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February 07, 2018

How to improve feedback to legal team members (Part 1 of 2)

By Gary Richards

Whenever you manage a legal team – whether it includes partners, associates, paralegals, or others – you may occasionally need to provide feedback on team members’ work. Getting work done successfully by others is a key skill needed for the work to be done completed properly, on time and within budget.

Inevitably, there will be times when competent and dependable team members will not meet your expectations, overlook an issue, or miss a deadline. The best way to respond to this is to provide corrective feedback: information about how behavior is perceived by, and is affecting, others. It is meant to lead to positive change. With it, you call their attention to what you expected versus what they delivered, and ask them to fix it now and improve next time. That way they learn, and you have helped them improve.

But, being human, it may be tempting for you to avoid the potential tension or conflict possible when you point out how another person can improve. You don’t want to seem picky or risk demoralizing another team member, and in some cases your current relationships with the other team members could be a complicating factor, particularly if they are senior to you. And no matter how sincere your intent is to help, it's easy for the recipient to feel personally attacked. This is compounded when you have some power over the recipient. Be sure to convey the message that you appreciate the good work they usually do, and approve of their basic attitude and skills.

When you see a need to correct someone, it is tempting either to:

  • Avoid the confrontation. Instead of saying anything directly to them, it may seem ‘easier’ to:
    • fix it yourself,
    • avoid assigning them to the next case, or
    • try to raise the issue with the full team so as not to seem to be ‘pointing fingers’


  • Confront them immediately. After all, they should know better already, and there are quality standards to uphold. If they can’t stand the heat, they should get out of the kitchen!

Neither of those approaches is as effective as giving skillful corrective feedback so that they improve results next time and remain motivated, by following these guidelines:

  1. Understand the purpose of feedback: to provide guidance by supplying information in a useful manner, either to: 
    1. Support effective behavior by indicating when things are going in the right direction (praise or acknowledgement)
    2. Correct problem behavior/performance (corrective feedback) to get the recipient back on track toward successful performance
  1. Your corrective feedback will be more effective if you have also in the past given praise and acknowledgement of the recipient’s successes/good work. That way, the recipient trusts the fact that you have noticed their successes as well as their performance gaps.
  1. Own the problem, as in “I need your help…” not as in “You have a problem.They don’t have a problem--they thought it was a good job! Your problem is that your expectations weren’t met. Accordingly, you need their help.
  1. Use a face-to-face conversation to give the feedback, instead of phone or email. Being able to see each other’s body language and facial expressions facilitates understanding, and makes the encounter more personal. When giving one-on-one feedback you must be aware of the possible and actual reactions of the recipient, and to be careful with the setting and your phrasing in order to have it accepted and acted on.
  1. Give the feedback one-to-one in private, not in public or during a team meeting. With third parties involved, mixed messages and a lack of accountability are likely results. Instead, a private conversation protects the recipient from losing face with others present. Conversing in private avoids the recipient feeling “punished in front of others.”

    Keep in mind that corrective feedback given by email is equivalent to ‘public’ criticism since it can be ‘copied/passed around’ to third parties. Email is also generally much less useful than face-to-face feedback, because it lacks the immediacy of being presented directly by the provider, with the opportunity to explain or enlarge on it so that it's clearly understood. Impersonal feedback like email also generally feels much more like a personal attack, and is therefore less likely to be effective.

Additional guidelines will appear in Part 2 of this series.

This information is being adapted for our online LPM tools and templates.


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