Oregon State Bar Bulletin — DECEMBER 2009
The Legal Writer
Constructive Criticism:
A Generous Bonus in Down Economy
By Rebekah Hanley

Is business a little slow during this downturn? Here’s the upside: you have time to invest in an important, but often overlooked, task. Are you billing like mad despite – or because of – the economic situation? Great! But that doesn’t excuse you from rewarding your busy associates for their hard work.

You may not be in a position to pay your associates big cash bonuses this year, but you can – and should – reward their efforts in another way: through thoughtful, timely, constructive criticism of their written work product.

First, your newer colleagues need your criticism. They graduate from law school with solid knowledge and developing skills but little experience. Legal writers build on law school lessons throughout their careers, sharpening their skills further with each project they complete. But they need something more than just practice; they need input from more experienced lawyers. To improve their judgment, they need to hear your honest reactions to their writing.

Moreover, they want your criticism. They may be too shy to ask for feedback, but they are eager to hone their skills. And they recognize that learning about the impact of their words on their readers is key to their development as legal writers. You can satisfy your associates’ expectations by delivering the feedback they desire. Without it, they must resort to investigating how you altered their work before you sent it to a client or filed it with a court; they may not take the time to do so, or they may reach inappropriate conclusions. So that is not the most efficient way to teach those associates to make better writing choices on future assignments. Talking to them about their text and your revisions is far more effective.

Investing in your associates’ professional development is also in your own best interest. It is certainly good for business. Clients need someone to turn to when you are out of the office. When you offer your associates constructive criticism on their writing, you give them the tools they need to serve your clients and keep them happy. Happy clients pay their bills. Happy clients return to your firm when they need more work later. And once you and your clients become comfortable with an associate’s work product, you become free to spend your time on other tasks, including bringing new clients in the door.

But mentoring is not only financially rewarding; it is personally fulfilling as well. Few professional experiences feel quite as good as watching someone have an “aha” moment or hearing her describe the success she enjoyed when she followed your advice. And reading your colleagues’ work closely to offer your response can yield another important benefit: it can help you discover new tools and techniques that you can use to improve your own writing.

Finally, associates will pay this bonus forward. You serve as a model for your associates in all that you do. They not only watch how you interview clients, question witnesses or interact with opposing counsel. They also watch whether – and how – you mentor junior lawyers in the office. Associates who receive constructive criticism from you will likely turn around and provide it for junior lawyers later because you will have shown them that’s what conscientious lawyers do for each other.

Provide feedback in the form of honest, in-person conversations detailing your reactions, concerns, questions and suggestions. Written comments are fine as well, but a face-to-face exchange creates the best opportunity for a meaningful dialogue. Keep these tips in mind when you sit down with your colleagues to discuss their writing.

Be prepared. Before offering constructive criticism, confirm that you are working with a person who anticipates your feedback; a peer may not expect your suggestions and may not take kindly to a hierarchy he didn’t think existed. When working with a new associate, tell her when you assign a project that you will provide feedback at the end. This announcement will make her more relaxed and receptive when the feedback conversation occurs. And it sets the expectation that you will make time for that conversation, in essence keeping your feet to the fire.

Be positive. Begin your feedback with praise to cushion the impact of the criticism that follows and to encourage your colleague to listen to you. Start your conversation by indicating at least one way in which the writing met or exceeded your expectations. If you open a feedback session by describing struggles and failures, then mention strategies for improvement, before finally praising the associate’s efforts, even the most sincere and laudatory praise is unlikely to be heard.

Be specific. Name the particular skills the associate used successfully, point to specific passages where you see evidence of that success and note the apparent reasons for the success. Was the research thorough? The analysis in depth? The organization clear? The expression precise? Use the same specificity when you provide suggestions for improvement. A specific comment will tell an associate what she did well and allow her to build on that in future assignments. Moreover, it will serve as a model of precision, one quality of effective legal writing.

Be sensitive. A junior colleague may be more comfortable talking about her writing in her office than in yours. Being called into a supervisor’s office can cause stress, and stress can interfere with learning. Also, if you mark up your colleague’s work, avoid writing your comments in red ink; consider using a pencil or a word processing program’s “Track Changes” tool instead. Also, assume that your colleague worked hard to write well, and use a professional tone.

Be genuine. Your colleague will be listening closely, so only praise a quality of her work product that you would want her to recreate in a future project.

Be contextual. Connect your remarks to the work product’s purposes and audiences. Explain why a particular choice did not work well in light of the particular issue, document or client.

Be selective. Try to limit the number of opportunities for improvement you discuss in a single sitting. Extensive commenting may overwhelm, frustrate or discourage your colleague.

Be clear. Make sure that any written comments are legible and unambiguous. Confirm that your colleague understands your written and spoken suggestions.

Be consistent. Reinforce your feedback and avoid confusion by reacting to similar passages similarly. If you do not react to similar passages similarly, explain why those passages are effective in some instances but not in others.

Be timely. Provide feedback soon after a project has been completed, when the legal issues and writing choices are still fresh in everyone’s mind.

* * *

If you haven’t provided this kind of feedback in the past, you may be wondering just what to say. Here is one way to begin the conversation and to incorporate some of the tips above. “Let’s talk about the memo you wrote last week for the Martinez project. You did a great job developing the analysis, and I was able to incorporate many of your ideas into the letter I wrote to the client. Two things would have made your memo even more helpful. First, your organization would have been easier to follow if you had used topic sentences. For example, here I would have liked to read a sentence that said ….”

The feedback bonus should have universal appeal. It is available when times are tight, and – unlike some other investments – it offers permanent returns. Carve out some time to talk to your colleagues about the impact of their writing on their readers. Your contribution will inure to the benefit of your clients, your associates and the profession as a whole.

Rebekah Hanley teaches Legal Research and Writing at the University of Oregon School of Law. Her email address is rhanley@uoregon.edu. She appreciates Suzanne Rowe’s contributions to this article.

An archive of  The Legal Writer articles is available here.

© 2009 Rebekah Hanley

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