(While focussed on the legal industry, the information in this post is valid for most professional services industries).
Most service professionals are at the top of the food chain in terms of intellect. Take lawyers, for example. To make it through law school, let alone make it through the lock step hierarchy of a law firm, lawyers have to be able to think on their feet and deliver when it counts. So having made it so far already, why would they suddenly need a coach and if so, what kind of coach do they need?
In the afterglow of the Vancouver Olympics, I found myself watching the first season of the show “Tessa & Scott”, which followed the two Canadian ice skaters through preparation for their second Olympic appearance in four years. As a former professional dancer and soccer coach, I appreciate the discipline and strategy of preparation for a performance or competition, and wanted to get a closer look at how it occurs at an elite athlete level. The series reminded me of why I don’t regularly watch TV and especially, reality shows, but it did have its insights. For example, in one of the episodes, I was shocked to learn that in addition to their head coach and choreographer, the team also worked with a technical coach, a footwork coach, a ballroom dance coach, a lift coach, and a sports psychologist.
A former boss once told me that truly intelligent people are the ones who recognize they have weaknesses, and surround themselves with people who can help them to overcome those weaknesses.
Years ago, that meant hiring people to do roles we couldn’t or didn’t want to do ourselves. For example, when I first started legal marketing over two decades ago, in addition to a full complement of accounting, IT and library services support, most lawyers had a personal legal secretary and shared a legal assistant (paralegal) between no more than three lawyers. But in today’s economy, most professionals can’t support a permanent entourage of helpers. With the help of technology we’re expected to be experts in everything ourselves, including research, time recording and direct client communication. For a lawyer, that means that in addition to being strong in the practice of law, they also need to be a great administrator, delegator, client service expert and business developer. That’s a tall order for someone who is simultaneously expected to bill some 1700 hours per year.
But over a ten-year period and with the right training programs and learning opportunities in place, a lawyer should be able to build proficiency in all of these areas. Unfortunately, no law firm of today has the economic stability to wait that long for maximum productivity. A lawyer must start to be productive from year two, or they won’t make it to year five. And then there’s the race to partnership which requires extraordinary hours, productivity, and proof of business development capability. Once a partner, they must then repeatedly prove their value for the higher status and compensation of a partner. In fact, the race doesn’t slow down until the partner is gearing up for retirement – and then the race changes to one of succession strategy and implementation.
It’s estimated to cost a minimum of $250,000 to bring a lawyer into a firm and train them, yet if a firm holds onto one in seven associates all the way to partnership, they consider it a win. I can’t think of another industry that would consider that amount of financial waste an acceptable business model.
In other aspects of our lives, we protect our financial and emotional investments carefully. If your child was failing a course in high school, you’d bring in a tutor faster than you can say “transcripts count”. If the roof of your house began to leak, you’d immediately get it repaired for fear of further and more costly damage. We also invest in proactive maintenance for the things that matter to us: how many of us have had our children inoculated against certain illnesses, or have the oil in our car changed regularly so the engine will never seize up? So why wouldn’t law firms protect their investment and lawyers protect their careers by engaging focussed help in dealing with any aspect of their practice that might be sub-par?
Well, increasingly that is exactly what law firms are doing. In fact, many law firms make coaching available to their lawyers and some US firms even have from one to three in-house coaches available for all of their practitioners. Here in Canada there aren’t many in-house coaches yet, but many law firms do have relationships with external coaches and provide their lawyers with access to coaching time, or at least funding for coaching.
Ultimately, the goal of each coaching situation is to help the lawyer improve their profitability just like the goal of every doctor is to work toward the optimum health of their patient. But from that point on, any solution must be highly tailored. What are the specific “business health” issues of the lawyer? What are their goals, and what are their needs to help get them toward the achievement of those goals? This will be different for every lawyer. And depending on these needs and the personality of the lawyer, they may need a very different coach than the one being utilized by the partner down the hall.
Like the Tessa and Scott example, not all coaches are the same. We each have different skill sets, different points of emphasis, and very different approaches and personalities. It can take a bit of juggling to fit the right coach with the right lawyer, which is why some firms have a roster of coaches available. In my capacity as an in-house marketing director I brought in many coaches to work with my lawyers. I learned that some weren’t assertive enough with more senior lawyers, some couldn’t work with women, some couldn’t assist with practice management skills, or weren’t creative enough with business development advice. Yet those same coaches could work extremely well with other lawyers in certain situations, helping them to achieve remarkable results.
My own coaching style is assertive, working with lawyers who are really motivated to improve. This includes under-performers who have a strong desire to increase their billable hours but just don’t know how; associates who want to ensure they are seriously considered for partnership; lawyers about to go on secondment who want to ensure they gain every possible advantage from the experience; those new to a firm or returning from a leave who want to hit the ground running; senior lawyers who have been asked to take on leadership positions and want to ensure they do it well.
My emphasis is on working with individuals to assist them through changes of behavior that will far better serve them on a going forward basis. . This is delicate work because it requires sensitivity and strong persuasion at the same time. I’m not after a quick fix, but a more permanent and powerful improvement. My own best coaches over the years didn’t simply assist me with an issue but rather, gave me a life lesson that helped me to address similar issues even years after I said goodbye. For much of my in-house career I had a sign over my desk that said “what would Ken say?” The note caused me to envision a former mentor/coach and his sage advice so that I didn’t need to speak with him to know what I needed to do. Years later, I’m still reaping the benefits of my time with him.
And that’s how it should be. Unlike sports coaching, legal Coaching should not be forever or it isn’t doing its job. Coaching is about identifying and fixing problems, maximizing potential, moving a lawyer to a higher level, teaching them how to maintain that, and then getting out. A good coach works toward the day when they can say goodbye to their client – at least with regard to whatever particular issue they were working on together.