Associate Advice, Small Law Firms

Size Matters: Tell Me I Am Pretty

As some of you may be aware, it is the Jewish New Year. This means that I get two opportunities to reflect on the past year and make resolutions. Indeed, I have now resolved — for the second time — to eat less carbs. The problem with these kinds of resolutions is that they usually do not work. I think it has something to do with putting way too much emphasis on one day (New Year’s Day, or I guess Rosh Hashanah), rather than working towards a goal consistently throughout the year.

At work, the equivalent of the New Year’s Resolution is the year-end review. All of ones strengths and weaknesses displayed in the prior year are discussed during a thirty-minute conversation that often ends with a bonus check and/or tears. The year-end review, like the New Year’s Resolution, does not work. Rather than getting feedback only once a year, you should make every day New Year’s Day. Well, maybe not every day….

Asking for feedback is a tough thing to do. If you are anything like me, you assume that no news is good news. If I did something wrong, the partner would have yelled me and he didn’t, so I must be on track for success. This thought goes through my head quite regularly. There is some truth to it, but this mentality — while it may be sufficient to help me avoid total failure — is not helping me to thrive. To know where you stand in your development, it is important to actively seek out feedback.

But how? I do not know. I am the passive-aggressive one, remember? So I asked some experts. Here is what they said.

1. Be specific and timely

If you really want to know what you are doing right and what you need to improve upon, you need to ask. “How am I doing,” however, is the wrong question to ask because it is way too general. You will likely be told you are “doing fine,” and who knows what that means. Instead, ask about specific projects or specific skills and do so when it makes sense. For instance, you recently took a deposition and want to know how you did. So, once you get the transcript, look it over and assess your performance. Then, go to your supervising attorney — with the transcript — and ask him/her to go over it and ask for feedback focusing on specific questions you asked or did not ask, et cetera. And keep asking for clarification until you get a response that sounds like constructive criticism. In other words, do not stop at “you did fine.”

Going in prepared has several benefits. First, it makes it much more likely that you will get useful feedback. Second, it will soften the blow when you receive some negative feedback. According to Psychology Today, asking questions helps a person feel “included in the enterprise,” which helps to feel like a “partner in the conversation, not the target.”

2. Don’t just ask your boss

People mistakenly assume that the only necessary feedback comes from superiors. It is equally important to get feedback from those who work with you and those who work under you. Indeed, in order to succeed in a law firm one must become an effective manager. How can one know whether he is a good manager if he does not seek feedback from those he manages? Also, where possible, it is very helpful to get feedback from your clients.

3. Do it over drinks

Whenever interviewing at a firm, it is important to have conversations with attorneys outside of the office. For some reason, getting drinks makes people more honest. I think there might even be a Latin catch phrase to that effect. Well, the same is true when looking for constructive criticism. Also, getting outside of the office makes the conversation more like a conversation and less like a formal review. Just make sure to impose a two-drink maximum.

4. Don’t be annoying

While it is important to have consistent conversations throughout the year, no one wants a needy associate. As explained in How To Get Feedback at Your Job, “[b]eware of asking for superior feedback too often, for if you are in your boss’ office every ten minutes asking for reassurance on the most mundane task, he may begin to perceive you as needy and irritating. It’s a fine line between appearing eager to learn and be guided and becoming the person your manager dreads seeing in the hall.”

So, be reasonable and don’t become “that associate.”

And if professional success is not reason to enough to solicit feedback, here is one more reason: according to Psychology Today, it makes you a better person:

Feedback “exposes you to yourself, which is why it is both tremendously unsettling and exceptionally valuable,” writes management consultant Peter Bregman in a recent blog for the Harvard Business Review. It can be “an incredible gift, a field guide for acting with impact in the world.”

Now go dip some apples in honey, and ask your boss about that brief!

When not writing about small law firms for Above the Law, Valerie Katz (not her real name) works at a small firm in Chicago. You can reach her by email at and follow her on Twitter at @ValerieLKatz.

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