June 01, 2021 | Vault | 3 minute read

Generally speaking, lawyers are a conflict averse bunch. Giving feedback, especially negative feedback, is not high on their list of favorite things to do. Rather than talk with associates, sometimes partners talk amongst themselves — about you. If what they’re saying isn’t good, it can inhibit your ability to get additional assignments and to continue your growth and development. And, unfortunately, it’s often associates of color who are least likely to get the constructive feedback that they need.

Just because a partner tells you, “You’re doing just fine,” doesn’t mean that you are, especially if that statement is never coupled with critical feedback. Because everyone has areas for improvement, right? In the Harvard Business Review article “Women of Color Get Less Support at Work. How Managers Can Change That,” the authors discuss how difficult it can be for managers to share critical, real-time feedback, “especially when there is an element of difference (race, gender, age) between the giver and receiver. Worried they’ll be perceived as racist or sexist, managers typically default to feedback that reflects ‘protective hesitation’ rather than the candor women of color need to develop.”

So what do you do if you’re an associate of color and feel like you’re not receiving the feedback you need to further your professional growth? I’ve got five tips for you, based on the excellent advice offered in the book Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving by Sheila Heen and Doug Stone.

Tip #1. Ask for feedback. But don’t ask, “Do you have any feedback for me?” You’re likely to get a no with such an open-ended question. Instead, ask, “What’s one thing I could improve?” Or, “What’s one thing I could have done better in that meeting or presentation?”

Tip #2. Ask in real time. For example, ask immediately after you complete an assignment for a partner. (Well, not immediately after — give them a chance to review it.) You don’t have to make it into a big deal. If the partner is talking to you about the next steps or the outcome of a deal or case, you can ask them then. If the partner doesn’t mention the assignment to you by a week or so after you’ve completed it, you could pop your head in their door (or send them a quick email, if you’re working remotely) and ask, “Have you got a couple of minutes?” If they give you the go ahead, ask them, “What’s one thing I could improve on that assignment I did for you?”

Tip #3. If the partner still won’t give you feedback, do you have a partner mentor or a more-senior associate mentor, whether formal or informal, who might be able to look at your work product? In addition to feedback on your work itself, you can also ask a mentor for their advice on seeking out feedback.

Tip #4. Be prepared to take in what you hear. As hard as it is to give feedback, it’s sometimes just as hard to receive it. Do what you need to do to take in what you hear. Try not to be defensive, take notes, and ask follow-up questions (such as, “What would you recommend I do differently next time?”). If it would be helpful, go process the feedback with someone you trust.

Tip #5. Act on what you hear. Think about what you need to do to improve your work product, and then take action. For example, if you hear that your writing needs work, ask your firm’s professional development department (or whoever helps with associate development at your firm) if the firm has resources. Perhaps you can work with a writing coach. If you get that opportunity, take advantage of whatever the coach offers — coaching sessions, writing assignments, etc. There’s no shame in this. Legal writing is a different beast from regular writing, which is why firms hire writing coaches in the first place. The firm wants you to succeed; it’s invested in you.

Please don’t read this article as me as saying that getting feedback is solely your responsibility. Of course, partners and the firm have a responsibility too. But as we (those of us who work in Diversity, Equity & Inclusion and Professional Development) continue to encourage partners to take the plunge and give feedback, be proactive and ask for what you need. After all, it’s your career.

*Originally published in Vault’s Guide to Summer Associate Interviewing & Top-Ranked Programs, 2021 edition.