“Thank You for Telling Me My Work Sucks”: Why Negative Feedback Can be a Good Thing
I recently moved houses. (Yes, we are those “COVID made me move” people.)
While I was packing up over a decade’s worth of ‘stuff’, I found a performance review from my third year of practice shoved in the bottom of an old banker’s box. Reading the comments made me think about how much I have grown as a lawyer, especially when it comes to receiving negative feedback.
For some context, the following are direct quotes from reviews from the partners I worked with that year (edited for confidentiality) discussing my written advocacy skills:
“Erin’s written work product was clear, direct, and concise.”
“Very solid writing skills. Precise and clear.”
“Erin has very strong drafting skills. Her writing is point first and persuasive.”
“Erin consistently produces first rate written work product. It is clear, user friendly and responsive to the issues it is intended to address.”
“I did not think Erin’s written work was at the expected level. I was disappointed with the draft facta (sic) in the ‘XYZ’ matter and they required substantial re-working.”
I didn’t remember the first four reviews, but that final one has stuck with me for 12 years. Especially the word “disappointed”. As a recovering people pleaser, I hate disappointing anyone, especially someone who is relying on me to do a good job.
I also remember my reaction when I first read that review. I remember avoiding the partner in the halls. I was angry. I was hurt. I thought it was unfair. I was in a bad mood. It didn’t matter that the rest of my review was glowing. That final comment was the only one that counted.
It took me a long time to learn how to handle this type of feedback and criticism of my work.
It took me even longer to realize that negative feedback can be a good thing.
Over the years I have relied on a few tips that have helped me when receiving negative feedback. These tips work for lawyers of all ages and stages because as we progress in our career, partners may no longer be critiquing our work, but management, opposing counsel, judges, and our clients are:
1. Don’t rush to respond. Take a breather.
Our first instinct will be to be defensive. I remember wanting to explain to the partner why his criticism was unwarranted, why I decided to draft the documents the way I did, why he was wrong. I felt the need to explain away the criticism.
Folks, this is not helpful. It wasn’t until I was on the other end of providing feedback that I truly understood how unproductive this defensive behaviour can be.
I remember one articling student. Whenever I politely provided feedback or suggestions on how to improve his work, he immediately pushed back with an excuse: “Well so-and-so does it this way” or “You should have told me you wanted it done this way” or “I’m only an articling student”. I was trying to mentor him and help him improve his legal practice, but he wanted none of it. He never listened to the specific feedback; instead, because he did not hear the glowing review he expected, he pushed back. Eventually I just stopped working with him.
When a more senior lawyer, or a client, gives you negative feedback, fight the urge to speak. You will be defensive. We are only human. Take a breather. Maybe ask for time to respond if you need to. And listen. Truly listen to what they are saying. Try to understand the root of the criticism. Is it a fact (you missed a deadline)? Or an opinion (I don’t like how you wrote this)? If it’s a fact, immediately own up to the mistake or accept the criticism. If it is an opinion, see the next tip.
2. Ask questions to understand the feedback.
If the feedback is not a fact, but an opinion, ask questions to understand. If we do not understand the negative feedback, we cannot act on it. What parts of the Statement of Claim need improvement? How could it be improved? What parts of the document did they like? etc.
3. Don’t avoid the person or hold a grudge: You are only hurting yourself.
Yes, it is uncomfortable knowing that someone didn’t like your work. But if you avoid that partner or client, you are only hurting yourself. You will be missing out not only on opportunities to work with, and learn from, that person again, but you will also miss out on showing that you listened to their feedback and used it to improve.
4. Remember that not all criticism may be warranted.
Sometimes the criticism is unwarranted. Consider where the criticism is coming from. Did your work product really fall below expected standards or does this partner always rewrite everyone’s work, no matter what? Does ego play a part? Or more importantly, is the criticism directed at you because of your gender, race or sexual orientation?
This is why asking questions is so important. By digging into the criticism, it will be easier to see the intent behind it.
5. Understand the Positive Side to Receiving Negative Feedback
Remember that proper feedback comes from an intent to help. That partner or client wants to let you know what went wrong so you won’t do it again. Often, we don’t see our own shortcomings. Be grateful that someone has taken the time to provide that feedback to you and that you now have an opportunity to be an even better lawyer than you already are.
So, back to my negative review.
Why did that partner write that comment?
Maybe I wrote some crappy factums.
Maybe I was working several long hours, for several days and I was too tired to produce stellar work.
Maybe I forgot to use active voice.
Maybe I missed some case law.
Maybe the partner had a particular way he liked factums to be written and I failed to follow his preference.
Or, maybe I just suck at writing.
But I will never know.
Instead of asking questions to understand the feedback better and to learn how to improve my legal writing, I ignored the partner. I missed an opportunity. Don’t be me.
