“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.” 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.
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.  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.