Why Feedback?

Effective leadership in lawyers is achieved by using some of the same strategies that work with other high-performing professionals, while also requiring an appreciation of the nuances that are particular to the legal personality.  Awareness is the standard starting point for most leadership assessment and improvement programs.  Studies have clearly shown that the higher your self-awareness, the better a manager and performer you are, and, as an added carrot, the more you actually enjoy your work. 

Unfortunately, studies also clearly show that the higher you rise in the ranks of an organization, the less likely you are to be accurately aware of your impact.  Thus, oddly enough, in any given business the CEO is probably less informed about how she and her work are perceived by her colleagues–below, across and above her– than is the night typist.  This turn of events is often attributed to the fact that the higher up most organizations one goes, the less systematic, extensive and honest is the feedback. 

Feedback and Lawyer-Leaders

Lawyers, and certainly general counsels and firm partners, often function like the CEOs of their own small businesses, and therefore risk suffering from that same top-of-the-heap lack of awareness that other senior management executives experience.  As to the younger lawyers, while run-of-the-mill annual associate reviews are often standard, most of these reviews are still not successful in effectively giving meaningful feedback . And once those lawyers become senior managers or partners themselves, there is usually no system at all for them to get feedback– from the associates who work for them, from other partners or senior managers or from clients. 

There are well-established ways to produce effective feedback in an organization: professional assessments of individual working styles using Myers-Briggs and other testing instruments, regular feedback-targeted personal reviews, mentoring programs that include in-depth feedback, and department, practice group or firm-wide meetings or retreats. Bottom-up (from associates) and cross (from other partners or colleagues) reviews are recent additions to the array of law firm/law department feedback systems that try to provide senior lawyers with that critical awareness.  Other tools are practice group, partnership and client surveys, particularly if the surveys are followed up with face-to-face discussions. 

Unfortunately, giving and receiving written and person-to-person feedback strikes many lawyers as bordering on, if not squarely in, the realm of useless touchy/feely psycho-babble. Yet it is a skill that should come easily to lawyers.  Rigorous analysis and clear communication, particularly in identifying issues and crafting resolutions, are the stock-in-trade of what we do.  Why then is it that lawyers so resist using these potentially powerful tools in their own practices?

Feedback and the Half-Empty Glass

The wrinkle here may well lie in other personality attributes that lawyers often possess.  First, as a group, lawyers score high on resistance to feedback– they get defensive and don’t listen, or lash out with their point-by-point answers.  Part of this response derives no doubt from years of advocacy thinking– every point deserves a good counter-point.  The high esteem that lawyers tend to hold themselves in– another trait that serves them well when under attack from opposing counsel– also feeds the inability to hear "criticism." 

A further attribute that may well contribute to lawyers’ disinterest in feedback is their inherent pessimism. Martin Seligman, a University of Pennsylvania psychology professor who has been a leader in the development of the field of positive psychology over the last ten years, identified lawyers, in a survey of 104 careers, as the most pessimistic.  While researchers can argue whether that attribute makes lawyers likely to be more or less accurate in their assessments of legal situations, it does make them, as a group, more resistant to "new" policies or procedures, and more likely to think that remedial steps are of dubious value. 

"Peanuts" and You:  Cashing in on a Valuable Commodity

I was recently in the student center of a large suburban high school.  In a deja vu from a "Peanuts" cartoon strip, a teenage boy sat behind a hand-written sign that said "5 cents — I’ll tell you what I think of you."  Beside the sign was a very large pile of nickels.  An enterprising kid was demonstrating what a valuable commodity honest feedback is. 

Lawyers have the skills and the opportunity to cash in on that valuable commodity.  As lawyers, we can begin our leadership effectiveness program right there:  by simply learning something about ourselves, we can start accessing a whole new array of potentially useful tools for enhancing our practices and our lives.