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Best Practice Tips: Providing Meaningful Feedback to Associate Attorneys

Asked and Answered 

By John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

Q. I am the owner of an elder law firm in Jackson, Mississippi. There are three associate attorneys who have been with me less than five years. All three were hired directly out of law school. While I try to mentor and train each of the associates as needed in “real time,” I also conduct annual performance reviews with each associate and provide them with a written performance evaluation. I am getting frustrated as it seems that the feedback that I provide does not stick and they continue to make the same errors. I welcome any thoughts that you may have.

A. You may need to schedule more frequent discussions. I have clients who are law firm owners who schedule meetings with each associate twice a month. You may also want to examine how you actually provide feedback to your associates. Often owners beat around the bush and don't really provide meaningful feedback.

Giving meaningful feedback is an essential component of effective associate management. Whether you give feedback informally or formally, it acts as a powerful management tool, assisting individuals in professional development, teaching those you manage to work more effectively, and giving recognition and showing appreciation when deserved.

Effective feedback should be:

  • Timely
  • Specific
  • Face-to-face whenever possible
  • Candid
  • Fair
  • Appropriate to the action, issue, and individual's level of expertise

Praise your associates when deserved. Praise provides an effective motivator for most associates and should include:

  • Special details
  • Praiseworthy highlights
  • How the associate's work helped
  • How the associate might use it in the future

Provide constructive criticism when deserved. It should include the items listed above and you should give it:

  • Immediately, with specific detail
  • Clearly and unemotionally
  • Not by email - if possible - face-to-face
  • In a way that allows discussion

Use the following outline when giving constructive feedback:

  • State the issue
  • Seek the associate’s view of the work or behavior
  • Restate the issue
  • Explain why it matters
  • Describe standards and expectations moving forward and consequences for non-compliance
  • Discuss next steps.

Try to implement some of these ideas and go from there.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC, ( is a past chair and member of the ISBA Standing Committee on Law Office Management and Economics and author of The Lawyers Guide to Succession Planning published by the ABA. For more information on law office management please direct questions to the ISBA listserver, which John and other committee members review, or view archived copies of The Bottom Line Newsletters. Contact John at

Posted on November 28, 2018 by Rhys Saunders
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