Women Leading in Law: Amee Sandhu
Welcome back to the Women Leading in Law blog series. Today we are privileged to learn from Amee Sandhu founder of the law firm Lex Integra. I first met Amee at a women lawyers event and enjoyed running into her at various events over the next few years. Eventually we joined the same business book club together. Amee has lots of great advice to share and has an interesting journey through law:
1. Tell me a little about your practice or business.
I have been a lawyer for almost 21 years. I was called in Ontario in 2000.
After a long career in-house, and a few years on Toronto’s Bay Street before that, I started my own practice about 15 months ago. I have also started teaching business law to undergrads, and mentoring with the Law Practice Program at Ryerson University
I went through a re-structuring at my last employer and decided that I would start my own practice. My mother, a small business woman, had been asking me since I was called to the bar why I did not have my own law firm. It only took 20 years! I felt that this would give me more control over my schedule and allow me to be more present with my kids. We can have a separate discussion about whether my kids agree that this has worked!
My firm is called Lex Integra. I am a solo-preneur. I exclusively practice in the areas of business law and corporate ethics.
My clients range from other law firms, tech start-ups/ scale-ups, women-preneur businesses, TSX/ NYSE stock exchange listed companies, crown corporations, and professional firms (eg. accounting, architecture, law).
I help my clients mainly in these 4 areas:
2. Why did you go to law school?
I went to McGill Law. I went for a few related reasons. In my law school application, I focused on how I wanted to use my skills and degree to help others.
My father had succeeded in persuading me (after decades of trying!) by explaining that law was a career where I could change my career direction every few years. He was so right about this!
It was actually while I was in graduate school doing my Master of Arts that I realised my original career idea of being an academic was not a good fit for me; I wanted to work with others.
From my family point of view, knowing how much my parents sacrificed as immigrants, and how their education plans were thwarted, I wanted to do it for them as well.
My dad was on track to being one of the youngest professors of econometrics at his university in India. His move to Canada changed that career path for him. As still happens to many people today, so many decades later, my father’s university credentials were not recognized in Canada. He gained admission to McMaster University to earn his Canadian credentials, but by that point, I was on the way and so he had to find work instead.
My mother was the first female in her village in Punjab to go to high school. To do that, she had to leave her village and stay with another family in a bigger, nearby town. This was due to the modernizing vision of my Nana (maternal grandfather) who was the Lambardar of their village and an elected Sarpanch as well. Had my mother’s family not immigrated to Canada, I am sure she would have been gone on to university in India. But instead, my mother and her whole extended family migrated to the UK and then later to Canada. This made it hard for the young generation of her family at that time to continue their education in a traditional sense.
You could say I partly pursued my profession because of all of them and what they gave up for our generation.
My parents always valued education above all else. As a 10-year-old child, while we were not well-off, I knew I would go to university. I actually thought it was mandatory for all children, considering how my parents always talked to us about it.
3. How did you get to where you are today? Design? Chance? Both?
Definitely chance. And by seeing change as an opportunity, as opposed to a threat.
I always did a “gut check” to see if I was happy or satisfied in my work. Unfortunately, sometimes it took me too long to recognize if I was not.
I have been happiest when I can connect my daily work with a broader purpose.
When I followed a career path that was based on my values, interests, mentoring, where I had some control over my working conditions and ability to grow and learn, I was and am happiest. Also, respect for those I work with is key.
Once I made peace with the fact that I was not going to follow the “typical” career path, I was much more content.
I articled at a prestigious large law firm, now called Borden Ladner Gervais. I did not get hired back (that year only about 50% were hired back); I still have great relationships with many I met during that time. I went on to learn a tremendous amount as a young associate at an excellent mid-sized firm with top-notch lawyers. The next big move I made was to go in-house. As a 3rd year associate, I went from Minden Gross LLP to work in the Canadian nuclear industry at Atomic Energy of Canada Limited. I am almost 50 years old now, but if I need advice, I still call my former AECL or Minden Gross mentors, who are mostly enjoying their well-earned retirements now.
Once in-house, I was given two amazing opportunities to grow. Each involved leaving the legal department: First, a secondment to the head of commercial operations at AECL, and then years later to become an integrity officer at SNC-Lavalin in the newly created ethics and compliance department. I could write books about what these two experiences were like in terms of the professional learning and growth. Each move ended up lasting 5-6 years.
I jumped at each chance, because I knew that I was going to learn from some of the best and brightest people in the world. If I hesitated, it was because I worried about the impact on my legal career – but I figured I would cross that bridge when I came to it. But in the end, it made me a better lawyer, because the new roles took me into business operations in such a way, that I understood business drivers, challenges, and risks in a new way.
4. What is your most significant achievement? What are you proud of?
Starting my own law firm. I am grateful to everyone who has offered their guidance and assistance.
