How to Get the Feedback You Need Without Getting Electrocuted

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When I was six years old, I hammered two long nails through a piece of wood. Both nails poked through the other side by a few inches. I didn’t hammer them down completely, so each nail’s head was a bit exposed.

Then I took an old appliance from the garage and cut off the power cord. I left the plug on one end and exposed the two wires on the other end. Carefully, I wrapped a wire around the tip of each nail and covered the exposed portions with electrical tape.

My hotdog cooker was ready.

I laid a hotdog between the two nail heads and plugged my contraption into an outlet. I let the power surge until the hotdog’s skin blistered. It was delicious and I was proud!

(Honestly, it’s a miracle I’m alive. I could have killed myself with electricity. If a six-year-old did that today the parents would be locked up. Times have changed.)

The entirety of my hotdog project, from inception to conclusion, lasted less than an hour. There was no question that I’d done the job well. I had tangible results proving that my work had been successful.

Life as a lawyer is different. We don’t get the comforting feedback of a warm hotdog that we can slap in a bun and enjoy with mustard, relish and a little sauerkraut.

Our work lacks quick, reliable feedback. It takes a long time to know whether we’ve done a good job. And when we do get feedback, it’s not always particularly clear.

I long for the days of warm hotdogs and clear feedback.

Truthfully, it could be worse.

Some work, like that of venture capitalists, involves even more uncertainty. They invest in an early stage company, then wait years (sometimes decades!) for the company to go public, get sold, or fail. They make new investment decisions constantly, but rarely have feedback from their recent decisions. It takes years of experience for them to learn whether their earlier actions were fruitful.

Let’s go back to food for a moment. Instead of hotdogs, let’s discuss people on the other side of the feedback spectrum: Restaurant wait staff.

Waiters get lots of feedback if they work for tips (which is pretty standard in America). At the end of each meal, the tip tells a waiter how they performed.

A good tip encourages the waiter to repeat the performance. A bad tip indicates that some changes are required. A waiter will close this feedback loop many times in a single shift. The feedback, in this case, is fast and furious.

Smart waiters use these feedback loops to learn their trade quickly. They’re able to tweak their approach each night until, within a few weeks, they’re collecting maximum tips (that is to say, no performance on their end would create higher tip values). The feedback gives them the opportunity to learn quickly, earn more, and use their knowledge to maximize their earnings with carefully targeted actions.

Lawyers are somewhere in the middle

You don’t get feedback as quickly as a waiter does, but you can get it far quicker than a venture capitalist.

Most lawyers get feedback in several forms:

1. Upset Clients

An upset client is a painful form of feedback. But it doesn’t come quickly. Most clients suffer in silence because they rely on you. You hold their solution in your hands, so they avoid any actions or words that would alienate you or discourage you from doing a good job.

Upset clients hold back and only complain when they’re ready to explode, or when you’ve finished the case. It’s tough to get them to give feedback early.

2. The Partner

If you’re an associate in a firm, you probably get feedback from the boss. But that’s not always the case and many associates are left to fend for themselves.

Feedback is essential to learning. You want to know what you did right so you can repeat it. You want to know what you did wrong so you can avoid it. Associates have every right to request and expect feedback.

Your compensation as a part of the firm comes in many forms, and feedback is critical to building your value over time. The feedback you get, and your response to the feedback, will help you steadily enhance your reputation.

3. Referral Sources

Referral sources send clients to you because they like you, have heard good things about you, and have a sense that you’re trustworthy. They’ll continue to send clients your way as long as things are going well for their clients.

Monitor your referrals. If they slow down or stop, you need to dig deeper and figure out why things have changed. Be willing to approach your referral sources and inquire as to how things are going.

The most effective lawyers ask early. They touch base with the referral source during and after each engagement to gather all available feedback.

4. The State Bar

This is almost the worst form of feedback. It usually comes by way of a certified letter from your licensing agency.

A potential rule violation is bad, but it’s secondary to the reality that you upset someone to the point that they found it necessary to take formal action. This kind of feedback doesn’t come quickly due to the bureaucracy involved and often takes months or years before you have a chance to close the loop.

