PROACTIVELY SEEKING FEEDBACK
© Neil Hamilton
Published in June 20, 2011 Minnesota Lawyer
Can work in the law be a kind of soulcraft? Can legal education help prepare students to experience work as a type of soulcraft? Last May 11, philosopher/mechanic and best-selling author of SHOP CLASS AS SOULCRAFT Michael Crawford (who runs a Richmond, Virginia motorcycle repair shop) addressed these questions at the 2011 Stakeholder Dialogue at the University of St. Thomas Opus School of Business.
Maintenance and Repair Work as Soulcraft
SHOP CLASS AS SOULCRAFT challenges the reader to lift the veil to see deeper realities underlying daily work in the trades, especially maintenance and repair. One of Crawford’s deeper realities is that maintenance and repair work requires the worker to confront mistakes daily, and then to seek feedback, reflect, self-assess and try again. Mistakes and a feedback loop to correct them and do better cause the worker to grow both in technical competence and the virtues.
As I first read his book and then listened to Crawford’s lecture, I was reminded of my weekend maintenance and repair work on my 1928 house. An unfortunate number of efforts parallel Tom Hank’s efforts in the film Money Pit. I make a ton of mistakes that I discover through immediate feedback. As Crawford points, out, when I turn on the repaired light, the light does not go on.
Through the process of making mistakes and getting immediate feedback, my technical skills grow. In addition, I learn and practice a number of character virtues relevant to legal work: virtues like humility, perseverance, and patience. I also learn repeatedly that my problem-solving capacities and skills and my performance benefit immensely if I seek good counsel from an experienced person like Waldo the hardware man. One of the great benefits of experienced mentors is captured in Eleanor Roosevelt’s comment “Learn from the mistakes of others, you can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.” The stories that experienced maintenance and repair people tell about learning from mistakes are similar to the stories experienced lawyers tell clients and junior lawyers about lessons from mistakes. “We tried that, and it did not work out quite as we expected ….”
Legal Work and Legal Education as Soulcraft
In 2010, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching completed ten years of work on five empirical studies titled EDUCATING CLERGY, EDUCATING LAWYERS, EDUCATING ENGINEERS, EDUCATING NURSES AND EDUCATING PHYSICIANS. In order to foster each student’s growth in technical skills and each student’s internalized ethical professional identity, the studies strongly recommended helping students to internalize the disposition/habit of both reflecting on the responsibilities of the profession and actively seeking feedback, reflecting on it, and self-assessing performance, especially regarding mistakes.
Do legal education and legal work require the law student or lawyer to confront mistakes daily, and pro-actively to seek feedback and counsel from others about the mistake, to reflect on the feedback, to self-assess, and then to try again, and thus to grow in both technical skill and virtue?
The Carnegie studies point out that legal and engineering education have a more difficult challenge helping students internalize these dispositions and habits in comparison with medicine and nursing. Both of the latter involve the advanced student much more frequently in working with the patient in the presence of a senior professional where student mistakes can be corrected and debriefed quickly. The advanced student is also able to observe more frequently how a senior professional models high technical competence and ethical conduct in serving the patient.
Some law firm cultures may be providing this type of formative feedback to junior lawyers. However corporate clients are becoming increasingly resistant to paying for this type of apprenticeship experience.
Proactively Seeking Feedback
While maintenance and repair work often provide immediate notice and feedback about mistakes because the physical object of the repair work clearly made no discernible improvement, legal work involves human relationships and difficult judgments where mistakes are not as evident, and feedback is often much less immediate. This difference means that for legal work to involve soulcraft in a sense analogous to Crawford’s argument about maintenance and repair work, the lawyer must be highly proactive in seeking feedback to identify and learn about where the lawyer could have done better.
How many lawyers or law students do you know who actively and regularly take the time to seek feedback from clients, colleagues, staff, and family, particularly about mistakes? Do they take the time to listen carefully, to reflect, and to self-assess? In your observation, do those lawyers or law students you have identified keep growing in terms of technical skills and the virtues?
Holloran Center research fellow Verna Monson and I wrote an article on our interviews with twelve professionalism award winners in Minnesota. You can access the article at http://ssrn.com/abstract=18044119 All twelve exemplary lawyers stressed the importance of learning from mistakes and a habit of proactively seeking feedback, reflection and self-assessment in order to keep growing as a professional.
Whether or not a law student or lawyer is in a culture that encourages formative feedback on performance, especially mistakes, I suggest that each lawyer proactively develop a trusted personal board of directors who give honest feedback, especially on mistakes. The lawyer should include clients, colleagues, staff, friends and family. Then regularly and proactively seek input from these individuals, listen carefully, reflect on the input, and self-assess how to improve.
This disposition and habit can make the work into soulcraft.