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Andy Spalding: ‘Constructive criticism’ actually has two elements

Law schools have not historically excelled at cultivating the art of constructive criticism. So many of us once were, and some still are, people who believe that success is a zero-sum game; that the only way to build oneself up is to tear another down; that doing good is far less important than doing well; that another’s contribution is inherently a threat to my own self-worth.

It may be understandable when adversaries act this way. But among colleagues, supposedly pursuing the same goal, it is sad.

Or worse.

And so I try to teach my students that constructive criticism has two elements, not one. The criticism is essential to the enterprise — two sets of eyes are always better than one, and collaboration most always beats solipsism. Much of law practice is teamwork; your job is to take a colleague’s work, and make it better. You’re working toward the same goal. You’re on the same team.

But criticism that is serves no constructive purpose — that is petty in substance, acerbic in tone, seemingly born of insecurity and threat rather than generosity and insight — can do great harm.

It undermines one’s credibility.

It damages professional relationships.

And in ways we often do not see until it is too late, it demeans the very person who is trying so hard to demean others.

I recall fondly an exchange I had a couple years back with Prof. Matt Stephenson over at the Global Anticorruption Blog. It concerned the princeling issue, and we did not at first see eye to eye. We agreed to exchange a few posts on the subject, something of a friendly joust. In the end, I think we strengthened each other’s views on the subject, winding up in a solid middle position. Later, seated together at a conference luncheon, we would laugh about it, and with a small measure of pride. It was the blogosphere at its best.

I spent hours thinking and writing about Matt’s critique, because it was serious, probing, and plainly born of a desire to move FCPA enforcement forward.

But faced with small-minded nit-picking masquerading as systemic critique, well, it’s not worth my time or yours.


Andy Spalding is a lecturer at the International Anti-Corruption Academy, Professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, and Senior Editor of the FCPA Blog.

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  1. Great Post and as a professional with a thirst for learning when I see post after post of negativity it makes me crazy. I would like to believe I am pretty smart and can think about a post and come up with an opinion or ask more questions to the author or community to get clarity. How you write a critical response is also very important and can open the dialogue for furthering the learning and discussion. Thank you Thank You Thank You for this post!

  2. Excellent post, Proffessor Spalding. As professionals, we should all be open to constructive feedback and criticism. Sometimes it is hard to hear, but it makes us better and often makes us think about things in a different way. And when done publicly, adds to the public discourse. However, the type of petty criticisms and personal attacks (masquerading as "professional" criticism) you describe bring nothing to the table. In my experience, they are the tools of self-important and insecure people upset with their own stature (be it professional or physical). Ignore little people like that.

  3. So good and so true, I could not agree more. Thank you very much!

  4. I have noted that some LinkedIn posts speculate that Professor Spalding’s article apparently refers to Professor Koehler. It would really be unfortunate if the LinkedIn speculations are correct as the article does not provide any real examples, to proof the point of “small-mindedness”. Professor Koehler’s criticism is certain pretty tough from time to time and yes it might be interpreted as “nit-picking” from time to time, but that is the law. Important cases quite often turn on the small things that you will only find through nit-picking. I believe that as long as you do not play the person and you have good arguments to back you “knit-picking”, like Professor Koehler usually does, there is certainly no small-mindedness involved. The small-mindedness would much rather be found at those who cry foul when losing a good legal argument on the merits.

  5. Professor Spalding,

    As lawyers and practitioners, facts and accuracy matter.

    You wrote an article that was inaccurate and misleading, through apparent lack of experience, understanding of the subject matter or requisite research. You published your article marketed to practitioners who might mistakenly rely upon the misinformation contained in your article – such reliance could cause great harm.

    Professor Koehler corrected the fallacious arguments and assertions in your article. I think you should have thanked Professor Koehler, not attacked him, and acknowledged the infirmities in your initial article. Either that or step down from your horse, pick up the phone and call Professor Koehler to discuss rather than engage in the public airing of your perceived slight.

    Paul Calli

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