Coaching Lawyers for Behavioral Change

 “Put Me In Coach!” Mentoring and Coaching at Today’s Law Firm

Stephen P. Gallagher, President, LeadershipCoach

Law firms throughout the world seek new ways to attract and retain young lawyers. In the context of today’s rapidly changing global marketplace, it is essential that young lawyers be trained to be flexible, adaptable and prepared to take responsibility for their own continuous, personal, and professional development.  Law firms face new challenges in building professional development environments which will encourage individuals to take a more pro-active role in their own learning process.

Young professionals are looking for better ways to increase their worth to their organization, while at the same time, developing the transferable skills needed to enhance their own market value.  Law firms are finding that ‘one size fits all’ training programs are no longer sufficient to enable individuals to keep-up with a new fast-paced, turbulent business environment.  Today, law firms have to become learning organizations, where “longer-term human development is seen as a continual and integrated part of daily life.”[1]  According to Peter M. Senge, “learning organizations are organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see “the whole” together.[2]

Talk to a successful person about how they learned their craft or their trade and you will find that most will fondly recall one or two key individuals who helped shape their careers. This person may have been a parent, a teacher, or in many instances a colleague who is expert in the individual’s field of interest. Airline pilots will tell you that flight simulators are useful in teaching you to fly; but they really learn to fly, to use their judgment, to become pilots, by spending hours training next to a more senior pilot.  Surgeons perfect their skills by working on a team headed by more experienced surgeons before they earn the right and gain the expertise to perform surgery with their own team. Lawyers are no different. Over the years, law firms have relied on the one-on-one mentoring relationship to personalize the learning experience. “Sitting in the second chair” is how many litigators began their courtroom careers.

Research indicates that employees’ job performance is a function of their ability, their motivation to engage with their work, and the opportunity to deploy their ideas, abilities and knowledge effectively. [3] It is very difficult to acquire these qualities from a classroom setting. One-on-one mentoring or coaching contribute to professional development by helping individuals reach their professional goals faster, building on strengths, developing skills, providing encouragement, while increasing confidence.

In the law firm setting, mentoring provides a more junior attorney with an opportunity to reflect, learn, and develop, so the learner is able to apply knowledge to real world situations. This type of one-on-one working relationship has always been an importance part of in-house training which has taken place in law firms for generations. In law firms, mentors are usually highly placed partners who take a stewardship interest in the performance and career of younger lawyers. Their focus is on career advising and advancement.[4]

One of the challenges the legal profession faces today comes from the pressure to increase billable hours. There are only so many hours in each day, so as law firms succumb to the pressure of increasing billable hours, something else has to give. If senior lawyers have less time to meet with junior lawyers, will these young protégés leave to go to firms that provide more comprehensive one-on-one learning opportunities? If firms are unable to create an environment where people want to work—a workplace based on trust and personal responsibility, such firms may face a serious crisis in attorney recruitment, training and management.

The Logic of “Reflection-in-Action”

David A. Kolb, Ph.D.,[5] professor of Organizational Behaviour, at the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University, and Donald A. Schön[6] a professor of Urban Studies and Education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were among the first to argue that professional education should be centered on enhancing the practitioner’s ability for “reflection-in-action”—that is, learning by doing and developing the ability for continued learning and problem solving throughout one’s professional career. Schön later suggested that, “professional education should be redesigned to combine the teaching of applied science with coaching in the artistry of reflection-in-action.”[7] Law schools in the U.S. have never prided themselves on transferring knowledge to the ‘real world, although this may be changing.[8]

Kolb and Schön have given reflective practice currency in recent years, using and applying the basic principle of reflecting on experience to improve action and professional practice. However, this is not a new or original idea. Reflective practice was developed by education pioneers such as John Dewey[9] and Curt Lewin [10] It can be traced back to Socrates’ method of learning through questioning and feedback. “Reflection” involves a dialogue between practitioners and their colleagues, mentors and coaches, all of whom can provide useful feedback necessary for reflection.

One of the reasons for maintaining strong mentoring/coaching relationships is to help individuals better understand and make sense of what they are experiencing and feeling. Having a good mentor or coach can help a young lawyer engage in this ongoing dialogue to make sense of what he/she is learning. Relating the feedback given by others to their current understanding helps learners apply what they are learning. This is what Donald A. Schön talked about when he spoke of the importance of “reflection-in-action.”

