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How to Get and Learn from Feedback in Your Summer Associate Job

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One of the biggest complaints summer clerks often have is the lack of feedback they receive from their employers. And that’s understandable. When you’re a student you get feedback on a regular basis in the form of grades. It’s part of your professors’ job to let you know, at least once a semester, how you’re doing.
 
But your summer clerkship may not be the same. You may get a formal evaluation in the middle of the summer and just before you leave. You may have “readers” who give you detailed feedback on every writing project you do. Or you may get no feedback at all. At one firm, the recruiting coordinator told me that “If you’re not told ‘it’s awful,’ you’re doing a great job.” A Post-It note on an assignment that says ‘Good’ is feedback, too!


 
In the permanent associate section I’ll talk a lot about feedback, because it has a huge effect on your career. Here, I’ll focus on feedback issues that are critical to your summer job.
 
1. Remember that all kinds of evaluations determine whether you’ll get an offer.
 
You should know about the variety of elements that go into your evaluations. You should also know the evaluations cover more than just your work. As one recruiting coordinator points out, “The recruiting committee makes decisions on the basis of not just evaluations but any other information, as well. Senior partners may call and say ‘At dinner last night so-and-so was very impressive’ or ‘X made a fool of himself. Watch him when he’s around clients.’ Or a secretary may say, ‘I’m having real trouble getting what I need from this clerk.’ All of those comments count as feedback as well.”
 
2. Get feedback of some kind on every project you do.
 
It may be that your summer program is set up so that you get formal feedback on every project. But that’s not common. And whether or not it’s offered to you, you need to know how your work is being received, for every project you do.
 
3. If feedback isn’t offered on every project, ask for it—the right way.
 
If you aren’t offered feedback on everything you do, you need to take the initiative to get it. Here’s the rub: You’ve got to ask for it appropriately. If you don’t, you might find yourself worse off than if you didn’t get any feedback at all.
 
First of all, watch your timing. Catch the lawyer at a convenient time, not when (s)he’s trying to meet a deadline. Try sending a simple e-mail that asks, ‘Got ten minutes? I’d love feedback on my work.’ That way, when it is convenient to talk, the lawyer will let you know.
 
If you’re at all worried about your timing—maybe the lawyer in question is always super busy, or just prickly to talk to—ask someone else at the firm how to approach him/her for feedback. Maybe you’ll find that you’ll get the best feedback from ‘Bob’ on the golf course as opposed to sending an e-mail.
 
Secondly, ask for specific criticisms. Say, “I really want to improve my skills. I know there’s a lot to learn”—and go on to ask about whether you approached the issue correctly, researched everything necessary, whether the format was OK—you get the idea. Ask with a tone of voice that suggests you’re looking for honest assessments, not a pat on the back. If you only ask generally ‘Was my work OK?’ the lawyer is likely to respond with a ‘yes’ and you won’t have learned anything of value.
 
4. “Sound the ship” no later than halfway through your clerkship— so you can correct any problems that might sink your offer!
 
When a ship is “sounded,” it’s generally checked out to make sure the hull is intact. Well, when you’re in a summer program, you can’t wait until the end to see if everything is shipshape. If there’s a problem—God forbid!—given enough time, you can almost certainly correct it. As one recruiting coordinator recommends, “Early in the summer, consider approaching someone you know well—preferably a younger attorney, or your mentor if you have one—and ask if there’s anything you could be doing to improve your performance. Ask the question in an open, positive way—“How could I improve?” or “What should I change?” That way you’re more likely to elicit a helpful answer than asking in a way that makes it difficult for the attorney to be honest with you, like “I’m doing well, aren’t I?” Or “I haven’t made any mistakes, have I?”
 
5. Handling criticism
 
Ouch! It hurts. It always hurts. But the thing you’ve got to recognize is that the only way to improve is to have people tell you what you need to do better. You know that as a summer clerk you’re not the best lawyer you’ll ever be (at least, I hope it’s not all downhill from here!). Incorporating improvements into your work is the only way to succeed.
 
Receiving criticism in a way that’ll bolster your stock is an art, but it’s an art that’s easily learned. Here’s what you need to know.
 
a. Remember that feedback only tells you one undeniable thing—someone’s perception of you and your work. Don’t take it personally.
 
Regardless of whether you agree with the criticism you receive, remember that it absolutely, positively shows one thing: The attitude of the criticizer toward you. And you can’t argue with that. You’re not an idiot, but if someone says to you, ‘You’re an idiot,’ they’re telling you what their perception is. Focus on that; how that person might have gotten that impression, and how and/or whether you ought to change their opinion, rather than internalizing it as a statement of your personal worth.
 
b. Don’t punish people who criticize you.
 