My work on the ethics and compliance team at SNC-Lavalin. We created, rolled out, implemented and operationalized a world-class ethics and compliance program world-wide, across several continents, countries and languages. We changed hearts and minds around the world. I am still asked to speak on panels and conferences regularly. I am so proud of that work we did as a team. As an individual, I am also extremely proud. I have received so many personal messages from employees thanking me for my work.
In 2011-2012, I was the lead lawyer on one of the largest deals in Ontario. I was the lead lawyer for SNC-Lavalin Nuclear-Aecon joint venture in negotiations with Ontario Power Generation for the refurbishment of the Darlington Nuclear Power Station. As stated in many newspapers at the time, phase 1 was worth $600 million and phase 2 was in the billions. We negotiated the phase 1 and phase 2 agreement at that time. I must add that I was pregnant with my twins for part of this time.
And in my life before kids, running a marathon.
5. What are some key challenges, and more importantly, opportunities for women in law?
Great question. This is hard for me to judge, because as a woman of South Asian descent, I cannot differentiate how things would have been for me if I was a white woman. I don’t know if I experienced things because I was a woman, or because I was a racial minority, or both.
I think one key challenge is that women are both socialised and expected to behave in certain ways. This includes being expected to be polite and “wait your turn” when other people take up space in meetings. Or worse, when you don’t behave according to that script, being told or made to feel that you are difficult to work with. This is even more the case if your cultural background does not conform to the hegemonic culture, and you were raised with other socialization traits.
Another aspect of this socialization is for women to take on the emotional burden within families, jobs, among co-workers, etc. This can be a wonderful addition to your life, and to those around you. But it does take time and energy and focus. We are often not aware that we are doing this, or how much precious energy this is taking that we could be spending elsewhere. I have seen it referred to as the third burden that women have, after their job and domestic and care responsibilities.
In terms of opportunities, I see tremendous opportunity.
With the rise in female business owners, I see an opportunity for female business lawyers to support them. There is also room for lots of disruption in the legal opportunity.
When I first left private practice in 2020, I noticed the large percentage of women leaving to go in-house. I understood the question “why can’t we keep women in law firms”? But I also knew that lots of my male lawyer friends were unhappy as well. But they stayed. I always felt bad for my male friends who felt this social pressure to conform in a way that it appeared female lawyer did not. In a way, it seemed that women lawyers gave themselves more permission to leave work environments that were not working for them. That may be different with the younger generations, and I hope so.
6. What advice would you give a woman starting her legal career?
Thank you Amee for taking the time to participate in this series and for sharing your experiences and advice with us!
I started this blog series because I was tired of hearing about women leaving law and wanted to hear about women leading in law. The "Women Leading in Law" series focuses on good news stories and highlights amazing women succeeding in the legal profession. Each post includes the profiled lawyer's answers to six questions. Prepare to be inspired!
ICYMI - previous posts profiled the following amazing lawyers: Tanya Walker, Alysia Christiaen, Patricia Gamliel, Megan Cornell, Yola Ventrescu, Hilary Book, Margaret Waddell, Nandi Deterville, Jennifer Quaid, Maryann Besharat, Cynthia Mason, Roots Gadhia, Evelyn Ackah, Carrisa Tanzola, Sarah Leamon, Robin Parker, Lorin MacDonald, Karen Yamamoto, Victoria Crewe-Nelson, Lynne Vicars, Kemi Oduwole, Anne-Marie McElroy, Jennifer Gold, Jordana Goldlist, Megan Keenberg, Yadesha Satheaswaran, France Mahon, Sarah Molyneaux, Richa Sandill, Vivene Salmon, Kim Whaley, Alisia Grenville, Frances Wood, Maggie Wente, Anita Szigeti, Neha Chugh, Christy Allen & Nancy Houle, Suzie Seo, Kim Gale, Alexi Wood, Melissa McBain, Erin Best, Gillian Hnatiw, Melanie Sharman Rowand, Meg Chinelo Egbunonu, Lisa Jean Helps, Nathalie Godbout Q.C., Laurie Livingstone, Renatta Austin, Janis Criger, May Cheng, Nicole Chrolavicius, Charlene Theodore, Dyanoosh Youssefi, Shannon Salter, Bindu Cudjoe, Elliot Spears, Jessica Prince, Anu K. Sandhu, Claire Hatcher, Esi Codjoe, Kate Dewhirst, Jennifer Taylor, Rebecca Durcan, Atrisha Lewis, Vandana Sood, Kathryn Manning, Kim Hawkins, Kyla Lee, and Eva Chan.
Erin C. Cowling is a freelance lawyer, entrepreneur, legal career consultant researcher & writer, and President and Founder of Flex Legal Network Inc., a network of freelance lawyers.