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.
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.