Lawyers know when something isn’t working; and they can usually find a way to get business back on track. But everyone has weaknesses or blind spots. When things aren’t going the way you feel they should – despite your best efforts at improvement – it might be time to hire a coach.
When I ask my clients what they think coaching is, they tend to share stories about past sports coaches. You know those stories: about the coach who changed your life, or the one who made it miserable. There’s a third story that we don’t often hear about: the coach that was adequate but made very little difference in your life.
Sports coaches aren’t that different from business coaches in that they both:
- Help you to set your goal.
- Assess your skills in light of that goal.
- Implement a training and testing process to help you build skills and apply them in context to see how they do under the pressure of real life.
When you were younger and working with a sports coach, you probably noticed some things about the kids who improved the most. Typically, they:
a. Didn’t think they were perfect in every way and recognized that they could improve; and
b. Listened to and trusted the coach, and found the time to practice their newfound skills.
The same is true when working with a business coach. The more committed the lawyer is to the process, open to hearing from the coach, and willing to try operating a different way, the greater the chances of success.
What Does Coaching Help With?
You don’t need to know precisely what the problem is when you work with a coach. As long as the lawyer has a general goal in mind, a coach can usually help to assess strengths and weaknesses and a plan can be developed from there. But often lawyers come to coaches with very specific issues of goals in mind. Some examples include:
- To improve efficiency
- To improve marketing
- To become a better leader
- To overcome admin challenges around areas such as time management, organization, billing or collections
- To improve communications or reputation
- To improve on skills needed to move into partnership (like delegation, work generation, client management, team work, etc.)
- To create a career plan, or a business plan for the year
Why Would a Lawyer Need a Coach?
Lawyers are highly intelligent individuals, but they are still human beings. They aren’t perfect: they have their strengths and weaknesses just like everyone else. If they could have improved on certain weaknesses on their own, they would have done it already. Lawyers may have a block stopping them from making advancements in certain areas. It could be a belief system that is no longer serving them; it could be a lack of real commitment to change; it could be that they simply don’t know how to go about changing their behaviors, or what that change should look like.
Having someone who is an expert in coaching can help the lawyer to pin point what needs to happen, and develop the most efficient and effective pathway to get there.
What Does Business Coaching Look Like?
A business coach will start the coaching process by getting clarity on the goal of coaching. This focuses conversation, and creates a metric for judging success down the road. Next, a coach will work with the client to examine the current pathways to that goal, and assess what is working, and what is not. They’ll help to determine where the roadblocks might be, how to overcome them, and what skills are needed in order to work toward the goal. Finally, a coach will help the client to practice and perfect the skills needed, to develop accountability and ultimately, new behaviors and habits that will support ongoing accomplishment of the goal.
Different coaches have different policies around how they work. In my case, if a lawyer wants to work on something very specific and limited – such as a personal marketing plan – we can usually develop a plan in four one-hour sessions. However, if a lawyer is seeking to dramatically shift their practice, reputation or habits, I find it takes a longer period of time to accomplish this. Changing behavior doesn’t happen overnight. It takes constant vigilance and support, over time, to take hold.
Coaching Specifically for Lawyers
As those in the legal profession know, this is a unique environment. It can be helpful to work with someone who understands the pressures and culture of a law firm, and has worked with the lawyer personality before. A good coach for lawyers is supportive yet strong. Coaching isn’t about telling people what to do; it’s more about helping them to articulate and accept what needs to be done, and then supporting them in doing it, regularly. But lawyers can be resisting, intimidating, defensive and non-respondent. It takes a strong coach to be able to hang in there, navigate through the lawyer personality and ensure that coaching continues and delivers the results desired.
Provided vs. Private Coaching
Coaching is sometimes offered through work. It may be a voluntary process, where the coach or coaches are made available and individuals can opt in or out of the process and select the coach they want. Alternatively, coaching could be “strongly encouraged” for lawyers who might be struggling in a particular area. In my experience, mandatory coaching does not work as the lawyer will never truly trust the coach, and trust is key to success. That said, I’m all for firms having a coaching process in place. It works best when coaching is made available, but not forced on anyone.
Further, it’s helpful to have a roster of coaches (two or more) available, allowing the lawyer to select the one they feel will work best for them. If you participate in a firm-sponsored program, speak with the offered coaches about confidentiality. In my case, as a member of the International Coaching Federation, I am required to ensure that my client is the person I’m coaching, not the entity paying for the coaching. To make this clear, I sign agreements to this effect with both the firm and the lawyer I’m coaching.
Coaching can also be done privately. I’ve had many clients who came to see me in my home office or for sessions by phone, outside of work hours. These clients wanted to experience the benefits of coaching without their firms knowing about or controlling the process in any way. I’ve also worked with many law firm administrators in this way.
Business coaches do no require either training or certification to operate. Training can be expensive and the certification process is also time-consuming, demanding and expensive. In my region, I would say that less than 50% of the coaches are formally trained and certified.
Certification (usually through the International Coaching Federation) requires that certificate-holders adhere to the ICF Code of Ethics, which is a nice assurance for law firms where confidentiality is key. If your coach is not certified, at the very lest I would encourage you to have them sign a confidentiality and privacy agreement.
There’s No Down Side to Trying
Lawyers are intelligent, fast studies and like to be competent in everything they do. When they feel they are not measuring up in any given area, it can be extremely frustrating and can even affect their productivity in other areas. Coaching can bolster effectiveness and confidence.
For those who feel that hiring a coach is an admission of failure, re-read the part of this post that talks about how no one is perfect. Hiring a coach is not “giving in”. It’s actually the opposite.
Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms and lawyers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org