5. Malpractice Action

The worst form of feedback is when you are served with a complaint and have to deal with litigation regarding your performance. Just mentioning this form of feedback makes me queasy and I’m guessing you’re not thrilled to hear about it. I’m going to assume you understand this type of situation and don’t need me to rant about it.

We need feedback

You can’t improve without feedback, but the most common sources – upset clients, upset bosses, upset referral sources, the State Bar, or litigation – aren’t particularly helpful.

These forms of feedback come too late to help us improve with a particular client and they’re often so upsetting that we shut down when it comes to absorbing their lessons. We don’t spend much time learning because we’re too busy being defensive, hurt and angry.

Working in a vacuum without feedback is difficult. It’s what most of us do every day, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

We need to hear from our clients and others so we can improve each day, rather than only improving at random intervals when something goes wrong. We need feedback loops that close quickly enough that we can realize value from the lessons.

What can you do to get more feedback for yourself and your team so you can close the loop faster, learn faster, and improve faster?

1. Tell your team

For the most part, we live in a feedback vacuum, but that doesn’t need to be the case for your firm.

Start giving more feedback to your team. Pass along client comments and responses. Make sure your associates and others know what’s working and what’s not. The team can’t improve if they’re not getting all of the available data.

2. Ask your team

Your team witnesses the closing of feedback loops more than they report to you. They know when a client leaves a meeting happy, distressed or disgruntled. They know how a client reacted to the events of court or a meeting. Regularly mine your team for data, and train them to monitor and report it on their own.

3. Talk to the referral sources

Happy clients don’t usually report back to the referral source. Unhappy clients, however, nearly always tell the referral source about their poor experience.

Referral sources may be bound by confidentially rules, but in some cases they can obtain consent to speak with you about the representation. Make it clear to the referral source that you’re concerned and explain the lengths you have taken (or will take) to fix the problem.

4. Check in with your clients

We check in with our clients each month. We ask them how things are going. We code them internally as red, yellow or green. We take corrective action when a client is yellow or red.

Our lawyers used to hate that we “checked up on them” by touching base with the clients. Now, they recognize that we’re doing it so they can get more feedback as to whether the current approach is having the desired outcome.

We’re doing our associates a favor, as well as helping and protecting the law firm. An opportunity to make a mid-course correction dramatically increases the likelihood that our clients will eventually become a referral source.

5. Talk to the clients afterward

We use the Net Promoter Score system and do a one-question survey of our former clients. We simply ask them how likely they are to refer their friends or family to us in the future. We encourage them to elaborate and we circulate their responses to everyone involved in the representation.

6. Ask the other professionals

Many of the matters we handle are observed by others. We’re observed by judges, opposing counsel, mediators, arbitrators, expert witnesses, and others.

Build relationships with these folks and ask for help. Yes, it opens us up to criticism and pushes our buttons when we feel vulnerable.

But the feedback from parties who have watched us perform and interact with our clients is incredibly valuable. They witness our performance in a way that few have the opportunity to see. Get feedback from them and be willing to give feedback in return.

7. Automated feedback

We gather our feedback one client at a time, by phone with a personal call. But some firms use a variety of automated approaches to get even more feedback. An automated system might work for you.

Some firms use email surveys. Some use clickable icons in emails asking for ratings. Some ask clients to indicate their level of satisfaction each time they log into the client portal. More feedback is better if it results in higher levels of performance by the firm and satisfaction for the client.

We operate in a world where feedback is limited

We work in a zone somewhere between the waiter and the venture capitalist. More feedback gives us tools to learn, improve, and grow a strong reputation.

Your job is to constantly look for ways to get more feedback, for yourself and for your team, and then use it to improve.

Thankfully, the feedback I got for building the hotdog cooker came in the form of a warm hotdog. My six-year-old self could have obtained feedback in a more shocking way. Had that happened, I might have figured out a way to improve. (I might also have found my hotdog career at a sudden and permanent end.)

Sometimes feedback is painful, but it’s always valuable. It’s the only way to get better.

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