What does ‘feedback’ mean to some of the best legal minds?

“The appraisal process is (about) engaging with employees properly, being transparent and showing you value them. Not running that process properly says the opposite.” Managing Associate

 

Situation

Our client, a Magic Circle law firm, conducts an annual employee engagement survey which has consistently identified that ‘more feedback’ is sought by lawyers at Managing Associate and Associate levels. However, it was not possible to deduce from the survey responses what this ‘feedback’ referred to. Hence HR and the Executive Partners engaged us to investigate deeper the lawyers’ views on feedback.

We proposed conducting semi-structured research interviews to enable deep listening. This is inductive research where the interview is approached not with a particular hypothesis to prove or disprove, but more about listening and interpreting to understand meaning, and provide insight to understand what the Associates felt about feedback from their own lived experience.

The Project

We worked with the HR Director and Head of Engagement to formalise the research brief and determine a sample to include male and female Associates, Managing Associates, Counsels and Partners across different Practice Groups. All participants were volunteers and were guaranteed confidentiality. All quotes and references were anonymised so that participants could talk freely without fear of repercussions.

25 participants were interviewed over the course of 3 weeks, generating 39 hours of interviews that were digitally recorded. These were analysed independently by three of our researchers who reflected and interpreted the interviews using Thematic Analysis. This enabled the distillation of the main themes by determining patterns of meaning from the interviews.

 

Key Findings

  • Currently the main vehicle for feedback is the appraisal process and this is insufficient for the lawyers’ needs.

The appraisal is the main vehicle for feedback but it is backward looking, time consuming and often impersonal. To the Associates the appraisal process lacks transparency and to many it is not a fair reflection of their efforts nor a guide on how to improve their performance.

“The appraisal process is (about) engaging with employees properly, being transparent and showing you value them. Not running that process properly says the opposite.”

  • Lawyers want more feedback from Partners and wherever possible from clients.

“I want evidence rather than opinion behind the feedback that I receive.”

They want more feedback from the Partners they work with and they want it in-flight rather than collated at the end of the year. Equally they accept that they may not take to receiving negative or ‘constructive’ feedback very well and hence would like the supporting evidence. Many of the lawyers expressed satisfaction at receiving client feedback and sentiment indicated that this ranks a close second to Partner feedback.

“Client feedback would be very helpful, I don’t see any client satisfaction surveys.”

  • Feedback must be delivered in a timely fashion.

“Feedback is far more helpful when it’s fresh.”

Although the content of the feedback varied depending on seniority, everyone agreed that it must be delivered in a timely fashion. Associates are more interested in technical feedback and seem less interested in career/personal development feedback at this point in the their career. More important to the MAs seems to be professional development (client management, negotiation skills) and ‘advice’ on career development (promotion and specialisation). There appeared little direction and coaching in this area.

“Feedback should be timely and frank… because unless you’ve done a stellar job, the Partner has forgotten by appraisal time.”

  • The effect of the absence of in-flight feedback is that Associates report feelings of uncertainty and anxiety, fuelling the perception that they are missing out on personal development opportunities and potentially career progression.

(By not being copied in) “I am denied an opportunity to learn. I know it takes more time to go through it, we do it with Trainees, and some of this is the Partners’ style, but I will be missing out and that’s an opportunity missed…for me to develop. That is what I want, to be the best lawyer I can be.”

 

Recommendations

On the basis of the findings above, we recommended that our client addressed four key challenges if it is to deliver a successful feedback process that meets the needs of its people.

 

  1. Address the Perception Gap – Partners give formal feedback at appraisal but Associates would prefer ongoing informal feedback on performance.
  2. Make Time – Partners, and for that matter the Associates, are so pressed for time that the opportunity to give in-flight feedback is so slim, it almost always passes unnoticed.
  3. Take Responsibility – neither side is taking enough responsibility. The Associates could ask for more feedback and the Partners could provide more in-flight feedback.
  4. Culture Change – the Associates believe that the culture does not allow for in-flight, timely feedback.

 

Final Outcome

Our client has incorporated these findings and recommendations into a broader training and development programme for its partnership. We continue to support our client by developing approaches that tackle the challenges raised by our research. One such approach is Black Cab Conversations (BCC) – read more about BCC.

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