Article published in Proctor, the Queensland Law Society’s magazine for the profession
You have toiled tirelessly to craft a masterpiece of legal prose, or practised your court appearance in the mirror a hundred times.
After all that hard work it can be difficult to accept that you could have done better.
It can be easy to become defensive of your efforts, to the point of failing to truly appreciate the value in the feedback you receive. Having struggled myself with receiving constructive criticism graciously, I thought I would share some of the tips I have picked up to help me get the most out of the experience.
It isn’t personal
Most people assume receiving criticism is, by definition, a negative experience; that you are being condemned, denounced as somehow lacking. ‘Constructive’ criticism is not about reproval, it is an appraisal of the merits of the legal work with commentary on how to make it better. In other words, it is your work that is being evaluated, not you as a person. We lawyers, particularly early career lawyers who often feel they have ‘something to prove’, can forget that we are not our work.
Also, consider the source and their motivation. An upset litigant on the other side is likely to have a very different view of your performance than, say your principal solicitor. This does not mean that both do not have something to offer if you are able to realistically analyse the criticism for any aspects that might help you improve for your own sake.
Sometimes the issue which is the subject of criticism is not about you at all; it could be a procedural issue that you could help improve so the entire firm benefits.
That said, criticism that does not contain some form of development advice, may not be ‘constructive’. This should not be taken to heart either, but should also not be taken as an accurate reflection on your work.
We are human beings, and we cannot possibly know everything perfectly all the time. Most lawyers have, at some point, had a moment or two when they knew that what they had was not quite right yet, but early career lawyers can sometimes be afraid to admit they could use some help. Don’t be. Being able to identify your own weaknesses is an invaluable tool.
I quite often take work to another solicitor and honestly say “something’s not right here, can you please review this?” I find my colleagues are usually open and frank in their assessment of my work, and often the insight and fresh perspective they provide helps me to refine my own practices and to build better internal procedures to assist me with future work.
Whether you have sought the feedback or not, it can be just as uncomfortable to give constructive criticism as to receive it, leaving some people dodging the central issue, trying to be polite. If you are going to be criticised, make the most of it. Ask questions, request specifics and make sure you are clear in your own mind as to what exactly the criticism is about.
The questions you ask should not just be ‘what you did wrong’, but also whether the other person has any ideas on how to do it better. This step can also help you separate constructive criticism from personal attacks – constructive criticism should include some sort of ‘take-away’ for you to work with.
It is called constructive criticism for a reason – to help you ‘construct’ methodologies to be bigger, better, brighter next time the situation arises. This is often easier said than done, and figuring out how to apply the constructive criticism you just received can sometimes be harder than actually receiving the criticism itself.
I always make a plan of what I intend to change to better my approach to the criticised issues. This helps me to make sure I truly understand what is being criticised and how I can improve it. It also helps me consolidate all the points above, to try to separate myself from the work or action being criticised and view it more objectively.
Quite often I also share my plan with my criticiser. This shows I have taken their criticism seriously, and also helps me confirm I have truly understood their criticism. Sometimes, I am able to get further feedback on my action plan as well.
Ultimately, I try to view constructive criticism as a process of self-education. Yes, it may sting a little, but using the above strategies I aim to turn any ‘weaknesses’ to my advantage, to learn from them, and to use them to become a better lawyer not only for my clients, but for myself.