Coaching Your Counselors - How to Implement Attorney Coaching to Boost Profits and Productivity

Published in Association of Legal Administrators, June 2013

Good coaching from an experienced, professional coach helps lawyers better realize their potential. The best way to gain acceptance for coaching is for each individual to look at it as a way to increase ROY: "return on yourself." An effective coach can help anyone achieve success more quickly than they could on their own and provides the kind of honest feedback and support that helps people do great things. The coaching experience is an active process — a partnership, not an event. The foundation is trust, as the coach learns what the client "really wants" and both parties work in partnership to achieve it.

HOW TO DEFINE COACHING

Passively waiting for answers or a pat on the back is not making proper use of a coach. Rather, the key is to be active and engaged, asking questions and applying challenging answers as part of a give-and-take process. Lawyers benefit most from coaching when they:

  • Accept coaching as a career-long process; using a coach is not episodic or a one-time fix, such as a consulting engagement.

  • Remember that a coach is someone who pushes as well as nurtures. A coach is not a mentor; mentors are career advisers. A coach is an accountability partner.

  • Use a coach interactively, giving and getting feedback on specific success targets.

  • Gain confidence from the coach's outsider perspective. The coach speaks from knowledge and experience, and sees each lawyer's strengths and opportunities more clearly than the lawyer himself or herself can.

Coaches work with people in real life, discussing and exploring roadblocks as they are encountered and working to remove them. A coach provides both accountability and support. The right coach brings certain advantages: experience as a lawyer in practice management issues that lawyers face, the independence to hold the lawyer accountable for addressing these issues, the time to focus on solutions and a willingness to be candid. If everything suggested by the coach or committed to by the lawyer is not achieved, it still does not denigrate the value of the coaching process. The fact is that without the coaching (and self-accountability through the accountability to the coach), less would be accomplished. Thus, more is better than less.

HOW TO CHOOSE AND USE A COACH

It is essential that the coaching client defines and conveys to the coach what the client "really wants" and works in partnership to achieve it. Those who use a coach must be committed to their own success, and choose a coach using these benchmarks:

  • Assess the coach's skills, either as a practicing lawyer or as someone with in-depth experience in such critical areas as marketing, finance or psychology.

  • Be sure the coach will structure the working relationship that is most mutually convenient — from personal, face-to face meetings, to a weekly phone call.

  • Look at their websites and research them online, especially to see if they have accreditations that signify coaching excellence. (See sidebar, "Resources to Evaluate Coaches.")

In evaluating a coach's approach and technique, it is essential to choose someone who emphasizes concrete, achievable measurements. Defining a lawyer's coaching "success" in relative terms such as "more revenue" or "better marketing" sets a subjective standard that is difficult to discuss, let alone achieve. Similarly, be sure to define how the coaching is provided. Typically, after an initial session that includes going over the relationship and the options for dealing with the primary concerns, each coaching session usually lasts no more than 30 minutes. Weekly contact keeps the attorney on track with actions as needed. Of course, the coach is also available at other times as required.

Lawyers who make the best use of coaches do so with someone who encourages interaction and involvement. As lawyers gain more experience in their careers, they give feedback to the coach, participate in the dialog, and sometimes change the dialog (or the coach) completely. Active participation in the coaching process is the complete opposite of sitting back and waiting for the coach to provide all the answers, and it produces much better results. In a real sense it reflects the increasing expectation of business clients that their lawyers give up a pure hourly billing rate and adopt a compensation method that involves performance targets as incentives for greater rewards — in effect giving the lawyer "skin in the game" and making the result more meaningful.

HOW COACHING WORKS

The interaction between the coach and the lawyer being coached may be as simple as a shoulder to lean on, or as complex as having assignments made by the coach with the expectation that the results of the assignment will be discussed the following week. These three lawyers have each used coaching in different ways to enhance their practices. Their comments illustrate how coaching can be either precisely focused or broadly based:

  • David Lefton is an estates and trusts partner and Chair of the Ohio State Bar's Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Section at Cincinnati-based Barron Peck Bennie & Schlemmer. "Working with a coach didn't need to be extensive for me, because in a short time I learned how writing for an external audience could be a major business development tool," Lefton said. "My coach showed me how I could make myself more visible with potential clients and establish my credentials more solidly by writing regular newspaper columns and blog posts and even suggested resources to help me do that. I've now been writing for almost four years, and it has been an immense help in getting me established with a new firm and securing new clients."

  • Veronika Melamed is a Certified Family Law Specialist practicing at her own firm, Melamed Law Group, in Beverly Hills, California. She has actively been involved in coaching for several years and said, "To me the greatest value of working with a coach is having someone I can turn to and receive unbiased advice — both as an attorney and as a person. I get the opinion and guidance of someone who is removed from my individual situation and can see both the minefields and the opportunities of my practice more clearly than I often can. I can rely on my coach's own experience as a lawyer to get an objective view of where I am now in my practice and where I need to be.

