The Attic.

We need to talk about feedback in the legal industry

Blog: Latest Legal Trends

Does the legal industry have a problem with feedback?

Anecdotally, yes. Frequently in-house lawyers complain that their law firms aren’t listening to them, prompting to choose this as a trendspotter topic this July. Similarly, lawyers in private practice complain that they can’t get enough of their clients to open up to them about their wider business challenges and needs. And on the consumer side, the SRA have now got involved, encouraging firms to sign up for their online review pilot. Whether you work as a freelancer, in-house, in a large law firm or on the high street, if your clients aren’t happy. you will lose work and credibility. Sharing honest feedback is widely-recognised as one of the key ingredients for a successful working relationship, so why is it so hard? And how can you be better at giving, and receiving, constructive feedback?

Enabling a culture of trust

Feedback can be perceived as something to fear. The word itself has negative as well as positive connotations, and feedback delivered clumsily early on in our education and working lives can leave scars that live on through-out our careers. The most important ingredient to encourage feedback sharing is trust. It’s important to recognise that both giving and receiving feedback can make us feel vulnerable as individuals. Nobody likes that, especially in their professional lives, so to make sure that we don’t avoid feedback altogether, and miss out on opportunities to improve and grow,  we need to trust that feedback will be treated in the spirit in which it is intended – to help an individual, team or a situation improve.

Giving feedback: the sandwich

The traditional way many of us are taught to share feedback runs as follows:

  • Start with something positive
  • Move on to constructive but less positive feedback
  • Finish with more positive feedback

The advantage of this model is that it encourages a positive conversation and helps the person giving the feedback to feel more confident and the person receiving the feedback to feel supported.

This model is not without risks. First of all, some people receiving the feedback will give what they perceive as negative feedback more emphasis, blotting out the positivity (especially if they have a tendency to perfectionism). Equally, as there is more emphasis on positivity, there is a risk that the areas for improvement get ignored. Finally, as this is an established tactic, it can lead to the positivity in the conversation feeling less authentic or being perceived as simply a wrapper for those areas of improvement.

Try it another way: Situation, Behaviour, Impact

A different approach can be used for either positive feedback or areas for improvement, but avoids mixing the two. In preparing for this conversation, the person giving the feedback:

  • Presents a situation that either went really well or could’ve gone better
  • Describes the behaviours that they saw in the situation

  • Outlines the impact of these behaviours, and how this made them feel.

The advantage of this model is that it helps the person giving feedback be more specific and focuses the conversation on either building more good behaviours or improving areas that need work.

It also creates the chance to open up constructive dialogue and explore differences of opinion or learning opportunities on both sides. It can help to create improvements in individuals’ behaviour and approach, and also identify opportunities to improve processes, workflow and collaboration.


Either way, make sure it’s constructive

For feedback to be effective, it has to be actionable. If feedback is woolly, over-emotional, sparse or inconsistent, it is unlikely to get results. At worst, it could come across as bullying, which is reportedly on the rise in the profession. To encourage trust and learning:

  • Give feedback in a timely manner, ideally as close to the moment as possible

  • Ask if it’s a good time to share feedback before starting

  • Give detailed feedback in private, not in front of other people

  • Make points as specific as possible

  • Agree achievable learning outcomes together

  • Link feedback to goals and fair consequences.

When sharing feedback to drive an improvement, agree with the other party what that improvement looks like, how you will measure progress and a fair timeframe for action.

Receiving feedback? Remember it’s a present

Who doesn’t like getting presents?  Well frankly, all of us sometimes. The present could be something we don’t like, or we don’t need, or that doesn’t fit us. We might even suspect that there is a hidden agenda. Constructive feedback can be one of the best gifts you’ve ever been given. Or, like the third copy of this year’s Christmas cookbook, it might not be something you want to keep with you. In either case, remember to thank the giver, give the feedback careful consideration and then decide what you want to keep and how you’re going to use it. If the feedback is useful and leads to you making changes, you might want to acknowledge that and keep the giver in the loop. If it doesn’t feel useful, try to avoid becoming defensive. Check your understanding and ask for more detail if you need to. You might want to express how you saw a situation or a result differently, but do that in a way that shows you appreciate the effort the person giving you the feedback is making and you are also being constructive. Respect their opinion and the effort they’re making to improve the working relationship and the work being delivered.

Build the feedback habit

Practise using the pointers above to get better at sharing and receiving feedback. Like any habit, you might need to make a conscious effort at first. Once you see the benefits in terms of better relationships, happier clients, more engaged colleagues, better quality output and better business results, you won’t want to stop.

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