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John Rice

Bowland Solutions

Sales & Marketing Director

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Feedback in a law firm; why it’s so unpopular (and how to change that)

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We are delighted to share a guest post this week from Jamie Pennington of Pennington Hennessy, a behavioural change consultancy working within the Professional Services sector.

In this post, Jamie considers what are some of the barriers to successfully embedding the critical process of giving and receiving feedback within a law firm, and what is needed to overcome these.

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Although most firms utilize some form of appraisal system, within many the exercise falls short of the transformational, motivational experience that the founding fathers thought it would be.

Why is that?

Mainly because getting feedback is a part of a process, not a stand-alone activity.

The term “feedback” comes from a mechanistic view of the world:  we do something, get the feedback on the outcome, and then correct our course.  Again and again. 

In the ideal world it’s like captaining a yacht – you’re never entirely on-course, because the wind and waves are constantly changing, but by getting constant feedback the Captain can tack left and right to ensure that the boat is never far off course.  If reaching your desired destination requires certain behaviours amongst your crew, ensuring that they are present and improving makes sense. The annual appraisal was designed to be akin to the yachting mid-course correction as it allows the more experienced lawyer to let the more junior one know how things are going.  Its lack of success can be explained:

  • Lawyers dislike giving feedback
  • Lawyer’s experience of getting/receiving feedback has been other lawyers, so they have only been in awkward meetings.

There are professional organisations who undertake the whole feedback exercise on a professional level.  Bowland Solutions have written well on this subject in their post 'Why do lawyers like 360 degree feedback?' 

The reason I think these external exercises can work are:

  • The feedback is run externally.
  • The feedback is not just top down – it’s side to side as well as bottom up.
  • The people running the feedback have done it before for other firms - and lawyers love an expert.
  • The feedback from the exercise is conducted by someone who is good at giving feedback, not just focusing on the negatives.
  • The whole exercise has a purpose.

The last point is crucial.  Feedback must be anchored in a wider framework, so that the firm knows what it intends to do.  Any feedback exercise – even the annual appraisal – takes up a huge amount of energy, both physical and emotional.  Yet, when I asked a group of lawyers how much they would have paid (in their own money) for their last appraisal, nobody thought it worth any money.  In fact one lawyer offered money to avoid having it.  It’s the apparent uselessness of the exercise (for those on the receiving end of the exercise) that creates the barrier, not the content.

A firm needs to begin with the end in mind:  “What is the purpose of the feedback?”, and crucially “How would your firm know if the feedback exercise had achieved its intended outcome?”.  In simple terms, what happens next?  Without a next step, you have made the cardinal mistake of raising expectations without a means of meeting them.

So What?

Before you engage in a feedback exercise,  ask yourself the question “When I know the answers, what are some possible next steps?" then tell the participants what it’s for before you begin.  Give the context, and you’ll get the commitment.  Don’t presume they know.  (Do you know why your firm does appraisals?).  If you only tell them to take part you’ll get something between compliance and stubborn resistance.

Jamie Pennington

www.penningtonhennessy.com

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John Rice

Sales & Marketing Director

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