8 Tips for Giving Feedback — and Getting Attorneys to Listen

Senior attorneys and firm leaders increasingly find that giving feedback to junior attorneys is a core part of the job. Norms have changed over the decades, and more junior attorneys have come to expect candid, useful feedback — delivered in a respectful tone — to be part of firm culture. And you may even have found that part of your performance evaluation or upward review now involves a discussion of how well you mentor others.

But giving good feedback — including constructive criticism that people will actually absorb and put to good use — is about more than just ticking the “mentorship” box in your job description. Senior lawyers grow their practices by taking on more responsibility beyond their client matters: serving on committees, creating and executing strategic business plans, cultivating client relationships and generally being strong firm citizens within their respective departments. When you have that additional workload, developing a team of talented, trusted junior attorneys to support your work becomes a crucial aspect of long-term success.

Effective mentoring, including providing useful feedback, isn’t really optional anymore: it’s crucial to promoting the development of other attorneys — something that, in turn, strengthens the entire team that supports your, and your firm’s, work.

In my many years as a law firm talent development consultant and executive coach — and in a decade of legal practice before that — I’ve noticed clear themes about what does and doesn’t work when offering feedback, including constructive criticism. The following eight tips will help you support more junior attorneys with feedback that’s digestible, helpful and actionable, feedback that will not only help them become better lawyers but will make your interactions more productive and enjoyable to boot.

1. Develop authentic interpersonal relationships with junior colleagues

Imagine someone you’ve barely spoken to showing up in your office with a word of criticism — it would immediately put you on the defensive. The same is true for your junior colleagues. The first step in offering critiques people will actually listen to is establishing a trusting relationship.

Take a look at how you communicate: Are you regularly checking in with others? Is your tone generally collegial? Do you express a genuine interest in the work and lives of junior attorneys? Make sure you take time to build real relationships with junior members of your team; those relationships build a solid foundation for accepting and acting on feedback, including constructive feedback.

2. Don’t overlook the positives

It can be easy to forget — especially in the busy rhythm of law firm life — all the things that an attorney does well. But noting the positives, the specific tasks that an attorney does well, lays the groundwork for an open dialogue and circumvents people’s natural defensiveness.

Commit to generally providing praise when it has been earned and expressing thanks for hard work. Such efforts are highly motivating for more junior attorneys, who are often striving to improve, and will better position them to receive constructive feedback when you have it to share.

3. Be candid in sharing constructive feedback, without being negative

Junior attorneys are actually hungry for honest, candid input on their performance. But when candor comes in the form of negativity, put-downs or blame, people’s receptivity quickly shuts down. Emotional language like “This is a mess” and personal attacks like “Why did you do that?” serve only to ensure that your constructive suggestions will be met with a wall of defensiveness.

Instead, refocus your comments on specific ways in which the attorney can improve in the future. Always assume that a person’s intentions were good, and talk about specific actions and improving future results. For example, if a client call went poorly, try an approach like “I noticed that you didn’t seem prepared for the issues that came up during that call. May I offer some suggestions on how you could be better prepared next time?”

4. Make it okay to make mistakes

As painful as they are, mistakes will inevitably happen, even with the most talented attorneys. How you handle mistakes — your own as well as others’ — paves the way for how receptive people will be to your feedback. If you tend to focus on blame or recrimination, you undermine opportunities for growth and learning. Mistakes can be a learning experience instead of a shame- or anger-fueled episode.

When someone makes a mistake, acknowledge it and then move immediately to finding a solution and discussing how they can improve in the future. Consider sharing with more junior attorneys stories of your own similar mistakes in the past — and, crucially, how you grew and changed from the experience. And when you make a mistake — as everyone does, from time to time — take the opportunity to acknowledge it and share the process you’ll use to avoid such errors in the future.

Making mistakes is a universal human experience and discussing them openly without focusing on blame makes your feedback relatable and helpful. Deft, solutions-focused handling of mistakes is a critical way to further cement trust with your team members.

5. Include conversation with your written feedback

Senior attorneys often find themselves marking up a piece of writing drafted by a junior attorney, which, if you handle the communication well, can be an opportunity for growth and learning. People can quickly become deflated when they open an electronic markup and are confronted with a sea of red: all those corrections and changes can send an overwhelming message of discouragement.

So in addition to sending your redline, take time to have a phone or face-to-face conversation in which you share your thinking about your changes and offer a few highlights and areas for growth. You might even use the opportunity to suggest some tools to help the attorney’s next draft improve, describe the process you use for drafting similar documents, or share the checklist you rely on when preparing a text.

Just a few minutes of conversation can transform that sea of red ink into a welcome occasion for learning. In the long run, junior attorneys recognize that some of the best training they receive is in careful review and discussion of mark-ups of their written work.

6. Offer tools and other resources

Your ultimate goal in giving feedback is to cultivate the independence of junior attorneys. Go beyond critique; guide people to tools and resources that will support their growth. As a senior attorney, you yourself are one of those resources — but perhaps even more important is your role as a conduit to other sources of support.

Think about the tools you have relied on to improve and share them freely. Think about other people from whom a junior attorney should invite feedback and facilitate those discussions when feasible. This approach helps you develop a team of colleagues you can rely on to help build your practice and raise the firm’s overall success. Importantly, it will also help cultivate independent professionals who won’t lean solely on you for guidance and support.

7. Invite collaboration

Nothing empowers a person more than discovering their own solutions to problems. Instead of just dictating feedback or criticisms, invite junior attorneys to reflect on their struggles and come up with ideas for how they can take a different approach.

If you’ve cultivated a trusting relationship, they’ll feel comfortable sharing their challenges and will welcome you as a sounding board for their problem-solving ideas. The wisest sages don’t just dispense advice; they help people find their own internal source of wisdom. Asking a few well-placed questions (e.g., “What’s working well?” or “What has been your biggest challenge?” or “What’s one step you might take to improve in this area?”) can invite collaboration and remind attorneys of their own instincts and insights.

8. Communicate your investment in attorneys’ careers

When you deliver constructive feedback, remember to frame it in the big picture — that you’re offering suggestions because you care about a person’s career and how it supports the entire firm. After all, you have a vested interest in the success of everyone at your firm.

Take time to communicate how much you care about the attorney’s progress, acknowledge your personal investment in their career and include their work in the larger vision of success for the firm.

Regularity in this area is as important as the content of your communication — the more routinely you share feedback with junior attorneys, the more they’ll understand your investment in their success. And when an attorney knows you care about their career, they’ll look to you not as a source of disheartening criticism, but as a font of wisdom and a valuable resource for ongoing growth and development.