Feedback and mentoring

Five ways to give feedback when there's literally no time

June 5, 2024


Daniel Yim

A busy city crossing with lots of pedestrians moving very quickly

Imagine this.

You’ve just made a bunch of edits to a draft prepared by your junior.

You think: ‘It would probably be really useful to sit down with them and go through the changes.’

The only problem is, clients are chasing you on two other matters and you’re in back-to-back meetings all afternoon.

What do you do?

Training is hard

We know how critically important it is to develop our staff. In the words of one BigLaw partner I spoke with:

It results in younger lawyers (with lower billable rates) being able to handle more complex work. And that results in them getting an earlier vision of what makes this job fun. It drives all sorts of costs savings, while improving quality (and reducing some of the misery that exists for both associates and partners).
And that may make them easier to retain on a statistically significant level, which is going to dramatic reduce the huge costs (both out-of-pocket and efficiency losses) resulting from the constant talent churn that exists within law firms today.

Yet at the same time:

It's so damned hard to train people. It requires so much time and energy.

It’s tempting to relegate internal feedback and mentoring to the back of the to-do list. After all, it’s something that can always be done later when we have a bit more time. Right?

Except we know that time will never come, or if it does, you’ll always seem to have an internal presentation due the next day, or overdue business development tasks, or CVs to review.

I get it.

I’ve been there.

But the good news is that effective mentorship doesn’t have to involve a full blown, line-by-line page turn.

Here are some simple things you can try right now that take little, if any, additional time or effort.

1. Use track changes

Turning on track changes in Word might be obvious to some, but it’s definitely not universal practice.

Maybe you don’t bother using track changes since the draft will ultimately be sent in clean. Maybe you don’t like the clutter that track changes can create on screen. Maybe you just forget to turn it on.

Whatever the reason, if your junior cannot see your changes, they cannot learn from those changes.

Yes, your junior can run a separate document comparison between their version and the edited version. But based on my conversations with hundreds of lawyers, as well as my own experience, they won’t.

In an ideal world, everyone would take charge of their own learning. This is not an ideal world. Most people need a little push to remind them that each piece of work they get back is a learning opportunity. Something as simple as presenting the edits back in track changes can make a world of difference.

But I don’t like working in track changes

Did you know you can turn on track changes but still see everything in clean? Ensure track changes is turned on, and then select ‘No Markup’ from the drop-down list under the Review tab in the Word ribbon.

But there’s no track changes in Outlook for when I’m settling draft emails

This is true, and it makes giving feedback on draft emails much harder.

Check out this article for tips on tracking changes in draft emails, including how Sideline provides a one-click solution to this problem.

2. Give high level feedback in your cover email

It’s not exactly pleasant receiving work back that’s covered in changes. I’m constantly hearing juniors say they feel like a failure or becoming defensive when they see the extent of the markup to their drafts.

Of course the junior may very well be under-performing, or they might need to work on something in particular, or maybe they’re doing perfectly fine and the markups are a normal part of the learning process. The point is however, a junior doesn’t have the experience to know which one it is based on your edits alone.

It’s amazing how many people send work back in an email with simply: ‘See changes attached’. Taking the time to write just one or two sentences of high level feedback on what was done well and/or what they need to focus on for next time is an easy yet effective way to guide a junior on how they should review and digest the changes made to their work.

Don’t underestimate the difference this can make. Silence only encourages juniors to guess what you are thinking.

But I’ve got no time to write a mini performance review every time I settle work

I get it. There are situations where writing even a couple of lines in an email can take a non-trivial amount of time, especially if you need to formulate it carefully. In those cases, there’s the option of sending an informal comment via instant messaging (MS Teams etc.) instead. This involves much less cognitive load, but can still be effective and much better than saying nothing at all.

3. Explain your changes

Many junior lawyers I speak with complain that their supervisors make too many changes that don’t matter substantively (they’re just ‘personal preference’ or ‘the way they like it’), or that are the result of incomplete instructions having been given to them .

