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What's Wrong with a Little Feedback?

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Last September my colleague, Judge Leif Clark, wrote an article in this column entitled, "The Aging of the Bankruptcy Bench." Among other things, in passing, he mentioned that some (non-bankruptcy) judges enjoyed "the occasional opportunity to bang around an unfortunate lawyer on a slow day" and some of us (i.e., presumably the bankruptcy judges) "are not immune from that worst of sins—lawyer abuse."

 

Leif Clark and I, along with about 40 other bankruptcy judges, attended the Federal Judicial Center’s "baby judges’ school" in February 1988. We have all been away from the pressures of private practice for more than 10 years. Of necessity, many of us are isolated to a greater or lesser degree from the attorneys who practice before us. As judges, can we know how we are perceived by those who appear before us?

In October 1996, I attended a Federal Bar Association meeting for all Michigan attorneys and federal judges. One of the small group break-out sessions considered improvement of bench-bar relations. During that discussion, the attorneys stated that many federal judges seemed insensitive to the pressures on attorneys, lacked patience and, in a few instances, were overly dictatorial. Further, the attorneys believed that there existed no mechanism for them to make comments or suggestions to the judges.

At the end of the session, the three federal judges (including me) encouraged the two local Federal Bar Associations in Eastern and Western Michigan to develop a procedure to evaluate judges’ performance and give feedback to each judge, whether favorable comments or constructive criticism. For whatever reason—whether apathy, workload, fear—the attorneys did not propose such a procedure.

Last January I decided to get some feedback from the bankruptcy bar. I developed an evaluation form and requested grades (A through E—just like law school) in the following areas: preparedness for court hearings; knowl-edge of the law; knowledge of rules and procedures; effectiveness in scheduling hearings and pre-trial matters and judicial temperament. More importantly, the form provided the opportunity for attorneys to make open-ended comments and give constructive criticism with specific suggestions for improvement. Lastly, I invited attorneys to evaluate my chamber staff (judicial assistant, calendar clerk and judicial clerk) in the areas of efficiency and courtesy to the federal bar and public.

After preparing a short cover letter and obtaining the mailing list of members of the Bankruptcy Section of the Federal Bar Association (Western Michigan chapter), we sent out approximately 210 evaluation forms. The attorneys were requested to provide candid, anonymous responses, and 115 attorneys returned the forms to my judicial assistant. I reviewed all responses and placed them in a file. The results have not, and will not, be released to anyone. The purpose of the evaluation was to give information to me regarding my job performance, not to give such information to the bar or public.

The responses, especially the open-ended comments, were honest, and in some instances, very blunt. A surprisingly large number of attorneys thanked me for giving them the opportunity to voice their opinions. I now know how the attorneys perceive my job performance. As a by-product of the process, I have adopted a couple of suggestions to improve courtroom efficiency.

While in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula last year I heard the following story about two "Yoopers" who were fishing on an unseasonably warm summer day.

Yooper 1: Is that the same thermos that kept our coffee hot when we ice fished last winter?

Yooper 2: Ya.

Yooper 1: And now it’s keeping our lemonade cold this summer?

Yooper 2: Ya. What’s your point?

Yooper 1: Well, how do it know?

Judges are insulated (perhaps not like vacuum bottles) but insulated all the same. How do we know? What’s wrong with a little feedback?

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Monday, June 1, 1998

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