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Sarah was known in high school as an excellent writer. In college, her professors provided very little feedback on her papers, suggesting at most using a different word here or there, and giving her A’s. Her law school professors provide few comments to her writing, and she simply accepts the grade and moves to the next professor and next class. Sarah is now in a law firm as a summer associate, and she has turned in her first research memo. The supervising attorney calls her in to discuss her work and hands her the memo. All she sees is a patchwork of red circles, arrows and scribbling throughout the margins; the only clearly discernible words are “redo,” “rework” and “rewrite” scattered across the paper. She hears the words, “I want to talk you about the project. You missed the mark.” How does Sarah respond? Her instincts might be to justify what she did and how she did it, or make excuses about her limited time or his vague instructions. These responses signal that she is defensive and unwilling to learn or take responsibility for her work. These traits likely will be of more concern to the supervising attorney than any concern over her missing the mark on the project. How should Sarah respond? The supervising attorney has a concern about her work. She needs to do one thing at this point-allay the supervising attorney’s concern. The ability to allay someone’s concern is a cornerstone of being a successful lawyer. If a judge asks an attorney a question, the attorney must listen to the question, determine what concern is being expressed and address it directly. If an attorney answers a different question, provides a weak answer or acts defensively, such as suggesting that the judge’s question is not the correct question, the attorney is not allaying the judge’s concern, and the attorney loses credibility and will not persuade the judge. If a client tells his attorney he is worried about being deposed, the attorney should not suggest the client is wrong for being concerned. Rather, she should allay the client’s concern by suggesting she will work with the client as long as necessary to make the client as comfortable as possible in a deposition. If an opposing counsel yells at an attorney about inadequate discovery responses, not addressing the concern will result in a motion to compel being filed against the attorney’s client. Similarly, when a supervising attorney returns Sarah’s memo, splattered with red ink, the attorney is concerned, and Sarah must determine how to allay the attorney’s concern. If Sarah can allay the attorney’s concern, the attorney’s impression of Sarah likely will be more positive than it would be had Sarah never had that opportunity. Reputations are built on how one responds to a problem, not on a success. Learning to allay concerns is not a focus of law school, with anonymous grading and little opportunity for feedback. There are few opportunities in law school to hear a professor’s concern, and work toward allaying the concern, by revising an exam answer or a brief. Rather, the professor reads the student’s writing once and provides a written grade. Period. Summer associates, however, have numerous opportunities to respond to constructive feedback during the summer. The response often is as important as the initial work. Why? Because supervising attorneys continually provide feedback (i.e., expressing their concerns) to the summer associates or longer-term associates who work for them. A successful working relationship develops only if the supervising attorney feels comfortable providing constructive feedback to the working attorney. Back to the supervising attorney’s office. The attorney says, “You’ve missed the mark.” How should Sarah respond? a. “I’ve never had anyone mark up my work so much.” b. “I really didn’t have enough time to work on this project because of all of my other projects.” c. “I’m really sorry. This is my first project and I really didn’t understand it.” d. “Thanks for taking the time to review my project so carefully and discussing it with me.” The answer is “d.” Sarah now should listen. Her goal is not to justify her position, but to hear and determine what the concerns are. Sarah cannot allay the attorney’s concerns if she does not know what they are. Sarah needs to understand the concerns to be able to revise the memo, to completely address the concerns. Address the concerns After Sarah hears the concerns, and asks follow-up questions as necessary, she should express appreciation for the feedback and rewrite the memo to address the concerns. Many of the suggested edits might be stylistic or utilizing a particular citation format. If so, Sarah should make them, and attempt to recognize the writing conventions this attorney uses. Other suggested edits might simply be incorrect, such as the attorney revising a description of a case, but in doing so, making the description inaccurate. Sarah should alert the attorney in a cover note or in a conversation when she turns in the revised draft that she appreciates the concerns, but she did not make one particular change because the change made the statement inaccurate. What about those suggested revisions that are incorrect but are likely not ones the supervising attorney is relying on Sarah’s expertise to consider? For instance, if the attorney incorrectly changes “that” to “which,” should Sarah raise this