I'm a second year associate and I've decided I should start looking for a new job. Our group just had our annual evaluations and mine wasn't great, which, quite frankly, I don't understand. The partners seem to like the work I do. I never lack for assignments and I've been praised for the quality of my work. I went to better schools than most of my colleagues and I know I master new assignments faster than the others in my group. In fact, I think I'm probably the most capable associate in my class year. During our mid-year, unofficial review process, all the feedback praised my work, which is what I expected given how hard I work. But all of a sudden, in the official review, they cited "people skills" as an area I should be working on. I just think that's ridiculous – I mean, what are "people skills" in any case? Obviously they don't appreciate what I bring to the table. I should just cut my losses and try another firm that will truly appreciate my value – what do you think?
Wow. To be honest, I had to sit with your note for awhile before responding. In trying to decide how best to respond, I decided a little tough love is in order. While I suspect that you may not initially be pleased with my response, I'm hoping you'll see it as an opportunity to evaluate your current situation with an open mind and perhaps take some feedback to positively enhance your professional brand going forward.
To begin with, you'll note that I put your name ("Under-Appreciated") in quotes because, based on the information you provided, it doesn't seem that you're truly under-appreciated. Why would you think you're under-appreciated at work? You've specifically indicated that you get your fair share, and perhaps even more than your fair share, of assignments. Partners have praised the quality of your work product. How do you equate that to being under-appreciated? I bet if you look around, there are some of your colleagues who are not getting the plum assignments and, especially in this market, are concerned about their job security.
My impression of what is making you feel under-appreciated is the idea that there is something you might need to work on that was identified in your review. Let's take a step back for a moment. What are "people skills" anyway? Quite simply, the concept of "people skills" refers to whether or not you're capable of playing nicely in the sandbox. Based on the representation above (specifically how you characterize yourself in relation to your colleagues and your inclination to move to another firm after receiving feedback you deem unwarranted), I can't say I'm surprised that your reviewer suggested you be mindful of cultivating these types of skills.
Even the most seasoned professional has areas upon which she/he can improve – no one is perfect; there is always something that can be done a little bit better (and sometimes, a lot better). I'm sure if you asked some of the most successful people in business, law, entertainment, politics – you name it – they will be able to identify skills they want to cultivate further. Truly successful professionals know their strengths and understand the gaps in their individual skill-sets and do what needs to be done to fill those gaps.
There are two distinct areas that I want to focus on for the purpose of this response. The first is the actual "people skills" comment and the second is the necessity of being able to gracefully accept constructive feedback. In all honesty, I see nothing wrong in the feedback you received. Just in reading your letter above, I would probably have given you the same feedback. Congratulations that you graduated from top schools and that you are able to pick things up quickly. That's fantastic and will help you throughout your career. What won't help, however, is your apparent impression that you are better than your colleagues. Credentials aren't everything, although they certainly help. But you don't know why the person who sits in the next office went to differently ranked school than you did. It may not have had anything to do with that individual's capabilities. Perhaps that person simply couldn't afford a top-tier school. Perhaps that person had other responsibilities that precluded she/he from moving far from home. There are any number of reasons why people make the choices they do and it would behoove you to learn about the reasons before making snap judgments. I know, I know; you didn't necessarily comment on your colleagues' pedigrees (or rather bash them) but in pointing out that you went to better schools and that you pick things up more quickly, one is left with the assumption that you think you are better than your colleagues.
And that's where the "people skills" come in. You may not have intended to leave me with that impression, but you did. And chances are, if I got that impression from a simple note you wrote then someone else might also have that impression. Which means that you might be labeled "challenging to work with" or "difficult" or "lacking in team-orientation" – really, the list could go on. That's not what you want to be known for, trust me. You need to play nicely in the sandbox. The people you work with are your colleagues, no better or worse than you. Maybe some aren't able to climb the learning curve as quickly as you but chances are they are better at something you, perhaps, need to work on, and that's fine.
If this feeling of superiority is coming across to your colleagues, the partners or even the staff, it's not going to be well-embraced. If you gain a reputation for not getting along with people, it's going to be a very lonely professional existence for you. What matters now is not only the quality of your work product and your credentials, with which you don't seem to have an issue, but also who you are as a professional.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying you shouldn't be incredibly proud of your accomplishments – you must have worked hard to get to where you are today. Congratulations, and I truly mean that. But now you are a professional and not only do you need to act as a mature contributor you need to learn to accept constructive feedback. I mentioned earlier that it doesn't seem to me that you're under-appreciated at work based on the limited information you provided. Quite the contrary, I suspect that people do value your contributions. Again, if you take the most successful people you know I would wager that they would acknowledge there are skills, upon which they could improve.
The fact that your reviewer took the time to highlight an area in your skill-set (the "people skills" you referenced) that may warrant additional focus should be something you are grateful to hear. If I were sitting in that office during my review and all they told me was that my work was great, I'd be concerned about whether or not anyone was looking out for my professional development. If the partners didn't appreciate your efforts, if they didn't want to guide your growth as a professional, they wouldn't have wasted time giving you a balanced, thought-out review. It's far easier to say, "You're doing great; everything is fine. Thanks for all the hard work," than to acknowledge your accomplishments while providing additional opportunities to further develop.
If you went to law school directly after college, chances are this is your first full-time job and your first true performance review. Let me say this again, nothing in what you related to me indicated that your efforts are not appreciated. I think if you objectively reflect on the feedback you received, you'll realize it's not personal. If you're going to be successful, you're going to need to temper knee-jerk reactions to criticism. Constructive feedback is par for the course and you would be well-served to begin to not only train yourself to remain neutral when receiving the feedback but, if you really want to be successful long-term, you should learn how to act on that feedback. I'm not saying it's easy – it's far easier to hear how great you are. But in reality, you're not perfect, I'm not perfect, the guy down the hall isn't perfect. We can all benefit from constructive feedback to become better at what we do.
Until you learn how to receive constructive feedback and incorporate the elements you can, or the elements you think are pertinent, it won't matter where you work. The absolute last place you want to be is in an organization where the managers, in this case the partners, don't take the time to help you become a better lawyer and firm citizen. The person who can master the legal skills while mastering the softer "people skills" is the person who will be successful long-term. That is the person who will have a well-developed network. That is the person who will be able to develop business. That is the person people want on their team.
To answer the specific question you asked – whether or not you should move – I say no (assuming, of course, that the only reason for your dissatisfaction is the constructive feedback you received in the review). If you're otherwise happy with your firm and you continue to get good work, what's the point in moving? Instead, take the feedback you received and think about how you might be able to make small changes. If you're not clear about what the feedback means, go back and ask the partner so that you are clear on what she/he was referencing. You can't runaway because someone said something you didn't want to hear. If that's your strategy, I'm afraid it's going to be a tough road ahead for you.
Best of luck with your decision.
SHAFIKA M. KHAYATT
Shafika is a Managing Director at SJL Attorney Search, where she focuses on the placement of associate-level attorneys at law firms and investment banks in the New York metropolitan area. Prior to joining SJL, Shafika worked as a Senior Marketing Manager at American Express and as an International Channels Manager at Forrester Research, Inc. Shafika has served as a mentor and career coach to colleagues and alumni of every organization with which she has affiliated. Her strengths as an active listener, engaged career counselor and professional who is dedicated to organization and detail enable Shafika to fully comprehend her candidates' needs and partner with them to achieve their professional goals. Her areas of counseling and coaching expertise include network-building and how to create, communicate and showcase your personal brand.
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