Building a High Performance Organization in a High-Risk Culture

Shoshana Zuboff and James Maxmin, authors of The Support Economy,[11] an excellent book about why corporations are failing individuals, convincingly argue that we are seeing a new type of consumer with dramatically different buying patterns and interests. Individuals no longer want to rely on group identification and compliance with group norms. Today’s young consumers are clearly unlike any the world has ever seen. According to Zuboff and Maxmin, “These young professionals want to ‘opt in’ and make their own choices, controlling their destinies and their cash. They want their voices to be heard, and they want them to matter.”[12] Are we not talking about today’s law school graduates?

High performance is no longer an option.  It is a requirement for the survival of both individuals and the organization. Building self-reliance, self-belief and self-responsibility can no longer be left to chance. Law firms will need to find ways to build more comprehensive mentoring/coaching relations if they hope to attract and retain top talent. Firms that continue to throw money at new recruits, while demanding 2000 to 2500 billable hours per year with limited feedback regarding their career advancement, may find their talent moving to firms more closely aligned with young professional’s core values.

            As lawyers are increasingly being challenged to produce greater billable hours, opportunities for young practitioners to “learn by doing” are being eliminated. In past years, it was not uncommon for a senior attorney to include several junior attorneys when handling client matters. Taking depositions could be used to train several younger lawyers so they all had an opportunity to reflect, learn, and develop on a daily basis. Today, there is such pressure from clients to control costs that junior attorneys are losing out on these one-on-one training opportunities.

To fully appreciate what would be lost if mentoring or coaching were to be eliminated, it is important to understand that learning is developmental, and the best professional development programs will be structured around learning that involves solving real and important business problems. These types of programs can only be delivered face-to-face. Collaboration is becoming more and more an imperative. It can no longer be a matter of choice. Making sense of new information and integrating it into an existing framework of understanding will enable the learner to make more and better informed choices.

Another element which greatly affects teaching and learning in today’s complex legal environment, our high risk culture, was first voiced by Morris Shechtman. This former university professor and psychotherapist writes about the rapid rate of social, cultural, political, and economic change in the world today, which has created a high-risk culture. In this high-risk culture our businesses and our lives are in a constant state of flux, there is no room for safety nets.[13]  Law firms working within this high-risk culture need to create an environment: more tolerant of dissent; more supportive of experimentation; and at the same time, more committed to shared discussion and learning. This can not be done in a “one-size-fits-all” world.

In 2001, McKenzie and Company published a survey War for Talent, [14] which is proving to be of particular interest to law firms. The survey was developed to find out how companies build a strong pool of managerial talent—how they attract, develop, and retain key people in their organization and how they build a pipeline of younger talent who might one day move into more senior positions. The survey results showed how dramatically the recruiting game has changed. Of particular note to law firms is that development is shown to be critical to attracting and retaining key people. “Excellent talent management has become a crucial source of competitive advantage. Law firms which do a better job of attracting, developing, exciting, and retaining their talent will gain more than their fair share of this critical and scarce resource and will boost their performance dramatically.”[15] This is just not the time to cut back on one-to-one mentoring relationships which have formed the heart of your professional development programs.

One of the ways law firms can adjust to today’s high-risk culture is by actually expanding one-on-one mentoring through the use of professionally trained coaches. With the number of “baby boomers” entering retirement age, these senior lawyers may become the talent pool you will need to enhance personnel development within the firm. For our purposes, coaching can be described as, “a process of helping someone enhance or improve their performance through reflection on how they apply a specific skill and/or knowledge.”[16] Coaching in the business setting is a one-on-one relationship to help people better use existing knowledge and skills to maximize performance.  As a general rule, coaching is both person-centered, and system-centered.  Successful coaching achieves positive change for both the individual and the system; i.e., the law firm.

