Canada: Evaluation For Law Students And Summer Associates: Authentic Feedback In Real Time

Last Updated: September 2 2013
Article by Anne Mundy-Markell

This is the last, my retirement swan song actually, of what has developed over time into a three-part series on basic experiential summer associate and articling student programming. [See "Business Development for Law Students and Summer Associates: A Free Market ≠ Free-for-All" (April 2011, NALP Bulletin) and "Docketing for Law Students and Summer Associates: The Bucks Starts Here" (April 2012, NALP Bulletin) for the earlier two parts.]

I had planned to write this final article on practical time management techniques that students need to incorporate into their daily routine if they want to have a life, as well as a legal practice, as they go forward. Then I recently heard Kaitlin, one of our 2012 summer students (called summer associates in the U.S.), say something that really grabbed my attention to a group of touring law school students clustered around her: "The best thing about my Gowlings summer was that I could know how I was doing...anytime...all the time." In a flash I was reminded of how fundamental authentic feedback in real time is to adult learners.

In order to allow students to develop professionally at their own rate of growth, feedback has to be available on an ongoing, as-needed, basis, not every once in a while. It goes without saying that the best feedback comes through the lawyer and student/summer associate reviewing a piece of work one-on-one together and discussing how it moves a file issue forward and required next steps, as well as reviewing the technical aspects of its writing and construction for what works and what doesn't. Our lawyers, however, are often too busy to sit down and give a fulsome work product review and instead will send a quick e-mail message saying "great memo, thanks." Though kind and always appreciated, "great memo, thanks" gives no basis on which students/summer associates can grow their analytical and writing skills, nor their professionalism abilities.

Our Gowlings Ottawa "back-up" to ensure that proper feedback is available when the in-person discussion does not happen is a simple, hardcopy, feedback scheme but, as Kaitlin noted, it works. We use the same paper form for both summer students and articling students, but for articling students we remove the warning note at the top specific to summer students.

During our student orientations at the beginning of the summer and the beginning of articles, we distribute several blank evaluation forms to every student to get their summer or articling feedback process started. We instruct them that the forms are to be given, with the description of work section at the top completed, to the lawyer when every work assignment is submitted. With an ongoing project or a number of small tasks, one form reporting on everything at once can be submitted. Where there is no written work product (perhaps the "please find me a case that says ..." kind of task), the form is used to review oral advocacy skills, practice management, professionalism, and attitude. The very fact that this feedback form accompanies the submitted work product often serves as a reminder to the receiving lawyer to review the work together with the student and give feedback directly.

After reviewing the work product, the lawyer completes the form and sends it to me as the Director of Students through our inter-office mail system. Every once in a while I send out a message to catch up on stragglers to ask that any evaluation forms sitting in in-baskets be completed and submitted.

I review the completed forms for the good, the bad, and the ugly. If there is anything marked less than good, I call the student so that we can do damage control. This may involve the student speaking to the lawyer (with my support, because such conversations are often not easy to initiate) or may involve me having a chat with the lawyer myself. One way or another, we try to get the student "rehabilitated" with that particular work provider as quickly as possible and on the right track with work going forward.

I transfer the checkmark scores from the individual evaluation form to the master evaluation form in each student's file kept for convenience in a drawer right beside me. Our student coordinator records the comments verbatim in a comments summary (sounds like a lot of work but takes just a minute). Our students can review their evaluation summaries with me at any time, either by appointment or by dropping in for a quick visit as long as I am free.

At mid-summer and end-of-summer in our summer program and three times during the articling term, I reduce the collected checkmark scores in each category to a number and highlight the highest number in a row. (Where there are matching scores in a category, I highlight the score furthest to the left.) The highlighting provides a quick sense as to whether the student is generally excellent, very good, or something else. The students and I then meet to go over what their evaluation forms are saying — whether the student needs to work on legal analysis, for example, or develop better organization in written presentation. During the articling term, the student's individual support team, being the student's articling principal and the associate mentor, join us in that review. They then seek out work opportunities for their respective student to fill training needs.

When I instituted this evaluation process more than a decade ago, I was told by a senior partner that it would never work because lawyers are too busy, hate paper, and "just won't do it." Not so! In fact, as our students became our associates and our associates became our partners, they saw how they had benefited from this simple but effective feedback scheme that ensures that students do not slip through the cracks but instead encourages them to grow their skills to the benefit of both the student and the firm. Now completing and submitting these evaluation forms is standard operating procedure for all our lawyers with the end result being that at Gowlings Ottawa students can "know how they are doing... anytime ... all the time."

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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