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How Am I Doing?

Aspiring associates need and deserve performance feedback. Most firms have formal evaluation processes, but formal review or cryptic writing from a partner on the margins of a memo may not be as helpful as you’d like. Even less fulfilling are redlined documents and brusque admonitions to “do it over” that may leave you wondering where you stand.
Often the burden for finding out “how I’m doing” falls on the associate. Here are some simple strategies you can use this summer to get valuable information and tune your performance to the firm’s expectations.
1. Begin with Self-Assessment and Preparation
It seems obvious, but if you’re not prepared to accept constructive criticism, then it is probably best not to ask for a performance assessment. If you truly want the feedback and you’re willing to do a little homework, you can make the most of the informal, honest responses you may receive.
First, undertake a personal evaluation of your current and most recent work product:
  • Are you fully satisfied with what you produced? 
  • What were the strengths and the more fallible aspects of your work?
  • What factors supported your production of good work? What predicated lesser products?
Answering those questions honestly in advance is the basis for developing candid, two-way feedback.
Then, construct a short list of questions focusing on what you really want to know about your performance.
  • Where should you focus your training time?
  • Are you concerned that your supervisor is unhappy with some specific skill, product or work style?
The best way to dispel uncertainty or get validation about your supervisor’s concerns is to ask as directly and openly as possible.
2. Ask and You Will Receive
When you feel the need for feedback, professional courtesy requires you to give your supervisor some notification that you want to talk about your performance. After all, you’ve had time to think about what you want to know, so giving him or her a little lead time is only fair. In fact, it would be a good idea to help your supervisor by indicating the specific aspects of your work and performance you’d like to discuss.
Supervisors will not only be glad to know the parameters of the feedback you are seeking, but will probably prepare more effectively for the conversation. (This protocol is not necessarily a two-way street. Supervisors can and do discuss your performance with you without advance notification.)
The “ask” is simple: Approach your supervisor in person to indicate your desire to talk about your performance. Take a minute to share the specifics on which you hope to get feedback, and mutually set a time in the near future for the discussion. (Don’t use e-mail to approach this type of encounter, although you may want to confirm your conversation afterward via e-mail.)
3. Listen with an Open Mind
When the opportunity to talk with your supervisor arrives, restate your questions and perhaps explain their genesis, then listen carefully and actively in an effort to understand the feedback messages.
This is the hardest part, of course. Human beings have a tendency to focus on the things they hear that suggest “what is wrong” rather than “what is right.” But keep in mind that your supervisor, like you, would like nothing better than to make your performance assessment valuable to you—whether formal or informal—because it can help your professional development. After all, they’re evaluating you for a permanent position.
Assuming that he or she had time to prepare, a supervisor should be willing and able to talk with you on issues of importance to you in a factual manner that offers substantive guidance. That’s his or her responsibility. Your responsibilities include having an open mind, responding without being defensive and asking clarifying questions to ease any tension that may naturally occur.
4. Now You Know and Can Act Accordingly
Whether the feedback on your performance is glowing, galling or somewhere in-between, the expectation is that “now you know.” At the least, the outcome of your evaluation serves as an interim measure. Now you should know a little more about:
  • How your current work is being judged
  • Where your supervisor believes your training time should be spent
  • Where he or she believes your strengths lie
  • Areas where there is room for improvement 
This should help you improve your skills before you accept a permanent position, either at the firm where you’re clerking or elsewhere.
Asking for informal feedback can be a “high-risk, high-reward” proposition. If you ask for it, you might just get it. But not asking means that you may be wondering and waiting for the remainder of your clerkship. How are you doing? There’s no time like the present to find out!