Before becoming a lawyer, I earned a graduate degree from a fiction writing workshop. I say “earned” not because I emerged with a novel, or even a great story, but because the program was difficult—far more challenging, at least form a psychological standpoint, than law school was.
During your week to be workshopped (or wood-shedded, as we sometimes said), you would sit silently while your classmates spent the better part of an hour taking whacks at your latest piece. The story meandered from one contrived interaction to another before stopping, rather than ending, and the characters, hastily drawn stereotypes, never resolved their conflicts, which weren’t interesting to begin with. And boy was the writing bad. Sometime around the 50-minute mark, the accomplished novelist leading the workshop would hijack the discussion to serve what we came to call the shit sandwich—a heap of criticism served between two thin, often perfunctory complements.
After my first workshop, it was days before I could turn back to my mangled story and begin to apply the criticism I had received. It took weeks for me to write anything new. But more beatings thickened my skin, and eventually, I began to seek out my harshest, most incisive critics for additional advice. Once I put my ego aside, I realized that their critiques made me a better writer. Not good enough; I high-tailed it for law school. But better.
The lessons in prose have been helpful in my law career, but not as helpful as having learned to accept, then embrace, and finally solicit, feedback. Most attorneys flourished in grade school, high school and college. We received far more praise than constructive criticism. Law school may have presented more of a challenge, but most institutions are not set up to provide rigorous, individualized feedback. You go to class for semester, you take a test or write a paper, you get a grade. In any event, while law school may teach you to think like a lawyer, it does not necessarily teach you how to practice like one.
So now you are an attorney at a law firm, a company, a governmental entity or a public interest organization. In all of these environments, you will work long hours with other lawyers and staff who (hopefully) share the collective goal of providing a high quality work product to the client, whomever that might be. The more senior lawyers who review and make use of your work are often besieged by deadlines and scampering from one matter to the next. Oftentimes, the bulk of the unsolicited feedback you receive is encapsulated in a periodic—perhaps only annual—review, which is heavy on overall impressions and is not intended as a deep-dive into the specific assignments you completed months beforehand.
If you want detailed feedback on your work, you generally have to ask for it. And you do want that want feedback; specifically, you want to know how you can do better the next time. Constructive criticism can be difficult to take, but it improves your craft immeasurably. Seeking feedback will also solidify your reputation as someone who cares about getting better and contributing to the organization where you work.
You will soon discover who your “best critics” are. They do not pull punches. Their feedback is thorough and insightful. These are the attorneys who are invested in your development and create the time to help you grow in skill and stature. Much as in a good writing workshop, you are surrounded by creative, intelligent people who care deeply about their work. But in a professional legal environment, you often have to ask to be wood-shedded. Steel yourself and embrace the criticism.
Douglas E. Roberts is a senior associate in the government enforcement, compliance and white collar litigation and qui tam practice groups in the Philadelphia Office of Pietragallo Gordon Alfano Bosick & Raspanti. He has tried numerous criminal and civil cases to verdict in federal and state court.