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If you’ve ever had someone say to you, “Come in here and shut the door,” because you “need some feedback” on that project you just finished, you may have an instant aversion to the word “feedback.” For many of us, it’s a synonym for “criticism” or “blame.”
And really, who needs that?
Misunderstanding what feedback is and how it works keeps many lawyers from using this powerful tool to improve their practices. The real concept is simple: Take the end product of a process or system (like work product, personal performance, client satisfaction and so forth), get feedback about the product — constructive information about what works and what needs correction — and use that feedback to make necessary changes to the system so the end product improves.
Knowing what feedback is not also helps you understand why it is useful. Blaming isn’t feedback. Blaming is a monologue, and it’s an end in itself. Fault for a mistake or bad outcome is assigned, the receiver responds only at his peril — and that’s the end of it. By the same token, flattery isn’t feedback either. It, too, is one-sided and limited in its effect.
Feedback, in contrast, is a dialogue — and it’s part of a larger process. Someone intentionally seeks out information, somebody else returns the requested information, and the information then is used to make positive changes.
Feedback also isn’t always negative. Sometimes it’s positive, and sometimes it’s neither. When it’s negative that means a problem exists and needs to be corrected. Calling it by its other name, “corrective feedback,” is more accurate because it keeps your eye squarely on its purpose.
With positive feedback, you learn that something you’re doing works well. Perhaps you can build on that strength to improve things that aren’t as successful.
Most interesting of all, though, is when feedback is neither positive nor negative, but rather is innovative, it sparks a new idea that never would have occurred to you if left to your own devices.
Now that the misconceptions are cleared up, how can you get this wonderful stuff to improve your practice? You’ll get unsolicited feedback once in a while, but if you want to make systematic changes, you have to ask for it. To get the constructive information you want, start by asking yourself the right questions:
What do I want to improve? Identify your goal in getting feedback. “I want to be a better lawyer” is a fine sentiment, but it’s too broad to be an attainable goal. Your goal will inform the answers to all your other questions, so be as precise as you can in expressing it. “Precise” doesn’t have to mean “narrow.” Your goal might be big and far-reaching, and that’s fine as a starting point. For example, it might be, “I want to improve client service,” “I want my office to work more efficiently” or “I want to get better at trying cases.” After the first round of feedback, you can narrow your focus if you want to.
Who should I ask? Identify people who are connected to your goal in some way. If you want to improve client service, you should, of course, ask your current and former clients, but don’t stop there. Sometimes clients will talk to staff members in a way that they won’t talk to you, so ask your staff. Likewise, if you’re working on staff efficiency, ask staff members for information, but also ask people involved with or affected by their work — other lawyers in the office, vendors and clients. If you want to get better at trying cases, ask the people who are working with you as you try a case — another lawyer, paralegal or legal assistant — but also the people who are watching you do it, like jurors, a judge or another lawyer you’ve specifically recruited to watch you work.
When should I ask? Again, this will be determined in part by your goal. You can ask for feedback many times while the product is in the works (“incremental feedback”), or you can ask at the end. Sometimes, you can do both. With clients, for example, asking for feedback during the representation helps correct issues as they arise, and helps build your relationship. When you ask at the end of the representation, you’ll get a better sense of the “big picture.” Remember, though, that a client’s opinion of you and your office might be colored by the outcome — good or bad — of her matter. Sometimes, you’re limited to retrospective feedback — you can’t ask the jurors how you’re doing when they’re still hearing the case, but you can ask them after the verdict is in, provided it’s okay with them and the judge.
How should I ask? This last question can be answered only after you’ve answered the others. Again, consider what you want: constructive information you can use to make positive change. You can choose a written format, or have a personal conversation. Written formats, like a questionnaire or online survey, can be used for specific questions, like, “Did our staff respond to your messages within 24 hours?” or “Does the associate return completed work by the assigned deadline?” With good follow-up, surveys can be used for more general questions, too. They can be limited, however, particularly when dealing with people who don’t have to answer your questions, like clients or jurors — how many times have you responded to a survey from an online retailer?
Personal conversations are harder to have, because people may be reluctant to say what they think or to hear things they don’t want to hear. Nevertheless, this face-to-face interaction (or telephone conversation) can give you the information you really need because you can follow up on answers more readily. If you’ve asked for and given incremental feedback throughout the relationship, the rapport you’ve developed will improve your chances of getting constructive responses. But if you’re still concerned that someone might keep difficult information from you, have someone else ask. For example, have a trusted paralegal call jurors and ask for feedback, or have your assistant sit down with clients to talk about your performance.
Whether you choose written questions or a personal conversation, tailor your questions to get at the three things you want:
Focusing on these areas will cut down on noise. That said, however, open-ended questions like, “Is there anything else you’d like us to know that would help us do a better job of serving our clients?” or “What would make this a better work environment for you?” will let you know what people really think, and may generate some great new ideas.
Asking for feedback becomes a lot simpler once misconceptions are cleared away and you know what you’re trying to accomplish.
You may still have some anxiety about using this tool. What’s the best way to receive this information? And what if you’re the one asked to give feedback? The next two parts of this series will answer those questions.
Mary Taylor Lokensgard is a recovering attorney with over 15 years of experience in private practice, including plaintiff’s personal injury litigation, estate planning and administration, and elder law. She’s now working for herself as an independent writer, and she tweets @marylokensgard.
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