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Feedback – why it matters

Feedback – why it matters

Matthew Dow

05/11/2019

For any role in the legal sector, you will almost certainly receive feedback on your performance. Therefore, knowing when to request feedback, how to successfully navigate constructive criticism and how to provide effective feedback for others is a key attribute of talented lawyers.

What does feedback look like at law firms?

Feedback can take many forms at law firms.

For instance, you may be subject to an annual appraisal, probation reports and written feedback from colleagues. Furthermore, you will often experience reviews of your performance from your supervisors during scheduled one-to-one meetings, ad hoc discussions or through a formal written summary.

Not just your supervisor

It is also not unusual to receive feedback from those that you supervise. In addition, employees that you collaborate with on projects or firm-wide groups that you participate in may have some input into your overall performance assessment. This feedback can help provide objectives for you to attain that extend beyond your day-to-day routine.

Elsewhere, you will commonly see ‘360-degree’ feedback, where anyone can anonymously make feedback suggestions by email. Alternatively, your firm may permit you to filter your feedback respondents to a preferred/logical selection.

In recent years, feedback has also been given via virtual internships. For example, on a particular virtual internship, attendees create a presentation, amend a non-disclosure agreement and even leave a voicemail message. After completing these tasks, candidates are shown an example of a strong piece of work done by the firm’s lawyers. Candidates are then expected to compare their performance to this example and find ways to improve on a subsequent attempt.

Self-assessment – not just for tax

Providing self-feedback is a key part of modern HR approaches. To avoid accusations of bias, key public and consistent objectives are applied. The individual will be expected to truthfully analyse themselves in relation to these identified HR metrics.

This introspection process is an interesting exercise. Self-reflection reveals whether the individual is self-aware and can suitably identify potential improvements. Moreover, personal analysis provides a yardstick to compare the multiple viewpoints of colleagues regarding the same agreed performance criteria.

Feedback on your work – the real feedback

Inevitably, you will also receive feedback following your work. This feedback may not be official ‘feedback’ – for example a gold star or ‘A’ grade that can be put on a form. Rather, your feedback is every response that you receive once your work has been submitted.

For instance, were significant changes made by a supervisor? Did a colleague comment on the typos that you missed? On the positive side, was that report quickly approved by the partner and sent to the client? These responses are all forms of indirect feedback that you should be noting as ways to improve in the future.

The ways of getting feedback

Admittedly, the quality of feedback that you receive will vary. Providing good feedback is ultimately a skill. Not everyone (myself often included) possesses that ability.

Sometimes, you may feel that you have received clear instructions for the future – guidance that will help you to build the most complex invention if demanded. Other times, well… you may feel that you are rubbernecking at an abstract painting – trying to figure out if it’s a dinosaur or a critical evaluation of your latest draft.

Many partners have been known to just strike red pen through their trainees’ work and send it back to them. No context – it is up to you to figure out the changes yourself. Friendlier individuals may escort you through the ways to improve the quality of your work or tailor to house styles.

When faced with copious red ink, it is easy to become disheartened. Nonetheless, feedback, even constructive feedback, is essential to your career success.

Positive feedback

Positive feedback can be incredibly rewarding to receive. If you have worked hard on a task and your performance is acknowledged by the stakeholders involved, this can provide real job satisfaction. In addition, knowing that a specific stakeholder was impressed by your presentation can help identify the individuals that may be interested in offering you extra or more intriguing work.

The benefits of recognition through feedback also apply the other way round. If somebody has assisted you in a task and performed exemplarily, make sure you let them know. This will build up your network within the firm and foster a positive culture on your projects.

Furthermore, written feedback is a useful demonstration of required competencies, such as management, organisation and communication, ahead of any promotion request. Moreover, a positive public review may get you recognised by colleagues with similar interests and provide additional opportunities for collaboration.

Negative feedback

Although positive feedback is pleasant to receive, negative feedback is perhaps more valuable.

Ultimately, as a lawyer, you are in the service sector. Therefore, if the service that you provide is not meeting the needs of your client, colleagues or superiors, it is worthwhile knowing that information. Once you are aware of what you need to change, you can adjust and provide a better service.

Feedback will help you to adapt your work in the future – hopefully producing a better-quality output. Further, you can customise work to the tailored demands of the individual requesting it, rather than just producing another standard product.

Importantly, if the critical feedback that you receive is perhaps unjust or miscommunicated, you can also clarify expectations. For example, what was it that your supervisor actually wanted to be produced? Why was your approach to that research task not correct? Did Person A know this information when they requested the report? If so, would they have reacted differently?

Taking on board feedback, rather than dismissing it, can provide additional context that may build a better working relationship and understanding between colleagues going forward.

Seeking feedback

The legal sector is better than most sectors at providing feedback.

For example, for junior lawyers, there is usually a structured period of recognised training to complete and be assessed by. Moreover, the reality of restricted newly qualified positions means that feedback is regularly provided to distinguish between candidates. Further, the fact that trainees rarely know what they are doing at first means that there is an incentive to train junior lawyers to a position of competence. Effective feedback is the only way to achieve this.

However, useful feedback is not guaranteed.

Those providing feedback will have a range of experience, time pressures and different viewpoints. Therefore, always listen, but do not absorb anything uncritically. Also, you may have to actively request feedback or mutually schedule time in your colleague’s diary for more extensive discussion of your performance. Failing to obtain this important source of professional growth is a missed opportunity.

Responding to and giving feedback

The feedback that you receive may suggest possible improvements. Upon hearing this, there is a natural human tendency to become defensive or perhaps notice potential hypocrisy.

However, feedback is part of the process of learning legal skills. Instead of taking criticism personally, consider how this feedback can be helpful. For instance, it can help you to better understand the individual you have collaborated with. Their advice may also save you time in the future. With this inspired attitude, you will be able to absorb critiques to enhance your performance, rather than become disheartened.

The same process applies when providing feedback to others. Unfettered criticism grants little benefit, other than letting off steam. Moreover, angry tones or harsh comments are more likely to sour future collaboration. Waiting for the problems to build up and then unloading an essay of suggestions rarely works either.

Similarly, kid-glove treatment that avoids the core issues does not do favours. Somewhere in between is usually the best course – remembering that the aim is to be helpful. Ultimately, appraisals should not offer surprises and you should be able to improve your performance on a daily basis – honest, fair, regular feedback is the best way to do this.

Conclusion

Feedback is an intrinsic part of developing your legal skills. At the beginning of your career feedback may be regular, stylistic and sometimes hard to take. Nonetheless, use any feedback as an opportunity to learn, rather than an expression of your failure. Moreover, search out constructive advice whenever you can.

This is because frequent feedback remains the best means of enhancing your performance, as well as understanding others' expectations, requirements and preferences.