One of the characteristics of successful and effective leadership that we attempt to instill in our law students is the need to be self-aware. Effective leadership requires intentional reflection and introspection.
As we are in the midst of the holiday season, I thought I’d share a great collection of gratefulness articles. Gratefulness takes reflection, and reflection spurs gratefulness:
Feedback can feel threatening and intimidating to hear that your work did not meet expectations—especially if you do not agree with the feedback. Feedback, both positive and negative, however, help us become better lawyers and leaders. Lawyers need to know whether clients are satisfied, both for the current matter and for future relationships. Students need to know if their professors think the work is adequate; professors literally grade the papers. Young lawyers need to know if partners and judges find the work product acceptable; those individuals have substantial impact on the future of a career or a case. And finally, each of us needs to develop internal standards for quality written work, communication and professional development. Feedback helps lawyers develop a sense of where their strengths lie and where they can improve performance.
Below is a new feedback exercise we will be adding to the Teacher’s Manual for Chapter 10: Giving and Receiving Feedback of Fundamentals of Lawyer Leadership. In addition to the exercises, we will add suggestions for additional discussion topics, such as emotional intelligence, communication and relationship building, and tips for best practices in managing workloads and personal well-being.
FEEDBACK ROLE-PLAYING EXERCISES
Select two students from the class. Assign one to play the role of partner and the other the role of associate. Give each student instruction and background information for only their role. Give the class only the general description, not the background information for partner or associate. After the class observes the role-playing exercise, lead a discussion on how two participants could alter the conversation for a more productive approach to the scenario and brainstorm strategies for dealing with different feedback situations.
Scenario One: Feedback on Work Product
General scenario: Young associate has spent significant time working on a research assignment for a partner. The partner calls the associate into the office to discuss the memo received from the associate.
Partner Role to be shared only with student playing the partner:The client on this matter is an important client for the firm and the partner is a personal friend of the client. The partner knows that this matter could have dire consequences to this client’s future (could be financial, reputation, or even criminal implications). Partner finds the work to be unacceptable, believes the time that has elapsed was a wasted delay in moving the matter forward, and regrets giving the work to the associate. The student/partner should start the meeting by displaying anger for the associate’s unacceptable work. The student/partner should yell at the associate for doing terrible work and demand an explanation for why the work is subpar. This partner knows he/she has a reputation in the firm for being hard-nosed (i.e. expecting excellent, error-free work and not being a warm, caring and supportive mentor type.)
Associate Role to be shared only with student playing the associate: The student/associate is to act apprehensive about being called to meet with this particular partner because this partner has a reputation for being difficult to please. This partner also has a reputation for not being a warm, caring and supportive mentor-type partner. Knowing the partner’s lack of tolerance for subpar work, the associate tried to be diligent and address all anticipated issues; however, the associate has outside stressors (such as a partner or parent who is seriously ill or 3 small children at home) and is surviving on only 3 to 5 hours of sleep at night for the last several months. As a result, the associate feels overwhelmed and is having a difficult time completing all tasks to his/her satisfaction. The student/associate had all great annual evaluations in the past but has been more concerned about what this year’s evaluations might say. The student/associate should react as he/she is naturally inclined to do when overwhelmed and sleep deprived.
Scenario two: Update on Client Matter
General scenario:Associate requests a meeting with partner to discuss a phone call the associate received from a client of partner. This client was a first-time client for the firm. The partner does not have a history with this client and since it was a smaller matter, the partner turned the matter over to the associate and has not been directly involved with this matter after the initial meeting with the partner, associate, and client 6 months ago.
Partner Role to be shared only with student playing the partner:This client was referred to the partner by an influential industry leader whose opinion of the firm matters greatly. The partner was thrilled to get the referral but did not have the time to work on the matter. The partner also thought the associate’s lower hourly rate would be more appropriate for the matter. The partner assigned this matter to an associate who had handled a similar matter in the past. The partner received the report of hours worked and billed the client for all of the reported hours without talking to the associate. The partner has not checked on the associate or the client since the initial meeting. The student/partner should react strongly and negatively to the news the associate will share.
Associate Role to be shared only with student playing the associate: Associate needs to disclose to the partner the call from the client who is unhappy and feels the bill is excessive. The client complained that the hours billed are quite high and the descriptions of the work are vague. The associate did not see the final bill before it went out, and no one has told the associate there are any issues with how the time was submitted in the firm’s timekeeping software. Associate knows the partner assigned this matter to her/him because associate handled a similar matter in the past. This matter turned out to be much more complicated than anything associate has done in the past but associate did not seek advice or help from anyone. The associate has not updated the client about the matter in the last three months. The student/associate should disclose these facts to the partner as professionally as possible but then react defensively to anything that the partner says in response.
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.
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?