One of my clients illustrates the problems with feedback. A star third-year associate attorney at one of the nation's top law firms, he received the top bonus for his level along with a performance review that focused exclusively on what he had done wrong. At the conclusion of the review, he observed that it was sad that someone could receive $35,000 and feel unappreciated. A year later, he was gone.
This situation is not unique. The recent NALP study of associate attorney turnover cites lack of effective performance feedback as one of the primary causes. I work with many law firms, administrators, and attorneys who acknowledge their performance feedback systems are inadequate.
The result? Many capable associate lawyers, partners, and professional legal staff leave law firms voluntarily or involuntarily, undertaking career transitions that are costly, painful, and avoidable.
The Importance of Feedback
Law firms cannot afford not to invest in evaluating, coaching, and developing their professionals. A highly competitive marketplace demands top performance. Contrary to the widespread notion that good lawyers spontaneously learn all they need to know on their own (CLE excepted), without feedback and coaching, many lawyers end up under-performing.
Simply weeding out all but the top performers is costly in many ways. The NALP study pointed out the enormous costs of turnover. When a firm loses an associate attorney or partner — either because he or she is pushed out or because he or she jumps — a large investment of time and money walks out the door. Aside from the emotional toll on the law firm as well as the departing attorney, the loss of clients and the law firm's recruitment and training costs represent only part of the huge investment made in an individual.
So why is good performance feedback so scarce in the legal profession?
Obstacles to Feedback in Law Firms
The reasons that law firms have difficulty with performance feedback systems stem from the law firm culture, including the kind of information lawyers trust (i.e., hard data), beliefs about how lawyers learn, the kinds of factors that are assumed to be critical to success as a lawyer, the lack of training or precedent for performance feedback, and the constraints of money and time.
The adversarial model of legal practice extends beyond the courtroom and affects transactional and litigation attorneys alike. At its simplest, this is the competitive model of win/lose: "If you win, I lose. If I invest in your professional development, you can steal my clients or leave the law firm."
Many bemoan the loss of the true partnership culture of law firms of earlier times, but the fact is, as Stephen Covey has stated, "you get what you reward." In the competitive field of law, what gets rewarded above all in compensation systems is rainmaking with its immediate impact on the bottom line. Law firm culture is driven by the bottom line. With time a commodity in limited supply and with enormous pressures on and rewards for performance, it is not surprising that performance feedback, mentoring, and professional development have gotten short shrift. The focus is on the short term, and it is very short-sighted!
Lowered productivity and turnover also affect the bottom line, but their impact has been largely overlooked as "the cost of doing business," an unavoidable aspect of a competitive profession. But are these things really unavoidable? To date, law firms have not made the best use of performance feedback, largely because they have not understood its bottom-line value. By not leaving learning to what lawyers can pick up on their own and by maximizing performance and reducing turnover, performance feedback can have an enormous impact on profitability and job satisfaction.
In his bestseller Emotional Intelligence, Dr. Daniel Goleman reports the results of brain, behavioral, and personality research which show that emotional intelligence — social and emotional skills such as understanding of one's own feelings, empathy for the feelings of others, the ability to read social situations, and the ability to control one's emotions — has a profound impact on success.
Emotional intelligence (EQ) is a much better predictor of success than technical and analytical skills. According to a cover story on emotional intelligence in Time, "IQ gets you hired, but EQ gets you promoted." Those who score highest on EQ measures rise to the tops of organizations, and the higher up one moves, the more critical emotional intelligence becomes.
The Relative Importance of Technical and Interpersonal Skills
The emotional intelligence research dovetails with other research that shows convincingly that as people move up in organizations, interpersonal skills become increasingly important and technical skills correspondingly less important. Consider the situation with law firms. As attorneys move up, especially when they move into the ranks of partners, their jobs become increasingly ones of management: managing clients, attorneys, staff, and cases or transactions.
Why High Potentials Fail
A third line of evidence comes from studies of high-potential managers who have succeeded or failed. Estimates are that 30% to 50% of high-potential managers don't reach their potential. In fact, Fortune reports findings from recent nationwide studies which found that 40% of new management hires fail within the first 18 months alone.
The Center for Creative Leadership's studies of high-potential employees who have succeeded or derailed found that derailed executives fail due to interpersonal problems rather than inadequate technical skills or intelligence. The typical pattern is that their strengths are rewarded and their weaknesses are ignored until they finally do them in.
For example, I worked with an outstanding associate attorney from a leading firm with the kind of "fire in the belly" that law firms desire. His high levels of initiative and drive led him to take on senior-level responsibility beyond his years. He constantly sought new and bigger challenges. Unfortunately, as with most of us, his biggest strength was also his biggest weakness. This same drive sometimes led him to take on challenges that were beyond his level of skill and to ignore the importance of building relationships in the firm. Without feedback and coaching to correct the problem, he lost his job, and the firm lost a potential superstar.
The Role of Feedback
Feedback and coaching can improve emotional intelligence and interpersonal as well as technical skills. Early intervention to address areas of weakness that are not standard practice in law firms can have an enormous impact on performance. In other words, if you are not born with all the necessary skills (and who is?), you can learn them. Performance feedback and ongoing coaching can be an important vehicle for such learning.
Successful executives report that a key to their success is their ability to learn from experience. It's not that they have fewer failures or obstacles in their careers than those who are less successful. What differentiates them is that they have learned from their experiences. On-the-job experiences, including feedback and coaching, are critical parts of the learning experience.
Feedback provides insights essential to identifying strengths and weaknesses; action planning and follow-up provide information and support to define, implement, and maintain the needed changes. Performance feedback has the potential to provide the crucial missing link between potential and performance, a link that law firms cannot afford to ignore.