As an attorney in the San Diego City Attorney’s Office says, “Universally, summer clerks say they want feedback, but many want only positive feedback. If you interrupt people who give you negative feedback and explain why their point is unwarranted, don’t complain at the end of the summer that you didn’t get as much feedback as you should have.” If you’re defensive, “your supervisors simply can’t be fair, balancing constructive criticism and positive feedback. They have to accentuate the positive feedback and buffer the constructive criticism,” he adds.
 
If this happens to you, not only will you be losing a valuable learning tool, but you’ll make your employer think you’re a cry-baby—to use the appropriate lingo, you “aren’t mature.” Instead, You can get more feedback by rewarding people who give it to you: listen intently, look them in the eye and nod affirmatively.
 
LAWCROSSING CAREER ADVICE
 
The recruiting coordinator at a large West Coast law firm: "We always sit down with summer clerks immediately if they've done anything wrong. We always tell them: if we have to sit you down and talk to you, don't get defensive! We'll say something like, 'We want to bring this to your attention now before it's a big thing . . . ' A few years ago we had a summer clerk who started yelling at us, blaming everyone including his mother and father for the way they'd raised him. He refused to take responsibility for anything. We were stunned."
 
c. Ask questions that clarify the criticism.
 
If you get a criticism like “This memo stunk,” it’s going to be hard to know how to un-stink the next one. Asking clarifying questions isn’t being defensive. You need to ask for suggestions on what you should do differently so you don’t make the same mistakes again!
 
d. Make a list of the criticisms you receive on each project and incorporate them into your next project
 
An attorney from Skadden Arps says that “When you get criticized on your writing, write every criticism down on a list. You might hear ‘You’re splitting your infinitives,’ for instance. Compare your next writing piece to the list, so you don’t make the same mistake twice. The worst thing they’ll be able to say about you is ‘he learns well and responds to criticism,’ and that’s not bad. It means you have the raw material to be a great lawyer!”
 
e. How to respond to positive feedback.
 
Don’t be arrogant! Instead, be aware that no matter how well you’re doing, there’s always a way to improve. Show that you recognize that! As an attorney from Akin Gump suggests, “Even when you’re told you’re doing really well, ask, ‘Anything I can do to improve? I’m glad I’m doing well, what else can I do?” You’ll impress them with your graciousness, and your eagerness to learn.
 
f. Pay attention to subtle cues that tell you what’s up!
 
It can be very easy to misinterpret criticism.
 
Sometimes you just don’t want to know—or can’t face it. But you have to. There’s no such thing as a fatal mistake. There’s almost always a way to resurrect an offer and even if you can% there’s always a way to salvage a good recommendation from someone at work. So look criticism in the eye and deal with it.
 
One common mistake involves denial. As one recruiting coordinator says, “Sometimes when summer clerks hear a lawyer tell them something negative about their work, they’ll say to themselves, ‘Oh, they didn’t really mean it.’ That’s dangerous. Lawyers don’t like to criticize their clerks, so if you hear negative comments, assume they’re for real.”
 
And sometimes summer clerks hear a criticism but don’t appreciate what it means. As one hiring partner says, “If they tell you halfway through the summer ‘You need to do some great work’ or ‘You’ve got X number of weeks to improve’ or ‘We want to let you know about this before it gets serious,’ what they’re saying is, ‘Right now, you wouldn’t get an offer.’”
 
Listen also for casual comments in non-traditional settings. A comment in the car on the way back from court—that’s feedback, too. Many lawyers don’t like to give direct criticism. Listen to those comments. If someone you work for makes an unsolicited comment about something you could improve, listen very carefully! (S)He’s trying to tell you that you are making a mistake that you really need to correct in order to get an offer.
 
Pay attention to the source of a negative comment. Yeah, some people fell out of the wrong side of the crib and they’ve been crabby ever since. You still have to listen to their criticism, but filter it through the prism of their crummy personality. But if someone ordinarily very nice gives you some advice and/or criticism, take it very seriously. Many lawyers twist themselves in knots before they criticize, especially social behavior.
   
Sometimes the most effective feedback is never spoken at all. As the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words. If you’re getting lots of interesting work and partners request that you work for them, that’s the best feedback you can get—it may all be being said behind your back, but somebody's saying great things about you. By the same token, if everybody else is busy and you’re not, go to the recruiting coordinator and hiring partner and ask, ‘What’s going on?’

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