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2 posts from February 2018

February 21, 2018

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

By Gary Richards

In addition to the five guidelines for effective feedback listed in Part 1 of this series, consider these additional suggestions.

  1. Clearly define the expectation gap. The person receiving your corrective feedback must clearly understand the difference between what you expected and what they did: 

    Until this gap is obvious to the recipient, the likelihood is slim of their committing to change in the future. The purpose of corrective feedback is to define this gap with them, and to arrange their help and commitment to ‘close this gap’ in the future. Use a specific example to illustrate.

  1. Focus on the future, not the past. Once you have identified the performance gap to a team member and they understand it, move on with “so in the future…” describing how to meet your expectations next time. Focusing on the past can cause the recipient to defend what they did since it can’t be changed. Instead, focus on the future, which they can influence by changing.
  1. Be descriptive, not judgmental and avoid words that may trigger defensiveness, as shown in the table below  
Avoid Words that Trigger Defensiveness
  1. “YOU”…

… With a past or present problem.

Example: You assigned the wrong task code to this task…

(Look out for “we” if it really means “You”,

Example: We’ve got to be more careful…”
  1. “I” …to describe the problem/expectation gap:
Example:  I would expect code L140 to be used for this task, not L320 because…   
  1. Judgmental words: late, wrong, professional, cooperative, lazy, disorganized.
Example:  You assigned the wrong code-and we need to be more professional
  1. Describe the situation instead.
Example: When L140 is used for this task instead of L320, the client may get the wrong idea of our work.
  1. Control Words: must, should, ought, policy
Example: You must use the firm’s guidelines and definitions for these codes.
  1. Describe instead...let them put a label on it
Example:  Using the firm’s guidelines and definitions for these codes will help with accuracy until they become available from memory.
  1. “Why”…

…when trying to learn the reason for another’s behavior that you want changed.

Example: Why don’t you use the firm’s guidelines to avoid miscoding?
  1. “How or What”
Example: What makes it hard to select the correct task code? 
  1. Be specific, using a recent specific example of what you want changed: i.e., the outcome now occurring vs the exact outcome you desire instead. In other words, specify the gap with examples.
  1. Listen very carefully during the feedback conversation. Stop and ask for the recipient’s take on what you’re saying. This not only helps you get feedback on how the conversation is going, but it helps make sure it IS a conversation, not a monologue.

To prepare to give corrective feedback, consider using the script below to guide your phrasing:

  1. Say “I need your help regarding task descriptions and task code assignments. I have been reviewing the codes for work done on XYZ case…
  2. “When I see Code L140 Document/file management assigned to this time entry (show the task description assigned in the example) instead of code L320 Document production to that task…” Here you are describing the undesired result clearly, not criticizing the recipient.
  3. “…the problem is that can confuse the client when they review our bills. Keep in mind our definitions in this guide you received during code training…”(Show guide to the recipient, and explain why L320 is the correct code)
  4. “In the future, how about your reviewing these guidelines before assigning codes.” Or “How would you suggest that this coding can be accurate in the future?”
  5. Getting the recipient to interact may help uncover the reasons that they didn’t do what you expected, such as:
    • They think they are doing it
    • There is no negative consequence to them for poor performance
    • They don’t know how to do it
    • They don’t know why they should do it
    • They are punished for doing what they are supposed to do
  6. If a future solution comes from the recipient him/herself, the team member is much less likely to be defensive, and instead is apt to be more constructive and creative in discussing and implementing improvement.
  7. "Thanks for this conversation…I look forward to accurate codes next time.” Inviting the recipient to visualize how this change will look in the future increases the likelihood of correct codes.
  8. “And don’t hesitate to contact me if you have a question about how a task is to be labeled per our guidelines.” Offering to help shows that you will support their effort to reach a better outcome.

In summary, your objective in giving corrective feedback is to provide guidance by supplying information in a useful manner, to guide someone back on track toward successful performance.

Remember that people need feedback. If someone makes a mistake, it must be corrected or the behavior may continue and irreparable harm could occur.

Knowing how to give corrective feedback effectively can be the difference between having a motivated team and a team that feels misunderstood, unappreciated, and unmotivated.

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

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.