Can I get more specific feedback?” If your worry is about an unanswerable cascading series of events, it is probably unproductive. One example would be, “Will I be fired, and if I am fired will I find another job, and if I don’t find another job, will I be evicted, and if I am evicted, will I also have to declare bankruptcy, and if I declare bankruptcy will I lose all my friends?” Okay. You get the point.
  1. Ask for advice. Your firm’s professional development professionals or your mentor may serve as a good sounding board. They may help you come up with concrete actions to clarify the situation and address the issues in your review. You may also want to ask about resources such as individual coaching.
  1. Review the written evaluation objectively. Being as objective as possible, re-read your evaluation. Set aside emotions. And try to approach the process as if you were a reporter trying to identify actions another lawyer needed to take to improve. In other words, try not to focus on whether the comments are fair. And do your best not to take things personally. Stay focused on specific actions the author of the comments might want you to pursue.
  1. Set up appointments with key lawyers. When you have organized your thoughts about addressing the issues in the review, try to schedule time with key lawyers who gave you work. You may want to ease into the process by starting with the lawyer who is likely to be the most supportive. You need to confirm that the steps you have identified are the ones that you need to take. Scheduling the meetings and the meetings themselves may make you anxious. Have them anyway. One of the worst things you can do is isolate yourself. You need to show that you are willing to do everything you can to turn the situation around. That means being careful not to be defensive. A new book from the Practicing Law Institute, An Associate's First Year: A Guide to Thriving at a Law Firm, contains other tips on receiving feedback. Disclosures: I am a contributor, and the book pairs well with Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks.
  1. Remember that losing a lawyer is a last resort. Remember that replacing an attorney is extremely expensive, so it’s generally a last resort. Unless the firm has told you that you need to find another job, the firm is likely to be willing to work with you to get things back on track. But it’s your career, and you have to take the lead.
  1. Redouble your efforts to stay busy. The only way to demonstrate that you have addressed particular issues is to do more work for the people who raised those issues. Even if it is uncomfortable, ask those people for new projects. Your workload may have dwindled because of the issues that came up in your review. And you may not succeed in getting more chances right away. But you need to do whatever you can to get “rehired” by other lawyers at the firm and generate revenue.
  1. Continue to cultivate your network. Developing your substantive skills and expanding your network should be a constant focus throughout your career. But it can be easy to let those things fall by the wayside. Allocate time each week to cultivating and expanding your network. A strong network can be your parachute if you need one.

Good luck!

Join the conversation by submitting questions on Twitter @Babysharklaw or here. Get the new Second Edition of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks here.

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 2d. 2016). Grover specializes in programs to help new 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 and generational issues at leading law firms and schools nationwide. Many 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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