Issue No. 3, August 2003

Dear Colleague:


  1. Spotlight on Feedback
    • Delivering Constructive Feedback with a Positive Impact
    • Handout: Giving Feedback Constructively
  2. Improving Performance Through Coaching: Two Case Studies
  3. Management Tip: Using self-assessments in the performance review process
  4. Training innovations:
    • Firms Training Each Other
    • Board Game: "Anatomy of a Matter"

When was the last time people in your office complained that they received too much feedback? Most of the complaints you hear – especially from associates - are probably just the opposite. Associates either get no feedback at all or the feedback they receive is decidedly unhelpful. Young professionals hunger for specific guidance on how to perform better, especially if they are having work-related problems. This issue's "Spotlight on Feedback" discusses how to deliver feedback about performance problems and presents a summary of points for giving feedback that readers may download and use.

While feedback may point out where improvement is needed, many people who learn that they have performance problems do not know how to alter their behavior or lack the confidence, insights, or support needed to make necessary changes. Firms and companies are increasingly hiring professional coaches to help individuals and teams remedy performance and behavior problems. The case studies presented below describe how we provided coaching services in two very different situations.

This issue of Management Solutions also discusses the use of self-assessments as part of the annual performance review process, and highlights two innovative approaches to training – an educational program created by two law firms working collaboratively, and an imaginative board game used to teach new associates how work gets done in the firm.

As your firm welcomes its new associates over the next few weeks, it is important to have your professional development program "ready for prime time." Be sure your orientation, work assignment system, mentoring program, and training curriculum are planned and on track, and that you can tell new associates what to expect over the coming months. They will want to know how the firm will help them get challenging, interesting work, concerned and committed mentors, and the training and supervision they need to become fine lawyers.


Giving feedback about performance problems makes people uncomfortable. We avoid giving people the feedback they want and need because we are uneasy passing judgment on others; we don't want people to dislike us for being critical; or we worry that the receiver will become emotional. But partners and managers have a responsibility to give feedback to those they supervise, especially when someone's performance does not measure up to expectations. People need to know promptly when corrective action is needed so they can make necessary and timely improvements. Since partners and managers must give constructive feedback, they need to learn how to do it in a way that has a positive impact with a minimum of discomfort.

Readers of Management Solutions have requested a brief resource that lays out the main principles for delivering feedback about performance or behavior problems. In response, we have created a summary of key points for preparing and delivering constructive feedback in a positive way. Download Giving Feedback Constructively here and use it as a guide to make difficult feedback conversations less unpleasant and more productive. For additional assistance with feedback training, contact us about our management training workshops.

Feedback starts with a particular, observed behavior or action. Your feedback message should tell the recipient what you observed, giving specific factual details. If you did not observe it personally, you need to establish that the feedback you are giving is credible. Explain how you acquired the information and why you are the one delivering the feedback message. Next, state your expectations or the firm's performance standards and how the person's behavior or action deviated from them. Then explain why this behavior or action is problematic, and what its implications or consequences might be on the person, on you, or on other people such as the client or fellow team members. Lastly, discuss with the recipient how he or she will remedy the problem.

The most important thing to remember about feedback is that it is intended to be beneficial. This may seem obvious when the feedback extols good work. But even feedback about poor performance or undesirable behavior should be given with good intentions - to help a person learn and improve. When conveyed in an upbeat, constructive manner, it can motivate the feedback recipient to change.


Many law firms and companies now hire outside coaches to help lawyers improve performance. Coaches typically work with individual lawyers or teams to assess current performance, identify and set performance goals, and provide ongoing support and encouragement. To give readers an idea of the variety of situations where a short series of coaching sessions can have a significant impact on an individual's performance, here are the stories of how two very different lawyers benefited from our coaching services.

  1. Turning "Required" Counseling into Productive Learning

Frank's workplace behavior had always been above reproach, but when his firm fired a secretary, she claimed that Frank had sexually harassed her. She and Frank did not work together, and she did not claim there was any physical relationship or contact, but she alleged that he had made suggestive comments to her. The firm settled with the secretary and the settlement required that Frank receive counseling about appropriate workplace conduct. The firm asked me to meet with Frank to provide that counseling.

Needless to say, Frank was less than happy to meet with me. He admitted that the comments he had made to the secretary were foolish and inappropriate, but did not feel they amounted to harassment. He resented her allegations, the settlement, and the mandated session with me. We began by acknowledging Frank's resentment and agreeing to move beyond it for the time we had to work together. As we discussed the secretary's claims, Frank recited problems he had had with other secretaries over the years. Our discussion made him realize that those problems stemmed from poor management skills. Frank did not organize work well, his office was a mess, and his secretaries complained that he did not give them enough information about his projects, schedule, or work expectations. This made him less efficient and frustrated his secretaries. It also demonstrated his lack of respect for secretaries as professionals.

As we worked together, we generated a list of steps Frank would take to organize his desk and his schedule; to communicate his work plans, needs, and schedule to his current secretary; and to treat her like a professional. When we concluded, Frank's resentment waned, he was interested and motivated to become a better manager, and he had begun taking specific measures to improve his management skills.

