• Alan L. Cohen

Coaching Attorneys: Making the Case


I went to law school thinking that being an attorney was defined by LA Law. Within an hour-long drama, a case got assigned, discovery occurred, arguments were made in court and a decision was rendered. Needless to say, I was not prepared for law firm practice.

After 8 years of employment law practice, I gave it up. I built a successful career in Human Resources over a period of 20 years, working with C-Suite executives to help them attain the highest level of success in their businesses. During that time, I learned how to combine the subject matter expertise I developed as an employment lawyer with the soft skills required to provide direct and diplomatic guidance when resolving “people issues.” And I leveraged those years of experience to become an executive coach. As a coach, I help other experienced professionals do what I did and what I have helped countless in-house clients to do. I help them identify career obstacles, learn to navigate through them, and ultimately achieve success.

Executive coaching is for individuals who want to elevate their performance, increase their personal and professional stature, and hone or develop skills that are necessary to be successful. Already successful professionals retain coaches to identify professional goals and create an action plan for reaching these goals so that they can achieve next-level success.

Let’s face facts. Neither LA Law nor law school teach anyone how to be an attorney. And practicing law at a law firm doesn’t teach attorneys how to be successful managers or leaders. Attorneys deemed “successful” at law firms are top experts in their subject matter areas, are rainmakers with deep client relationships and client-building skills, and are able to maintain high billable hours. Law firms invest in developing deep subject matter expertise for attorneys, but they seldom make investments in developing the necessary skills required to lead teams effectively. Yet successful attorneys often find themselves in leadership roles as practice lead and/or as a member of Firm management. And those are not muscles they have exercised previously in their careers. That’s where coaching comes in.

How do attorneys benefit from coaching? Even the most successful attorneys can benefit from executive coaching. Like many senior level executives, attorneys can be isolated in their jobs, particularly as their level of leadership and responsibility increases. The executive coach provides a forum for the open discussion of the barriers that are impeding the attorney’s, and thereby the firm’s, progress and development. Once a trusting relationship is developed between the coach and the attorney, perceived weaknesses can be openly discussed, developed, and improved.

Whether driven by winning the litigation or by closing the deal, attorneys are driven by results. Coaching is similarly a results-driven process. Coaches work with attorneys to define strategic goals, using various assessment tools -- including 360-degree reviews -- to define strengths and challenges. Together, coaches and attorneys develop relevant success metrics that result in professional growth and lasting accountability.

How do law firms benefit from attorney coaching? Effective coaching creates effective leadership, and positively impacts the bottom line. Coaching offers already-successful attorneys the platform to drive vision and direction on behalf of their practices and the Firm. Coaching enables attorneys to open lines of communication, creating a culture of trust, respect, and personal accountability. In turn, less time, energy, and money will be expended dealing with conflict, politics, and lack of trust. Executive coaching has such a positive impact on the bottom line that some law firms looking for a competitive advantage have already begun to imbed coaching resources into their in-house Talent Management practices.

How does an attorney choose a coach? Coaches can be used in many different ways and at many different stages throughout professional careers. Many attorneys work on business development because selling is not a skill that comes naturally to them, and it is not a skill often learned ‘on the job.’ Others want to run their practices more efficiently or manage their support staff more effectively. Still others want to change professions or use their law degrees to work outside the law firm environment.

The “why” of coaching should help inform the selection of the coach.

Like attorneys, different coaches have different areas of expertise related both to their own professional backgrounds and their coaching philosophies. Many attorneys prefer working with coaches who were themselves attorneys and who understand what it is like to practice. Attorneys looking to transition out of the practice of law may seek perspective from someone who can help them explore the next stage of their careers and market to a particular industry or toward a particular professional goal. Others might want to work with someone who has already made such a career transition themselves.

Chemistry, expertise and cost are always considerations when hiring a coach. There are a range of styles in coaching, and one needs to decide which style best suits their personalities. Costs can vary by level and type of expertise. Some coaches are generalists, and others have particular areas of focus.

Many coaches offer free consultations so a professional considering coaching can assess expertise, background and style before committing time and resources to the coaching process. The ultimate goal is to work with someone with whom a trusting relationship can be built so that the hard work of professional self-assessment and development can yield a successful outcome.

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