I met one of my former trainees for lunch the other day. She is a very bright young lawyer whom I had worked with for several months, so I have observed her talent and skills up close. Recently she has joined a law firm as an associate.
She told me how the partner who supervises her work introduces her to new assignments: He tells her what the desired outcome of her work should be (a statement to the court, a memo etc.), gives her a few guidelines on how to do the job and, finally, tells her approximately how much time would be appropriate for her to spend on this particular assignment. Does she get huffy about this, does she feel offended by what could be interpreted as a threat to her autonomy as a well-trained young lawyer who wants to prove herself?
Quite the contrary. She told me how much she appreciates these guidelines, which she says enable her to focus on the task at hand and produce work of high quality within a reasonable time frame. That latter ability – effectiveness – is becoming more and more important in the work of law firms today which have to supply legal advice at fixed or capped prices to an ever more increasing extent. Effectiveness is thus directly affecting the bottom line of a law firm and it is a skill that young (and sometimes not-so-young) lawyers need to practice just like everything else.
Maybe it is the bottom line that motivates her supervising partner, or maybe he understands that feed forward is a very effective tool for training and supervising people. Feed forward, basically, is giving future-oriented options or solutions. It may be even more effective than feedback alone and, if combined with feedback, enables quicker learning and development. Feed forward has many advantages over feedback, among others
- Feed forward is focused on solutions, giving guidelines on how to solve a problem without offering criticism.
- Feed forward is future-oriented (and does not focus on past results that cannot be changed).
- Feed forward is focused on specific actions and behaviour rather than general principles.
- Feed forward is respectful and thus avoids the threat response of the brain, which is often triggered by offering feedback.
Let´s look at some examples. If you are a skier/golfer/tennis player: Did you ever get a subtle little piece of advice from a skilled professional in your favourite sports, e.g. “In the future, you might want to try to use your outer hand to guide you through the finish of your turn/shift your hips toward the target/position yourself with the back to the net when preparing your backhand swing and see how that feels” or the like? Did you feel it helped you greatly improve your skills, maybe even that it changed your style to the better? That´s probably because you have been presented with feed forward by a pro: a respectful, future-oriented proposal for a practical solution, which you could make into your own by applying and testing it. So, when supervising and training people, let´s give more feed forward by starting sentences with e.g. “In the future, you might want to try to …. .”
After all, you don´t teach people how to swim by throwing them into the deep end of the pool, analysing how they almost drown and then telling them, step by painful step, how to stay afloat in water. Yet that seems to be the approach that many law firms chose with regard to their junior lawyers. In my view, law firms should act like a good swim trainer instead: Give them the basic movements first (feed forward) and stay close to them for a while to correct mistakes as early as possible (feedback). Then boost their floating ability and their self esteem by taking away your hands and make them practice, practice, practice.