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Bar News - July 6, 2007

New Lawyers Column: Graciously Accepting Criticism



Jim O'Rourke

As a new lawyer, I have found that a willingness to accept criticism has helped me develop my skills.  In fact, over time, I have learned to actively seek out critical input from my colleagues, although I don’t know anyone who would say that he or she actually enjoys having a performance dissected. 


When I first became an attorney in 2003, criticism hurt my feelings.  I felt crushed if I didn’t know what to do in every situation or had messed up the simplest task.  Now I don’t take making a mistake so personally.  I have learned that mistakes are inevitable and that how you deal with them is the important thing. 


A good example of this mindset comes from the time I had a case that was re-assigned to me after an attorney left the office to take a new job.  The case presented a confusing procedural history and complicated facts.  I joined the case just as negotiations had been resolved and an agreement had just about been worked out.  I thought a surface understanding of the file would suffice to get through the final hearing and, honestly, I had a lot of other work to do.  Well, as luck would have it, I had to attend a hearing in a different court the day of the final hearing in the first case and I asked a colleague to cover it, giving him the best outline of the case.  My colleague was able to manage, but it was extremely difficult, as many issues arose that even I, as attorney on the case, would have had trouble explaining to the judge. 


Needless to say, my supervisor spoke to me in some pretty direct terms.  I felt awful, embarrassed—and I apologized to my colleague for putting him in a bind.  Was my supervisor justified in chewing me out?  Absolutely.  Was I tough enough to take it?  I hope so.

Now that’s not the kind of criticism you usually hope to receive.  In retrospect, a better way of going about my being crowded for time would have been both to work harder on the file and to ask for help.


Finding a Colleague You Can Trust


Every one of us should be able to find a colleague willing to offer constructive criticism.  Recently, in my current job as an assistant county attorney, I negotiated a disposition that my victim assistance coordinator and the victim herself disagreed with.  When the coordinator began questioning my resolution, I became defensive and angry.  Controlling my feelings, I sat in my office with the two of them and talked about our disagreement.  After about 15 minutes, it became clear that we simply disagreed about the merits of our case.  More importantly, through our conversation, I gained a different perspective about certain types of cases in general—a perspective that I can now use to analyze future cases. 


By overcoming my initial feelings of defensiveness over being criticized, I was enriched by our conversation.  A few days later, the coordinator told me that even though we had disagreed on that particular point, she appreciated that I had taken the time to hear her out.  It turns out that there are also benefits to others when you are willing to accept criticism.


People Willing to Lend a Hand


I was in trial a few weeks ago.  The first morning, I struggled with my examination of a difficult witness.  I knew ahead of time that certain evidentiary issues could arise and had prepared for them, but I still was not able to move forward very smoothly.  One of my co-workers was in the gallery.  As we walked down for the lunch break, she tactfully offered some advice and added some pointed criticism of my examination. 


Again, my first instinct was to resist.  I was the one in trial!  I was doing the best I could!  Right?  Of course not.  I could do better.  Over lunch, I opened up the discussion to the eight or so lawyers and non-lawyers in the room.  What could I do to overcome the challenges this difficult witness was presenting?  How could I do better?  People volunteered to help do some quick research and gave advice about what they had done in similar situations.  At one o’clock, I returned to the courtroom armed with case law and the proper evidentiary arguments.  If I had followed my first instinct and shut out my colleague’s advice, she may have understood, but such behavior would have been to the detriment of myself and my case. 


New lawyers do not come pre-programmed with the latest software for every situation.  We will experience many different scenarios and hope to learn from them so that we can grow and become proficient in a very difficult profession.  If we seek out criticism, or at least accept it graciously, we take something good from a difficult experience and make such an experience less likely to occur again.  In the long run, if you deal poorly with momentarily losing face for making a mistake, you will only harm your reputation. Facing criticism head-on is not only the right thing to do, but it’s also an attorney’s responsibility.


Jim O’Rourke is an Assistant County Attorney with the Strafford County Attorney’s Office.  He has been a member of the NH Bar since 2003 and is a member of the New Lawyers’ Committee.





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