Lawyers and law firms increasingly have the concept of coaching on their radar screens, particularly as coaching continues to filter into the mainstream. Now that the concept is well-known, the next step is gaining familiarity with how coaching actually works, what topics may be addressed, and what the effects may be over a given period of time. The ABA Journal has stepped up to offer case studies, in which it matched 3 lawyer clients (selected from more than 100 volunteers) with 3 coaches. The results offer tremendous insight into how a coaching relationship may function and the benefits that may result.
The ABA Journal offers three issues that stand between interested lawyers and coaching: uncertainty about what a coach might do for them, how to find the “right” coach, and how to find the time to engage in coaching. The three lawyers (Jamie Abrams, a 5th-year associate wanting to “sharpen her career management skills;” Larry Koch, a partner in practice for more than 25 years seeking to get more clients following the loss of a significant corporate client that was acquired by another company; and Frank Petrosino, a lawyer in practice for 9 years aiming to refine his area of practice) met with their coaches for one month, and the result are impressive.
The first lawyer/coach pair met by telephone two to five times a week. (By way of contrast, I talk with most clients twice a month, and almost never more than three times a month.) The engagement began with an assessment that helped the associate to identify her strengths and to facilitate her growth, particularly in delegating work. The lawyer said that working with a coach permitted her to reach for opportunities more effectively because she was prepared, and also that the coaching allowed her better to articulate her value to the firm and to develop practice goals for the next year.
The second pair spoke weekly for an hour at a time. The engagement began by defining the state of the lawyer’s practice, including naming his key clients and clients who hadn’t terminated the relationship but also hadn’t given him any work recently. The next step required evaluation of the lawyer’s current client relationships and how well they were functioning. Coach and lawyer also explored the lawyer’s comfort level in business development activities — avoiding the hard sell, for instance, preferring instead to continue an organic client development path by seeking new opportunities to help clients. These steps yielded a plan composed of practical goals (taking someone to lunch, for example) with deadlines. The lawyer’s summary of the coaching engagement: “I think most people need this type of assistance-someone to help them with planning, execution and accountability,” Koch says. “Especially with activities that don’t come naturally and for which you haven’t been trained. . . [It] made me think about other relationships, other possibilities-and then take a disciplined approach to it all.”
Sharpening a practice area focus
The third lawyer wanted to “become the go-to lawyer for the Vermont hospitality industry.” During the five calls of this coaching engagement, the lawyer identified his areas of marketing strength, refined those to be maximally effective, gathered data on the target client market, developed support within his law firm for going after his target clients, and came up with a strategy for setting aside time to continue his efforts. Between the first and second calls, the lawyer arranged several lunch appointments and speaking engagements, and he even managed to sit in on a client’s management meeting. Reflecting on the coaching experience, the lawyer said, “Obviously I have a full plate at work that I need to get done, but David’s calls gave me motivation, encouragement and energy that maybe I wouldn’t have had if he wasn’t there cheering me on.”
It appears that each of the clients came into the engagement highly motivated and willing to make the effort necessary to see results. Although coaching engagements are occasionally as short as a month, they usually last in the 3-6 month range, and not infrequently they continue much longer. However, the ABA experiment is a terrific example of what can be accomplished even in a very short period of time. The unspoken question, of course, is whether any or all of these three lawyers would hire a coach on their own dime. I am admittedly biased — since I am a coach for lawyers and since I’ve also been a coaching client for my legal practice — but the lawyers’ comments suggest to me that they did find significant value.
Two questions that the ABA Journal story raised but didn’t address: how to find the “right” coach and how to make the time. Making the time does require commitment, of course, but I’ve found that the stronger the motivation to make a change, the more likely the lawyer will set aside time for coaching (and the related work) and hold that time sacred. The “right” coach will vary among clients, but I always suggest investigating a coach’s background, experience, and coach training; the next, and most important step, is talking with a coach to get a feel for the coach’s style and personality. Most coaches offer free consultations before beginning an engagement, since the “chemistry” is important.