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Bouncing Back from Bad Reviews with the Power of Story

We are at the tail end of spring review season, and that means one thing: a lot of associates are grappling with bad news about their Biglaw careers. Whether you were surprised by a few negative comments in a sea of “meets or exceeds expectations” or you have been told that you are “falling behind,” chances are good that if you received a negative performance review, you were surprised, hurt and discouraged. Now you’re asking yourself how you can turn things around and whether you should even bother trying. After all, you may be thinking, why should you be trying to impress people who got so much wrong in interpreting your actions?

While only you can determine your long-term goals and desires and how your large firm job fits into those goals, I want to encourage you not to throw in the towel after one bad review, especially if you are in your first year or two at your firm. Your time in Biglaw can help you pay down your student loans and position yourself for your next career steps, moves that will set you up for long-term career and financial success - but only if you stick with it. Your firm has already claimed your nights, your weekends and your skin’s youthful glow. You should make sure that you are fully benefiting from the arrangement as well! This requires intentionality and the willingness to grapple with discomfort in the name of growth. If you do that, though, you can make your law firm position work for you - notwithstanding your bad review.

Bad reviews hurt because they are an attack on our story. Human beings are creatures of story. While many animals communicate, human beings are unique in our ability to construct our own realities out of words. As we interpret our reality through language, we construct a story that conditions the reality we perceive, how we show up in the world and how others perceive us. As a Biglaw associate, you have your own story about yourself, a story about someone who is intelligent, hardworking, adaptable and accomplished. The comments in your review are painting you as someone you don’t recognize, as someone you don’t want to recognize. That contrast - between how you see yourself and how others are perceiving you - may lead to many challenging emotions, including hurt, confusion and shame. Those feelings can lead us to shut down and withdraw at just the moment we need to be thinking creatively and reaching out to others for support and encouragement.

Our stories may be contributing to our challenges. While associates’ stories often have similar themes, the details are as unique and varied as the individuals they belong to. These details, though, are critical for understanding why some associates succeed while others struggle.

For example, we have all experienced the reality that people who speak with authority are more likely to inspire trust. Speaking with authority can help associates distinguish themselves in interviews and come across to their potential employers as competent and personable. Once firm life begins, however, the story underlying an associate’s authority becomes critically important. A story such as “I speak with authority because I am intelligent and quick-witted” may lead to a variety of missteps, including:

  • Speaking with too much confidence for your level of experience and being perceived as arrogant and cocky;

  • Being lulled into inadequate preparation or effort by your belief in your ability to "wing it"; or

  • Finding your sense of relative intelligence diminished by being surrounded by incredibly accomplished colleagues, and failing to develop the confidence to ask questions, use your professional judgment or raise potential issues as a result.

By contrast, a story like “I speak with authority because I work carefully and organize my thoughts in advance” is much more likely to lead to thoughtful preparation and a confidence that is durable in the face of others’ accomplishments, based as it is in meticulous preparation rather than relative achievement.

This is a simple example, but it illustrates a key principle. Our stories dictate our behaviors; our behaviors shape our results. Stories matter.

We can change our stories. When you get a negative review, you have a choice to make: try to rehabilitate your standing within your firm or seek new opportunities elsewhere. Which route to take is an individual decision shaped by your career stage, long-term goals and other personal and professional considerations that may be priorities for you at this time. But even if you decide to move on, I encourage you to take the opportunity of a negative review to think hard about the stories you are telling yourself about your professional identity, your sense of purpose or direction, and your relationship to your work and your colleagues. These stories will follow you to your new job and will make or break your chances for success in your new opportunity.

If you can identify which of your stories are undermining your success and shape them into new ones that resonate with who you are while inviting you into new approaches, you will find yourself showing up to your work each day with new presence and authority, whether you stay at your current firm or move into a new position. A negative review may feel like a judgment, but it is also an opportunity for growth. Make the most of it!

If you’d like to unlock stories that will fuel your success with the help of a certified narrative coach, please email me at or call or text at (212) 634-9392. I’d love to discuss your situation and how I can help.

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