While some of that definitely happens, there’s often more to this than a junior may realise. Here are some real life examples:

  • Junior was asked to prepare and insert a new clause into a contract. Senior moved the drafting to a different part of the contract. Junior thought this was not an important change since it didn’t alter the legal effect, but where this new clause appeared in the contract was actually important for clarity and ease of use.
  • Junior was asked to prepare a draft email to foreign counsel. Senior reworded a lot of the email, without changing the substance. Junior thought Senior was being pedantic, and didn’t appreciate the importance of being ultra clear and simple to avoid miscommunication with foreign counsel, even if it seemed like foreign counsel had a good command of English.
  • Senior made a series of corrections to a draft contract. Junior assumed those corrections came from separate conversations between Senior and the client, that Junior hadn’t been told about. In actual fact, Senior was annoyed as Junior had missed those items from the term sheet they had been given.

In each case, the junior thought what they had done was fine, and the senior thought the exact opposite. But it’s literally impossible for the junior to realise this without being explicitly told. No wonder juniors are confused at annual performance reviews when these issues are raised for what seems to them to be the first time.

What’s the best way to explain your changes? There are a few options. Many lawyers like to write an inline explanatory note next to the relevant change. Alternatively, you can use footnotes or the comments feature in Word.

But it’s tedious for me to format inline explanatory notes, with all the highlighting and italics

You can easily create a customised shortcut that inserts a preformatted inline explanatory note placeholder into a Word document or Outlook email. This is a great time saver whether you use it for internal or external notes. See how to do it here.

4. Project healthchecks

People often suggest doing regular check-ins as a way to ensure regular feedback is given to juniors. I’m not going to suggest that though, because it’s more likely than not the check-in will end up being:

  • constantly rescheduled because everyone’s too busy;
  • focused on upcoming tasks instead of feedback; and
  • an excuse for the senior to not bother with giving meaningful feedback at the time the work is done.

There is one type of check-in however that I will recommend.

Project healthchecks were a game changer when I started running them with my teams. Here’s how it works:

  • This is a 15-20 minute session for the whole team working on a matter to discuss what the team has been doing well, and what the team could improve on.
  • It should take place after key milestones in the matter, so people can immediately implement the feedback, as well as at the conclusion of the matter.
  • This is not a personal appraisal, and nothing goes to HR.

Why does it work? Because:

  • It’s highly efficient, since you are giving and receiving feedback with the entire team in one go.
  • It’s framed as an opportunity for everyone to contribute to making things better, rather than as a senior telling a junior what they did wrong.
  • Juniors tend to be more willing to give their feedback and ideas to seniors in a group setting, especially if juniors outnumber the seniors.

Obviously, the feedback discussed during a project healthcheck will have more to do with managing workflows, internal coordination and dealing with clients, rather than the minute details of your markup to a draft document or email, but these skills are critically important, and too often the feedback on them is relegated to the annual performance review when it’s far too late.

But nobody wants to sit through something like this

Hold the project healthcheck at a cafe or bar, and bring the corporate credit card. It will be more relaxed, people will speak more freely, and people will want to come.

5. Double up on breaks

If there’s no time for a separate feedback session, can you double it up with something you’re already doing?

For instance, if you’ve recently sent comments back on your junior’s work, invite them to go and get coffee or lunch with you. It might only be 5 or 10 minutes, but that’s more than enough time for meaningful discussion.

There’s also the added advantage of informality, so it can be more of a conversation than a lecture, giving juniors the opportunity to be heard.

The additional effort should be close to zero. You’ve just turned the comments so everything should still be fresh in your mind. And you were already going to get that snack.

One other thing. Make sure you do this regularly and not just when you need to tell the junior how bad their work was. Otherwise, people will cotton on and there’s a good chance nobody will want to have coffee with you!

But I just need some down time, can’t I get lunch in peace?

Nobody’s asking you to do this every day, or for every piece of work you review. Keep it casual and do what feels natural.

The importance of in-the-moment feedback

The common thread between each of the above is that the feedback happens at the same time, or soon after, the work is done. This is critical.

I don’t need to say this, but under no circumstances should feedback be raised for the first time in an annual performance review. Not only do people have incredibly short memories, creating the likelihood of disagreement over what exactly happened, but giving immediate feedback lets people take action to improve right away. It’s pointless and only creates resentment to tell someone that the work they did 10 months ago wasn’t up to scratch.

If you’re interested in finding out how Sideline can help your teams with giving in-the-moment feedback and supporting lawyer development, check out our home page or contact us.

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