Should Young Lawyers ask for Performance Feedback or just Wait to Receive It?


As a rule, we all want to know if we’re doing OK.  Sometimes it’s obvious, but sometimes less so.

So what do you do if some time has passed and you just have no idea what your supervisors think of your work?

Do you ask, or do you just hope that they’d tell you if something was wrong?

Performance Reviews Aren’t the Answer

I’ve written (and spoken) before about performance reviews, and how utterly terrible lawyers in general are with them.

But even a slightly more effective system of formal performance review isn’t going to help this question.

For starters, they are not frequent enough.

Secondly, they have a tendency to be too regimented and formal.

Finally, they create unnecessary stress.

So let’s take a more in depth look at ongoing feedback, and whether or not young lawyers should be actually requesting it periodically..

Why do you Want Performance Feedback Anyway?

I understand that many young lawyers have a desire for feedback.  But take a close look in the mirror and think about what you really want?

Option 1 – Do you actually want:

  • knowledge of what areas you might be deficient in;
  • identification of your strengths so that you can use them to better advantage;
  • the information you need to develop a strategy for constant improvement?

Option 2 – Or, deep inside, are you really looking for:

  • validation that you are as good as you think you are;
  • something to prop up your ego;
  • words to make you feel better about yourself when you’re not sure;
  • certainty about your future at the firm.

If it’s the first, then asking for feedback might be a good way to go.

But if it’s the second, I think you’re on the wrong track.  Why?  Because:

  • if you feed your need for validation, you’re going to have issues growing in your career;
  • a legal career is not a place to prop up your ego;
  • if you need other people to make you feel good about yourself, then you’ve got other issues (this sounds flippant but it isn’t – if your happiness and positivity in life are based on the comments of others, then you’re in for a rough ride as a lawyer);
  • you will never, ever, get the certainty you crave.

Stop Feeding your Insecurity

It’s fantastic if you have a mentor, supervisor or colleague who is great at building you up and helping your confidence levels.  One of the things I hear frequently from young lawyers is about their lack of self-confidence, so I can readily understand why this kind of support is appreciated.

But you shouldn’t expect it.  Nor should you become reliant upon it.

One reason for this is because you may not get it, so you will be disappointed.

Another, more relevant, reason, is that if you rely on other people to provide your confidence for you, then it can be very hard for you to develop your own internal resilience.  In a sense it’s a habit you develop, or a pattern of activity:  you lack confidence, you have it boosted by someone, then you can get on with things.

But what happens when that person goes?  What happens when, after 3 years, you still haven’t developed the self-confidence to make difficult decisions?

When you learned to ride a bike, you did need help for a little while, but after a time you took the training wheels off.  You need to approach your legal career the same way.

Is No News Good News?

One of the regrettable realities of legal practice is that ongoing, positive feedback can be scarce.

Partly I think this is because we have extremely high standards to simply “do our job”.  So if you get the law right, advise the client well, and come in under budget, then you have merely “done your job”.

As a result, standing out in such a way as to warrant overt praise is extremely difficult.

I’m not saying this is how it should be.  In fact, my view is that praise for a job well done should be given more readily by lawyers, but unfortunately it’s simply not the case.

This is generally where young lawyers start to freak out – they aren’t getting told how great they are often enough, and so they start to wonder if they are doing a terrible job and that’s why nobody has said anything.

Often you might be able to accept that no news is, in fact, good news.  But it’s more subtle than that.  What about the less obvious indicators about your job performance?  How about taking a look at some of these factors:

  • Are you in high demand?  If people are wanting to send you work actively, and asking about your capacity to take on more – it’s often a good sign.  In particular that’s true if they go to you first.
  • Are you getting autonomy?  The more trust people have in your skills the more autonomy they will give you.  If you are getting direct client contact, the ability to send emails, and other things that demonstrate trust, then that can be based on positive views about your capabilities.
  • What’s the vibe?  Yes I said it – it’s the vibe.  If your impression is that you are liked, trusted and respected as a lawyer – then you’ll frequently be right (unless your radar is out of whack).

But Sometimes Feedback is Always Negative

On the flip side to all this, we are accustomed to having our work reviewed, scribbled on, and handed back to us with pointers about all the stuff we got wrong or missed.  That’s not always criticism (sometimes it is) but it’s always a learning opportunity.  Often a discussion comes with that, so you can take that as feedback as well.

The problem with the “amendments = feedback” policy is that you will get the impression, often wrongly, that you are terrible at your job.

So take the amendments as useful feedback, but not as the only feedback.

What’s the Answer – Should you Ask for Feedback or Not?

My view is that young lawyers should be asking for feedback, provided you are:

  1. Doing it for the right reasons (ie – option 1 above)
  2. Going to use it to some benefit – feedback just for the sake of it is pointless, so if there’s no tangible change likely to occur, then don’t waste everybody’s time asking;
  3. Not asking too often.  Don’t become too needy here – it’s a bad look.  Proper feedback takes time and, therefore, costs money.  It can be beneficial so sometimes it’s worth it, but don’t go trying to set daily “feedback sessions” with senior lawyers – it won’t work, and they won’t appreciate it.
  4. Asking the right people.  Don’t just go for someone who’s going to sugar coat things – if you want feedback, then get it.  If you want unconditional love, then get a puppy.  That said, try and find someone who will offer you tangible strategies to improve on any areas that need it, not just criticism for the sake of it.

Ongoing feedback can be a great catalyst towards constant improvement and career progression, so if it’s available then by all means try and get it.

What do you think – got any stories of feedback requests that went really well, or really badly?  Let me know in the comments.

Happy Lawyering!