  • Marlo Van Oorschot has practiced divorce law for 15 years and leads a four-member team at the Law Offices of Marlo Van Oorschot. She credits her coach with helping her develop a new practice niche. "My coach showed me now I could become a 'thought leader' on 'grey divorce' — the dissolution of marriage after the age of 50," she said. "My coach helped me refine the message and kept me on track to write wrote a book about it. Few other lawyers had focused on this concern, and my book really enhanced my visibility and stature as a grey divorce counselor. This was just one example of the kind of honesty and proactive guidance that coaching gives me — an ongoing process to reframe, refine and improve what I do."

HOW NOT TO USE A COACH

Such examples show that those who successfully use a coach are committed to doing what is required to reach the success they envision. Lack of that commitment undermines coaching effectiveness in these ways, if the lawyer who is being coached:

  • Expects that the coach has all the answers and will provide nothing but encouragement.

  • Gets too caught up in daily distractions to meet goals and objectives set with the coach.

  • Fails to set priorities on what coaching objectives to pursue.

  • Is too enamored of personal ideas and perceptions to accept a coach's insights.

Getting the maximum coaching ROY requires setting and regularly reviewing priorities. Most lawyers who claim they have too little time, or are overwhelmed by time, demands, generally either fail to make a list of priorities, hop around any list they do make, or allow themselves to be distracted by too many other tasks. This defines procrastination, and the root cause typically is that lawyers simply do not prioritize. The lawyer who feels he or she can't commit to the time that a coach demands is actually making a choice not to prioritize. No priorities, no commitment … no success. The price of success is the time required to work with the coach and do what's necessary to improve. Those lawyers who are too passive, too busy or too self-satisfied simply are not willing to make the necessary investment in the coaching process. While these lawyers may be successful, they are not as successful as they otherwise would be.

HOW ADMINISTRATORS CAN BENEFIT

Although coaching typically focuses on the practice needs of lawyers, administrators can also benefit from experience-based legal coaching to manage lawyers' everyday expectations. Coaches who work with lawyers understand the lawyer personality traits that create challenges for administrators, staff, paralegals and even associates. Lawyers primarily focus on the task at hand and getting results, leaving little room for camaraderie and support. Inclusiveness will produce more harmony for all, increase productivity and therefore profitability of the firm. But studies have shown that inclusiveness is difficult for lawyers, who tend to be more skeptical, impatient and intense, and less interactive and able to take criticism, than people in general.

Coaches — especially those already working with a firm's lawyers — realize these potential barriers and can help administrators better connect with lawyers, particularly senior lawyers to whom administrators are responsible for accounting, human resources and similar functions may report. Coaches can show administrators the techniques to keep the lines of communication open with lawyers to define and assess achievement of the necessary measurements for success in his or her position. Regular coaching contact keeps the administrator on track with actions as needed, and provides a sounding board for assessing progress and problems.

AFTERWARD

The return desired on any investment is a function of efficiencies achieved, productivity enhanced and value added when compared to the investment resources required. To get the "return on yourself" that coaching can provide is synonymous with engaging a coach in order to achieve more success. That means being sure what kind of success is the desired outcome, being willing to do what is required to reach the level of success envisioned, and being prepared to accept this success. The typical coaching conversation starts with the ideal "end in mind," then combines experience and questioning to help clients access their own wisdom and unique abilities. The coach offers support for action and changes. Lawyers who listen and act often benefit more than they ever imagined.

Resources to Evaluate Coaches

An effective way to evaluate coaches is through their professional certifications and credentials. Top coaches will have affiliations and accreditations with one or more of these organizations:

  • THE SOCIETY FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF CONSULTING
    Coaches who meet experience and reference requirements will have a "Board Approved" designation.
    www.consultingsociety.com

  • NATIONAL BUREAU OF CERTIFIED CONSULTANTS
    Five years of experience and references and evaluations are needed for the Certified Professional Consultant to Management designation.
    www.national-bureau.com

  • INSTITUTE OF MANAGEMENT CONSULTANTS
    Its formal accreditation process leads to designation as a Certified Management Consultant.
    www.imcusa.org

  • MENTORCOACH® LLC
    This program offers accreditation as a Certified Mentor Coach.
    www.mentorcoach.com

  • INTERNATIONAL COACH FEDERATION
    Its accreditation as a Professional Certified Coach requires 750 hours of experience and other verification.
    www.coachfederation.org

A good resource for learning more about interpreting these and other credentials, and for learning more about coaching generally, is Andrew Elowitt's 2012 book, The Lawyer's Guide to Professional Coaching, which is available in the ALA Bookstore at www.alanet.org/bookstore.

This Article is categorized for the following audience(s):

This Article is listed under the following categories: