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Giving Feedback

Guest Post by Baylor Law Professor Greg White

Students say that they love feedback. But that’s not completely true. They love feedback that they believe in.

Put yourself in the student’s shoes. They want to hear what they’ve done right (or wrong), and they want to do better. When the feedback begins, though, what they hear is often criticism. As justified as the criticism might be, it’s hard for anyone to hear that the effort they expended was not really very good. Instead of feeling that they are closer to being a lawyer, the student feels they are getting further away. The challenge is to present the feedback so that it is received with appreciation and so that stimulates the mind – not so that is depresses the spirit.

One effective way to motivate is to delay your feedback. Let the student talk first. Ask: What did you find challenging? Did you think you did some part poorly? Where would you like to improve? What was the hardest part of the work?

Those answers and the self-reflection they require opens the discussion with the student’s own concerns, instead of the instructor’s critique . The instructor’s critique comes from a person of experience and expertise. That can be intimidating.  Let the student tell you what they need help with first. When they get the help they wanted, they are ready to talk about improvements they didn’t know were necessary, and improvements they never considered.

I recently talked to a student who had turned in a required assignment – the first draft of an appellate brief. In my opinion, this student was just awful at proofreading. Obvious spelling mistakes, repeated words, odd spacing and poor grammar plagued his brief – so much so that I had a hard time reading the thing. When he came to my office, I asked him, “What was the one thing you think you could do better?” He spoke up quickly, “I have a hard time with the details.” That led to a discussion about a trait he and I have in common – we love to have someone else check our work. That wasn’t possible with this assignment, so he needed some different tools. Grammarly and Brief Catch are both available to all students at Baylor Law, and we walked through using those as an electronic proofreader and style coach. Software is not perfect, but it was just the tool he needed. I wonder if we would have ended up sharing a common trait and worked on a good solution if I had started our conversation with “You know, I don’t think you did any editing and proofreading on this brief,” or “You need to spend some time editing and proofreading before you turn in the next draft.” Either would have been truthful and constructive. But, had a professor told me that, I would have recoiled a bit, and maybe wondered if I was cut out for this profession.

There is a time to be brutally honest. There are more times when we should seek to inspire.

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Handling emotional triggers: preparing our students for the practice of law?

By Liz Fraley

In one of my earliest days teaching, I was in the courtroom grading students as they gave their first-ever opening statement.  Nerves are common in this setting, and so we give feedback on both the structural and performance aspects of the exercise.  The last pair of students took their spots at counsel table, and I instructed the plaintiff’s attorney to proceed with her opening statement.  She stood in the center of the courtroom, spoke three words, and completely broke down.  These were not leaky tears; these were body-wracking sobs.  I confess to being caught unprepared for this.  I could not imagine what about this exercise had her emotionally distraught.  I did know, however, that I could not let her stop; I believed that would irreparably damage her confidence that she could complete the exercise.  I told her to get a drink of water (always a good move) and to continue.  She would get a few lines out and then cry again.  I kept prompting her with statements like “and then what happened” until she completed the exercise. 

After all the other students left the courtroom, she asked to talk to me about what had happened.  I readily agreed since I was mystified. She shared that when she was a first year student, she had attempted suicide.  Thankfully, she had gotten help and was much better.  However, the case packet used for opening statement by the students prior to her exercise involved an insurance dispute over death benefits: had the decedent died accidentally or by suicide? Hearing the previous students give opening statements in a case discussing suicide triggered the emotional response in this student.  I had not dealt with a “trigger” event like this before.  She assured me that having her continue and using calm, measured tones had been the right response for her.  She successfully completed my class and the bar, and happily seems to enjoy a good career.

Triggers present a lawyer-leader challenge, both in law school and in practice.  As fiduciaries, our own personal triggers cannot prevent our putting a client’s interests ahead of our own issues.  We cannot realistically expect a law firm to change its business to adapt to our triggers.  In other words, we cannot be fragile in this profession.  We have a job to do, and we must do it to the best of our abilities.  This certainly puts the onus on us as professionals either to seek the mental health help we need to manage our triggers or to be intentional about the type of practice setting we seek.  A lawyer like my young student probably does not need to work in a field where she would be likely to encounter suicide issues as part of her work.

In the law school setting, training lawyer leaders may require us to provide support and guidance to student who have unresolved trauma.  We do not serve students well by suggesting the world will adapt to their triggers, but we can help them understand both their professional obligations and how their own experiences can actually make them a more empathetic and wiser counselor.  In many settings, client have significant emotional responses to their legal issues:  sadness, anger, despair over the events and their lack of control over difficult and upsetting situations.  Transforming negatives into a positive enhancement for emotional intelligence makes a better lawyer. This type of work in law school also reinforces the internal locus of control skills that are needed for good leaders. 

CHALLENGE:

Identify a situation like mine when a student reacted in an unexpected manner to the discussion.

If you did not engage the student to discuss the situation, consider what possible reasons might have existed.

How might you handle similar situations in the future?

I would also love to hear your thoughts on this subject. Do you agree or disagree with my take on triggers?

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Dare to Lead by Brené Brown

By Victoria Filoso, Baylor Law Student


Friends,

As part of our leadership development class at Baylor Law, one of the assignments over the quarter is to read a book about leadership. Our definition of what constitutes a leadership book is broad for this purpose, so our students choose a wide variety of books, ranging from “leadership lite” (as Deborah Rhode called it) to biographies of famous leaders. The task to complete the assignment is for the students to write a short review covering the book and why someone who is interested in leadership might want to read it. So, we hope you enjoy Victoria Filoso’s review of Dare to Lead by Brené Brown

– Stephen Rispoli


Since her Ted Talk went viral in 2010, Brené Brown has established herself as the expert on vulnerability and leadership. Under the traditional, “old school” leadership mentality, these two terms were considered contradictory— leadership was about strength, dominance, and fearlessness. But Brown has flipped that notion on its head with her focus on how effective leadership is impossible without uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. Dare to Lead explores how sustainable leadership requires a high degree of emotional intelligence. Brown seeks to inspire modern leaders to reject the traditional aggression associated with leadership, and to instead lean in to and understand our emotions in order to manage difficult situations.

Dare to Lead is divided into Brown’s four skill sets that make the best leaders: the ability to rumble with vulnerability, living into our values, braving trust, and learning to rise. The most impactful section to me was the first. “Rumbling with vulnerability,” according to Brown, refers to how leaders deal with the fear and emotions we go through when things get uncertain and tough. Avoiding hard conversations, a lack of empathy, and increased shame are three ever-present conditions that hold us back from being courageous, the skill that Brown continually emphasizes leaders in our society need to master.

One of my favorite quotes from the book is “clear is kind, unclear is unkind.” It is second nature for most of us to be concerned with politeness. We are always assessing how others perceive and are constantly crafting ways to converse with others in a way that portrays us as “nice people.” Brown says that this practice of beating around the bush is actually holding us back from being effective leaders. Kindness is not being sweet; kindness is being honest and direct without being rude. In order to make progress we have to address weaknesses and being overly concerned with politeness is counter-intuitive to that. Leaders have to stop avoiding tough conversations because they are afraid of being unkind, because the only unkind thing is being unclear about what you want and need to reach your goals. Leaders need to have the courage to sit down and face those tough conversations head-on.

Courage is the entire foundation of leadership in Dare to Lead, but courage is impossible to achieve without rumbling with vulnerability. Vulnerability is not a weakness, and we need to stop thinking about it as one. Brown dedicates an entire section in her rumbling with vulnerability chapter on the “armor” we all wear to shield ourselves from fear and how armor is the problem, not the solution. Armored leadership drives perfectionism, operates from a scarcity mindset, squanders opportunities for joy and recognition, and rewards exhaustion as a status symbol. Daring leadership, on the other hand, acknowledges and embraces emotions and clarity, encourages empathy, and cultivates a culture of belonging rather than fitting-in. The daring mindset embraces the inevitable risks and fear that accompany leadership, whereas the armored mindset tries to deflect those risks and fears and they therefore stay unaddressed and unconquered. Brown says that being armored all the time should never be rewarded, and that instead we need to reward those who accept and venture into the unknown.

Being a law student through COVID-19, uncertainty has been the constant undertone of my thoughts this past year. After some cursory internet researching, I randomly selected Dare to Lead from the class syllabus to fulfill the book review requirement, but it ended up being one of the most beneficial tools to help me manage my anxiety surrounding the uncertainty. I was meant to read this book at this time, and I encourage everyone who is struggling to navigate our unpredictable world to read it. Because the truth is that the world will not get more certain once we overcome this pandemic. We are still going to face times where a good outcome is not guaranteed and we are still going to endure anxiety as a result –that is just the reality of being human and of being a lawyer. The only place we can make a difference is in our approach: we need to dive right into the water since we are going to get wet anyway. But if we dive in wearing armor, it will instantly drag us down to the bottom. The only way to swim across is to shed the armor, stay in the water, leave our eyes open, and keep moving forward. As Brown said, “The courage to be vulnerable is not about winning or losing, it’s about the courage to show up when you can’t predict or control the outcome.”

– VICTORIA FILOSO