LawyerBrain CEO Dr. Larry Richard: Why Feedback Matters and How to Give it

Topics: Client Relations, Corporate Legal, Efficiency, Feedback, Government, Law Firms, Leadership, Leadership & Retention, Midsize Law Firms Blog Posts, Talent Development

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We begin a series of blog posts concerning feedback, featuring the insights of Dr. Larry Richard, CEO of LawyerBrain and a leading expert on lawyer behavior. In our first post, Dr. Richard discusses the importance of feedback and how best to offer it in a constructive and ultimately beneficial manner.

Feedback is all the rage among professional development leaders in law firms, and Millennial lawyers are driving the demand for feedback, says Dr. Richard, and he is focusing increasingly on the implementation of effective feedback systems within law firms.

Millennials Spurring the Increasing Demand for Feedback

To explain why so many legal employers are focused on feedback, Dr. Richard answered the question in one word — Millennials — and then went on to explain how there is scientific evidence that shows that the youngest of the Millennial generation (those born between 1992 and 2000) do think differently.

Backed by research conducted by Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, Dr. Richard summed up the root cause of this difference in thinking to “instantaneous feedback centered on the electronic device.”

“Every moment of every day is centered on an electronic device that provides instant feedback,” Dr. Richard explained. “If you are curious about a fact, you look it up on Google. You want to know if a restaurant is good, you go to Yelp. If you want to know what a friend is doing, you look it up on Facebook.” Moreover, the acceleration of how fast an image changes, whether it be media or camera angles in a TV show, has trained the brain to be impatient and to desire stimuli much more instantaneously than it has in past generations. This phenomenon of immediate gratification through media has contributed to the demand for more and more feedback in the workplace.

Another factor influencing this generation is helicopter parenting. Parents of Millennials tended to protect their children from any “discomfort, stress, or negative experiences” and thereby set an expectation of an environment with “no threats.” According to Dr. Richard, when Millennials enter the workplace and experience critical feedback for the first time, it can feel like a ton of bricks falling on them. This is in contrast to some of the Boomer generation when the parenting philosophy often was kids being told on Saturday morning not to return until Saturday night.

Science Says that Multi-Rater is the Most Powerful Form of Feedback

As far as providing quality feedback, a multi-rater feedback process, often is the best way, Dr. Richard explained, defining a multi-rater feedback as a system in which multiple raters evaluate a single ratee. It is based on a mathematical principle that the more data points you have, the more data takes the shape of a bell curve and points to a “central tendency” that is the closest to the truth.

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Dr. Larry Richard of LawyerBrain

In his work with law firms, he describes three variations on multi-rater feedback systems:

  • The first type is upward feedback where more junior lawyers are giving anonymous evaluations of a supervisor, e.g., an attorney who assigns them work.
  • A second variety is peer review, which allows partners the opportunity to weigh in on the performance of other partners. According to Dr. Richard, this is a useful technique for giving feedback to a leader, e.g., a practice group leader or a member of an executive committee.
  • The third form of multi-rater feedback is the full 360-degree feedback review. In this approach, a single ratee (often a firm leader) receives feedback from “below” (associates), “beside” (peer partners) and “above” (more senior leaders).

Following the Lead of Consulting Firms in Giving “Taxicab” Feedback

Dr. Richard pointed out that there is a lot of talk within the legal industry about the disruptive role of the Big Four accounting firms and their consulting arms, and this includes their advanced and more sophisticated methods of providing feedback to their professionals.

According to Dr. Richard, many AmLaw 30 firms are looking to the example of McKinsey & Co. because of its feedback-friendly culture. Indeed, McKinsey has intentionally set up its feedback norms in such a way that upward, informal feedback is expected to be delivered in person in the taxi on the way back to the office after a client meeting. In addition, Deloitte is well-known for its experiments on how to conduct feedback over the last decade.

Repeat, Repeat, Repeat to Institutionalize the Feedback

Dr. Richard indicated that some law firms are committed to embedding the informal feedback process into their culture by repeating messages to the partners, suggesting “When you have the opportunity, give feedback to the associates. Don’t wait until the end of the year. Give it after the phone call and when you give people an assignment.”

Indeed, law firms continue to experiment with the best way to collect and give feedback. “There is more experimentation around these types of issues that I’ve ever seen in the past,” Dr. Richard said. Some of these experiments are broad use a variety of tools to boost the feedback process. Some firms are implementing apps as the central place to collect developmental information; while others are choosing an app that is integrated with the firm’s feedback systems. Still other firms are choosing the low-tech option of using a standard survey tool to collect feedback information.

And some law firms have even created their own internal apps as a mechanism to facilitate multidirectional feedback. In one example, Dr. Richard noted a firm where associates can request feedback via the app after finishing a project or turning in an assignment to a partner. This has made the processes easy, instantaneous, and friction-free, and likewise, the partners can initiate feedback as well.