  2. Raising a Lateral Associate’s Performance to Meet Expectations 

Angela was a lateral associate with a sterling academic background who had spent her first two years in practice working in another excellent law firm. However, her performance in the new firm was far below what the firm expected of someone with her credentials. Her first supervising partner was very disappointed in the quality of her work. Because Angela was a person of color, the firm assigned her to work with one of the firm's most admired partners who was very sensitive to the problems that minority lawyers face. Unfortunately, that work experience also ended badly. The firm asked me to work with Angela to see if an outside perspective might be helpful.

Angela was wary and anxious when we first met. We were only able to begin working effectively when she believed that (1) our conversations would remain completely confidential and (2) the firm had asked me to work with her because they genuinely wanted her to stay and succeed. When she felt that she could trust me, Angela was able to discuss some of the factors she felt were contributing to her poor performance. She felt that her two main problems were her lack of good work experience at her previous firm and her discomfort as a lawyer of color in her current firm.

At her previous firm, she had been given little training or responsibility, and no client contact. Associates at the same seniority level in her current firm had far more training and hands-on experience. This meant that she started off at a significant disadvantage and that the quality of her work was not as good as it should be. In addition, Angela felt she was being scrutinized more closely than other associates because of her race. She felt inadequate and anxious, which made it hard for her to concentrate on assignments. She was not satisfied with the quality of her own work but could not figure out how to get out of this "negative spiral."

As she and I worked together, Angela was able to develop strategies to help her overcome her anxiety, regain her confidence, focus on her assignments, and seek the work experience and direction she needed to get back on track. As the quality of her work improved, so did her evaluations and her self-esteem.


The performance evaluation process gives individuals feedback about their overall performance during the preceding 6-12 months. Many firms use self-assessments as part of this evaluation process. While self-assessments are a good idea, firms are not using them as effectively as they could.

Typically, firms instruct people to evaluate their own performance using the identical form that others will use to evaluate them. But having people use the same evaluation form may seem devious. People feel manipulated, as if the firm is "testing" them to see if they "answer" the same way their evaluators rate them.

A better approach to self-assessments is to ask individuals to summarize their strengths, achievements, needs, and future development goals. The self-assessment form should ask them to describe their work experience over the past review period and what kind of work they would like to do in the next review period. It should inquire about the people they worked with and the level of supervision and feedback they received. The form should also allow them to tell the firm of any particular problems they face, work experience or training they desire, and ways the firm can help them perform better. Some firms have associates discuss this type of self-assessment with a mentor who can give them insight and guidance.

This kind of self-assessment allows associates to reflect on their professional status, development, and ambitions. It involves associates in the evaluation process as active participants, not merely passive receivers. This promotes meaningful dialogue during the review meeting.

In addition, information from all associates' self-assessments gives the firm valuable data that can be used to improve and enrich its professional development programs. In this way, the self-assessment can serve both as a learning and development tool for individuals and a valuable planning resource for the firm.


a. Firms training each other. Minneapolis is a most congenial city for lawyers. Two of its prominent but very different law firms - Dorsey & Whitney LLP and Schwegman, Lundberg, Woessner & Kluth, PA - have formed a collaborative training relationship. Dorsey is a 700-lawyer global law firm with a substantial intellectual property practice, including patent litigation. Schwegman is a much smaller firm, with approximately 60 lawyers, and concentrates solely on patent preparation and prosecution. The Schwegman firm does not engage in intellectual property litigation, but it does support litigation through opinion work, IP audits and expert witness services.

When the two firms represented the same client in a patent dispute, the lawyers from both firms were struck by the many advantages to having separate legal counsel collaborate on litigation and patent opinion matters. So the firms developed a course that covers litigation, opinion work, pertinent attorney-client privilege issues, and how to determine when referrals to other counsel are appropriate. The program has been taught at Schwegman by Dorsey lawyers, and will be presented at Dorsey later this year. In addition to better serving their clients, this program adds a new dimension to the education of IP lawyers at both firms, and strengthens their business networks, promoting cross-referrals of IP business between the firms.

b. Board Game: "Anatomy of a Matter." In the last issue of Management Solutions, we featured a DVD-based practice group leadership program created by Blank Rome LLP, a Philadelphia law firm. Continuing its creative streak, the firm recently designed a clever board game called "Anatomy of a Matter," which teaches the firm's new lawyers (and some experienced ones, too) how work gets done in the firm. It follows the path of a new business matter from the time it comes in to the firm until revenues are collected, paid out, and invested. In the game, players learn the various tasks involved in handling new business (e.g., conflicts, staffing, billing), how the tasks fit together, who does them, and generally, how the firm manages its work.

The firm uses the game as part of its mentoring program for new associates. In the mentoring program, each new associate is paired with an associate-mentor and a partner-mentor. These three-person mentoring teams compete against each other for prizes of chocolate money. This board game is low-tech (clip art on foam board, and game cards made of paper), educational, and fun. To learn more about it, contact Joyce Keene,

©2003 Ida Abbott Consulting email:
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