Mentoring and Coaching in a Learning Organization

There are significant overlaps between the role of coach and mentor, but there are some core characteristics which generally distinguish the role of a coach from the role of a mentor.  These differences are important to understand, because the role of a coach need not be performed by a more senior attorney.  Many law firms have professional development specialists who have been trained in the use of coaching strategies and techniques.  There is no reason why one-on-one coaching relationships should not extend beyond the ranks of senior attorneys to include a firm’s educational specialists.  Some of the distinguishing characteristics between mentoring and coaching include:

  1. Coaching consists of one-to-one developmental discussions at work, while mentoring can be more informal advice-giving, guidance, or support. Coaching helps individuals move from where they are to where they want to be or need to be – by developing the individual.  Law firms which integrate coaching with mentoring will be able to use their own professional development specialists as coaches as well as utilizing outside coaches when appropriate.  This use will enable firms to set their own performance standards while providing support to help all employees meet these standards.
  2. Unlike mentoring, coaching is not based on the coach’s direct experience in any particular occupational role, while a mentor is frequently more experienced and qualified than the ‘mentee’ in a specific area of practice. A coach does not have to be trained as a lawyer to coach lawyers. Being a good lawyer does not necessarily qualify an individual to have the skills to coach other lawyers.  The demand for greater billable hours will probably not change in the near future, so it is important for law firms to find other ways to provide one-on-one opportunities for “reflection-in-action”—learning by doing.  In-house coaching by professional development specialists can be an effective way to augment the use of senior attorney mentors.  As mentors focus on informal advice-giving, guidance, and support about legal content and technique matters, coaching by in-house professional development specialists can help the individuals keep on track with their personal developmental goals.
  3. Coaching revolves around specific developmental areas/issues at work, while mentoring revolves more around developing the mentee professionally. Coaching focuses on improving performance and developing/enhancing an individual’s skills, which could be used in other settings. Mentoring focuses on career and personal development more content specific.  Coaching can be a fairly short-term activity, while mentoring is an ongoing relationship which can last for a long period of time.  A senior litigator, acting as mentor, will introduce a newly-minted associate to the wiles and wonders of the courtroom.  A coach may assist that young associate in developing the self confidence and assurance needed to succeed in that courtroom or elsewhere.
  4. A coach can assist members of the firm’s leadership team by connecting an individual’s thoughts and actions in order to create a balance between personal and professional goals.[17] A coach can help individuals create a vision of the future or an ideal to aspire towards, as opposed to struggling to survive by avoiding problems.
  5. Outside coaching may be a way for lawyers to develop new perspectives and skills required to lead law firms under these continually changing conditions. The coach can carefully observe both the individual’s actions and the effect of those actions within the law firm community, while trying to understand both. This can be extremely difficult for a mentor who is a member of the surrounding community.

Finally, rather than assigning mentoring responsibilities to every senior lawyer, mentors should be selected based on the prospective mentor’s desire to help young lawyers learn what it means today to be a member of the profession and the firm. Mentors should be selected on their openness to being trained in coaching strategies and techniques to help others reach personal objectives as well as meeting the firm’s learning objectives. The same senior lawyers who many law firms are looking to sunset may become the untapped resources needed to keep one-on-one learning opportunities alive.

What Has to Change?          

Law firm culture creates a framework for performance expectations and the ways in which people relate to one another.  Even when unwritten, associates quickly learn the “rules” about work habits and billable hours within their law firm culture. Using a coach should not imply that the individual has a problem, but rather that the individual wants to perform more effectively, or differently. Those firms which are building coaching and mentoring into their firm culture have a much better chance of changing human behaviour for the good of all.  Those firms which train their mentors in coaching skills may have the best chance of succeeding.   If a firm is unable to integrate one-on-one coaching into their professional development program, learning will continue to be sporadic at best. If a senior partner takes an interest in a younger protégé, the mentoring/coaching relationship will work well. Learning will flourish. On the other hand, too many young lawyers only see their mentors as senior attorneys whose job it is to make sure billable hours are turned in on time.

According to Peter M. Senge in his best-seller, The Fifth Discipline (1990), the organizations which will truly excel in the future will be the organizations which discover how to tap people’s commitment and capacity to learn at all levels in an organization. Integrating coaching into mentoring programs will give lawyers, new and not so new, the tools and supports they need to develop behaviour and strategies to lead them to higher levels of success.

