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Get the most out of your feedback

Learning what you’re doing wrong can help you do more things right
By Jillian Kestler-D'Amours
February 17 2017 issue

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If you shy away from feedback, you’re only cheating yourself.

That’s the bottom line, according to Kimberley Neeson, president of Neesons, a court reporting, transcription and legal services company.

“Sometimes we’re afraid to hear it. We like the way we’re doing things, or we’re afraid of what is coming next, but if we don’t seek out that feedback or that information, how can we make good business decisions?” Neeson said.

Whether it’s asking a manager or colleague for advice on how to tackle a large file, or seeking an unfiltered response from a client after a case has concluded, asking for constructive feedback can be tricky.

And opening yourself up to criticism is never easy, no matter what profession you’re in.

But it may be even more difficult for lawyers, who are trained to show professional confidence and assuredness and may sometimes be cocooned into thinking they always know best, said Steve Prentice, founder of The Bristall Group and an at-work productivity expert.

“If that [confidence] is not checked against a peer or a mentor, including your manager, it can sow the seeds of destruction,” Prentice said.

So how do you deliver — and receive — constructive feedback?

If you’re the one giving feedback, instead of starting by telling someone what they did wrong, ask them what their thought process was and how they approached the task at issue, Prentice advised.

“Without sugar-coating anything, the objective is not to make somebody put up their defences and stop hearing you. Make it a conversation,” he said.

After hearing the person’s approach, offer suggestions and examples of what has worked in the past. A face-to-face meeting should always be favoured over e-mail, where the tone and intention of your feedback can be easily lost, Prentice added.

“If you send me an e-mail with a list of 10 things you think I could do better, I’m going to list that in my own imaginary voice and it’s going to become a much more negative experience,” he said.

“But if I can read your body language, your eye contact and the tone of your voice that are telling me, ‘Yeah, Steve, I want to help you learn how to become a better lawyer,’ that’s a far more conducive approach to a successful transition of skills.”

Stick to the facts, keep your opinions out of it, and keep in mind that feedback should be a motivational experience, advised Rana Bokhari, a lawyer at Bokhari, Smith & Walker in Winnipeg.

“If you’re presented it and it has become a motivating factor for you to do better, you will unconsciously use that feedback to do better,” Bokhari said. “But if it’s a bad experience, you’re going to want to block it out.”

If you’re on the receiving end of less-than-stellar performance review, keeping your own body language in check is also critical in showing you’re not shutting down or disregarding the feedback altogether, she explained.

“You want to make sure that you’re not hunched over, and you look angry that someone is saying something to you that you’re not totally agreeing with, because that breaks down a lot of communication right then and there.”

Neeson said seeking feedback from your clients is also important when it comes to staying ahead of the rapidly changing field of law, where technology has had an impact on many tasks.

“It’s [about] getting back feedback: what are your clients expecting?” she said.

“Are your clients expecting that you’re going to show up to something with 16 boxes of paper, or are they going to expect you to show up with your iPad and use the technology to save them money and be more efficient?”

Nicolle Kopping-Pavars, lawyer at family law practice NKP-Law, said she tells her clients right from the get-go that they need to tell her immediately if any issues arise during their working relationship.

“If you’re not going to let me know what I’m doing right or what I’m doing wrong, I can’t improve for other clients and I can’t serve you to the best of my ability,” she said, about what she tells her clients at the outset.

Kopping-Pavars said that particularly in family law, where clients are often dealing with difficult personal situations, feeling that their lawyer is helping them make such an important transition in their lives, is key.

She said it’s a good idea for lawyers to give their clients a form asking for feedback on their work and areas for improvement.

“You can either do that during, so that you can make sure you’re maintaining your standards, or afterwards…because sometimes once a file is over, people will be more honest with you than during the file.”

Neeson said many law firms cannot turn on a dime to implement the feedback they’ve received, especially if it involves modernizing key elements of their practice. But she said lawyers should be mindful about how they can implement feedback if and when the same issues come up again.

“I do believe there’s a process involved,” she said. “When feedback is kind of shocking, it’s good to just take some time, let it sink in, seek out some other people that you trust, and be honest with yourself, too, honest about what’s going on around you.”

Ultimately, Prentice said that if your manager is not giving you regular feedback, “then the onus is upon you as an individual to ask for some,” he said. “Not in an e-mail, not an essay, but a huddle, a chat, on a regular basis, whether things are good or bad or otherwise, let’s talk more often.”

For Bokhari, breaking the stigma around asking for constructive criticism is especially important for younger lawyers who may otherwise be too intimidated or wary of seeking it out on their own.

“We need to start looking at feedback as more of a part of our education…not a way to just keep our jobs or rise up in the firm or become partner one day,” she said.

“If we could turn that into, ‘You’re not going to be in trouble, I’m guiding you, I’m your mentor, I’m going to help you through this,’ if we can just change the language around it and somewhat of the stigma around it, I think that we would be doing those younger lawyers a really great service.”

Click here to see this article in our digital edition (available to subscribers).