In Biglaw—as in life—getting good feedback on what you’re doing is essential to maximizing your success. Unfortunately, providing effective feedback to associates has always been a bit of an Achilles’ heel for large law firms. The lawyers are busy. Many (particularly, it seems, smart ones from good law schools) are reluctant to ask for help and hate to admit when they don’t know things. There’s high turnover. In sum, there are a bunch of factors that are not particularly conducive to firms having a strong feedback culture. That’s why it’s so important for associates who are committed to standing out from the crowd to take charge of obtaining feedback and own the process of getting the input they need to improve.
The Kind of Feedback You Need
There are certain kinds of feedback that will always come your way in a firm. For example, you’ll almost certainly have an annual review to let you know how you’ve been doing and what you can do in the coming year to improve. But the feedback in those reviews is almost always a set of a second-hand recitations of a few bland statements scribbled down six months after-the-fact by a supervising lawyers trying to get through a substantial stack of time-sensitive evaluations. That sort of feedback is largely useless.
To be truly useful, feedback needs to be clear, tangible, and actionable, as well a relatively immediate—meaning that is given in connection with something you are currently working on (or have just completed) so you can connect all the relevant dots while the context is fresh in your mind and take immediate steps to implement the advice. That sort of feedback doesn’t just drop in your lap. You need to seek it out and ask for it.
The Right Way to Ask for It
There are right and wrong ways to solicit feedback. In my experience, for example, the fruits of a general request for “feedback” from a senior aren’t much better than what you’d get in an annual review. It might be more timely, but it tends to be just as generic and therefore not particularly clear, tangible, and actionable.
…ask the reviewer of your work for one thing you could do to improve the quality of your work the next time you’re doing a similar task.
Think about it from your senior’s perspective. Such a broad ask is a bit of burden. Your senior may struggle to come up on the fly with what they feel like should be a comprehensive—and constructive—answer. If they haven’t been mulling it over, they likely won’t know what to say, and they’ll certainly not want to sour your working relationship or make themselves uncomfortable by being overly critical (meaning you’re unlikely to hear really good, tangible stuff you need to know). You’ll generally get much better results by making a specific and more limited feedback request.
After you complete a task, project, or workstream, for example, ask the reviewer of your work for one thing you could do to improve the quality of your work the next time you’re doing a similar task. That specific ask relieves your senior of the need to calibrate their constructive-feedback meter/offer wide-ranging feedback, and instead allows them to simply tell you what they’re probably already thinking. (Believe me, every senior reviewing a junior’s work is likely to have at least one “wait—why did he/she do it that way?” moment.) And because it’s just one thing and you asked, that approach gives your senior license to tell you what’s really on their mind without feeling like a critical jerk. Their answer is not only going to be more honest and less hedged, it’s also likely to be more clear and actionable because it has to do with a specific thing they would have just been thinking they’d like to see you do differently. In other words, a small tweak to how you ask for feedback can often dramatically improve the utility of what you’re getting back.
It’s easy in a busy Biglaw environment of time pressure and endless to-do lists to keep you head down, plug away, and not take the time to reflect upon the ways you can improve your work and workflow. Don’t fall in to that trap. Getting the right feedback is essential to your development and success at the firm, so take charge of that process and make it a priority.