Coaching is about actions and results based on specific developmental areas/issues at work. When there is a “coaching culture” within the organization—one in which there is no tolerance for mediocre performance and where asking for and offering coaching is encouraged—remarkable results can be accomplished. The integration of coaching with mentoring should provide for continuous improvement of a lawyer’s performance. It should include timely provision for constructive feedback, support for learning and development, and assist all partners and associates alike, with self-awareness and self-evaluation.

The need for coaching and mentoring in today’s legal environment remains strong.  Young lawyers need to be trained to be flexible, adaptable and prepared to take responsibility for their own learning and their own continuous personal and professional development.  Coaching and mentoring principles underpin a management style needed to attain a high-performance culture in today’s legal environment.

Stephen P. Gallagher, President of Leadershipcoach, is a former Practice Management Advisor for the New York State Bar Association. As an executive coach, he works with law firms and practice group leaders to develop exit strategies and Retirement/Transition plans for senior partners. Gallagher also conducts strategic planning retreats for law firms and bar associations.

Gallagher teaches Principles of Marketing to undergraduates and Creating and Measuring Client Value to graduate MBA students at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia. Gallagher returned to teaching as part of his own renewal process.

[1] Mike Leibling & Robin Prior, Coaching Made Easy: Step-by-Step Techniques that Get Results (London: Kogan Page Limited, 2003), p. 1

[2] Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline. The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (London: Random House, 1990), p. 3.

[3] Jessica Jarvis, Coaching and Buying Coaching Services – A CIPD Guide, (London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, 2004), p. 39.

[4] Anna Marie Valerio & Robert J. Lee, Executive Coaching: A Guide for HR Professionals (San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2005), p. 15.

[5]David A. Kolb, Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development (London: Kogan Page, 1984)

[6] Donald Schön, The Reflective Practitioner. (New York: Basic Books, 1983).

[7] Donald Schön, Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Profession. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1987), p. xii.

[8] The Elon University School of Law in Greensboro, NC. is building on the University’s national reputation for excellence in engaged learning and leadership education. Law students experience constant, constructive feedback and personal guidance from faculty, executive coaches and practicing attorneys (preceptors) who are committed to the school’s mission. The 2007 Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE) reveals almost 90 percent of first-year Elon law students rate their educational experience as good or excellent, five percent higher than the national average.

[9] John Dewey, How We Think (Boston: DC Heath, 1909). John Dewey is arguably the most influential thinker on education in the twentieth century, Dewey’s contribution lies along several fronts. His attention to experience and reflection, democracy and community, and to environments for learning has been seminal.

[10] Kurt Lewin, Field Theory in Social Science (London: Tavistock, 1952). For Kurt Lewin, behavior was determined by totality of an individual’s situation. In his field theory, a ‘field’ is defined as ‘the totality of coexisting facts which are conceived of as mutually interdependent’. Individuals were seen to behave differently according to the way in which tensions between perceptions of the self and of the environment were worked through. The whole psychological field, or ‘life space’, within which people acted, had to be viewed, in order to understand behavior. See Kurt Lewin, K. Field Theory in Social Science; Selected Theoretical Papers. D. Cartwright (ed.). (New York: Harper & Row, 1951), p. 242.

[11] See Zuboff, Shoshana and James Maxmin The Support Economy: Why Corporations are Failing Individuals and the Next Episode of Capitalism (New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 2002).

[12] Zuboff, Shoshana and James Maxmin, The Support Economy: Why Corporations are Failing Individuals and the Next Episode of Capitalism (New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 2002).10.

[13] Morris R. Shechtman, Working Without a Net: How to Survive & Thrive in Today’s High-Risk Business world. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), p.5.

[14] See Ed Michaels, Helen Handfield-Jones, Beth Axelrod. The War for Talent (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2001).

[15] Ibid., 7.

[16] Sara Thorpe & Jackie Clifford, The Coaching Handbook: An Action Kit for Trainers & Managers (London: Kogan Page Limited, 2003), p. 1.

[17] Thomas G. Crane, The Heart of Coaching: Using Transformational Coaching to Create a High-Performance Culture (San Diego: FTA Press, 2002), p. 115

Stephen P. Gallagher


213 N. Narberth Ave.

Narberth, PA. 19072


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