issue, refuse to make the edit or make it? This is a judgment call, but many successful attorneys have been in this situation when clients may have suggested such edits, which the attorney has happily made. When Sarah turns in the revised memo, she should express to the supervising attorney that she appreciated the feedback, that she hopes she addressed any concerns and that she looks forward to additional feedback. If Sarah has conveyed that she is receptive to the feedback, she will attempt to address any concerns, and she appreciates the opportunity to address concerns, Sarah sends a message that she is willing to learn to change and to be trained and mentored-all critical for success in the legal profession. What if, instead of being called into the office, Sarah had received the marked-up document via e-mail, with a cover memo indicating that Sarah missed the mark, but with no request for Sarah to continue to work on the project? Should Sarah respond? Sarah should respond in person, express appreciation for the feedback and offer continued assistance. Responding to the supervising attorney in person signals that Sarah is not hiding from feedback and is eager to address any concerns. An e-mail response making excuses for the work or challenging the supervising attorney’s comments does not demonstrate a willingness to address concerns. In addition, ignoring the supervising attorney does nothing to address the concerns. Another summer associate, Stephanie, has just had lunch with her advisor. The advisor mentions in passing that one summer associate the prior year had said “like” so many times in one sentence, that he did not come across as professional. Stephanie realizes that her advisor might have been attempting to send a subtle message to Stephanie, who does use “like” often when nervous. How should Stephanie respond? Her feelings are hurt, and she is embarrassed. Her advisor’s job, however, is to be helpful to Stephanie, and assist her in getting an offer. Stephanie observes that other associates in the firm do not use “like” frequently in sentences. Stephanie slows down her speech and decreases her use of “like.” Her advisor recognizes this and feels more positive toward Stephanie because she has been alert to a subtle message, and demonstrated respect for the advisor’s advice by changing her language. Don’t be too conciliatory Matt grew up in a family retail business and believes, “The customer is always right.” As a summer associate, he utilizes this principle, and views supervising attorneys as “customers.” When a supervising attorney provided feedback to Matt’s work, Matt was overly apologetic, stating “I’m so very sorry I disappointed you. I don’t know what I’m doing. I promise the next draft will be perfect.” When Matt received his document marked up by the supervising attorney, Matt made every change suggested, even though some suggested changes made the text of the document inaccurate, such as by changing the facts of a case to make them more persuasive. Matt’s response shows a lack of judgment. While he wants to demonstrate the customer is always right, the supervising attorney is not providing his comments so Matt can simply type the changes. Rather, he is expecting Matt to use his knowledge of the research to ensure the suggested changes do not make the document inaccurate. Matt needs to continue to utilize his expertise and knowledge of the law to ensure the next draft is accurate. While Matt wants to accept criticism well, he is not effectively allaying the supervising attorney’s concerns. Marshaling resources Jacquelyn has turned in her first research memo on pre-emption. She spent two weeks and wrote a 15-page, single-spaced memo, starting with the earliest Supreme Court pre-emption cases, and eventually addressing the pre-emption issues facing the firm’s client. The supervising attorney blows up at Jacquelyn, and tells her to “streamline” the analysis into two pages because that’s all the president of the client company will read. It is clear to Jacquelyn that the supervising attorney has no time to describe to her how to streamline her 15-page memo into two pages. What should Jacquelyn do? Successful attorneys are generally excellent at marshaling resources. Jacquelyn needs to marshal her resources. She should start with her advisor and those associates who know and work with the supervising attorney. She needs to determine from these resources what the supervising attorney expects, take the suggestions offered and revise the document into a two-page streamlined version. For each of these summer associates, the best response to criticism comes after the initial emotions or responses of hurt, embarrassment, fleeing or fighting pass. Professional environments can be more productive if team members feel able to express criticism or concern to one another. This can be challenging to some associates who have not worked in a professional environment. Permitting these emotions to pass, and then setting a goal of how to allay the concerns of the supervising attorney, are tools that will be useful throughout a law firm career, whether dealing with clients or colleagues. Joan B. Tucker Fife is a partner in Winston & Strawn’s San Francisco office. She has been in charge of the summer committees of the firm’s Washington and San Francisco offices, and is a member of the hiring committee.

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