Legal Practice

Being a Leader: Giving Constructive Criticism

I remember when I first started working with interns and I didn’t know how to give them appropriate guidance or instruction–I was a brand new attorney myself so it just didn’t feel natural to manage others.  Then as I got more comfortable with giving guidance, I realized I would hit a stumbling block when it came to giving real feedback.  In fact, I would avoid it most of the time because I just didn’t know how to do it without sounding mean–and that’s wasn’t really helpful for me or the student.

When it comes to giving constructive criticism it can be especially difficult to do when you’re a new attorney. It’s easy to pick up bad habits of avoidance or to become so blunt that people view you as acerbic. Now some may say, “What’s the big deal? I’m just telling the truth. Just say what’s wrong and move on.”

I do appreciate people who have that gift of forthright honesty. But the reality is that as women, especially women of color, we have to be nuanced in how we approach the way we work in this industry because there are studies after studies that show the negative consequences women face when they’re perceived as too abrupt, aggressive, or mean.

And I know it’s not fair to put the onus on us, but my goal here is to give practical advice on succeeding in the legal field.  It would be disingenuous to tell you to “keep doing you, boo,” when I know that keeping it real does bring real limitations.  So if you’re the type that is blunt and you think that’s working for you then keep on doing what you’re doing, but if you are looking for ways to maneuver how to give constructive criticism in a way that will help you also continue to advance in your firm then you do have to be a little more strategic.

constructive criticism

The best way to start giving back constructive criticism is by easing into it so that it slowly becomes more natural (and feels less awkward).

One. Write it down. Adding written comments on documents you’re reviewing is a simple way to say what you want to say without needing to have a back and forth with the intern. It also is a good record keeper for problems that keep arising. For example, if the third product I review still has a problem with passive voice, after I’ve mentioned it before, then this helps start a conversation. Then you avoid the intern quickly dismissing your concern because you can point to a problem pattern. When I first started being more conscious of giving back real feedback, the comment section was a great buffer for me. Though now, with practice, I don’t feel the need for a buffer because I’ve learned how to have these conversations so that they don’t turn defensive.
Two. Practice first. This may seem odd, but if you’re going to have a one on one with someone and you want to portray yourself as the leader, then you should have all your ducks in a row and know what you’re going to say (and how you’ll say it). If you’re going to point out really difficult things, then practice how you’re going to do it. And do it as early as you can rather than waiting until a big mistake has happened where you’re more likely to blow up or get agitated. Again, it may seem odd to practice your presentation, and in a perfect world, students learning from you should easily accept your feedback, but please—students act blatantly disrespectful to their professors—you don’t think they’d act out of pocket with you? Be the professional by being ready and prepared with your advice.

Three. Quality over quantity. Nothing will ever be perfect or be done as well if you had completed the task. That’s just the truth. Don’t nitpick at every little thing when you have bigger issues to conquer. This took me a while to understand because I always wanted my cover letters just so; I wanted the indices styled this way; etc. etc. When really all it came down to was stylistic difference. Now, I make sure that the changes I’m requesting and critiquing are essential and necessary to help the client’s case. Otherwise, I run the risk of seeming like a nag or a perfectionist (which no one likes!). And it also helps me get over the idea that my way is the best way, which isn’t always the case.

It takes time to learn how to strategically give feedback in a way that doesn’t turn people defensive, and also doesn’t put you in unfavorable light with your coworkers and colleagues. However, the sooner you start, the more comfortable you’ll become with your authority, and you’ll be able to wield it in a way that makes you look like a leader, which should always be the goal.

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