The articles that I’ve been privileged to share with you often draw inspiration from a common source: my work as a coach. I coach attorneys on how to make their practices better and more profitable, providing advice based on years of experience and years "in the field" as a practicing lawyer. Many of the lawyers whom I coach have workplace issues involving not only their practices, but their relationships with colleagues, staff and clients. With a little help, we're able to cross these barriers and generate more productivity, income and enjoyment in the practice.
Why Coaching Works
Coaching works. An excellent explanation of why this is so came from well known marketing consultant Phyllis Weiss Haserot, whose insight I’ve quoted on my own blog: “Coaching is personalized teaching that expands awareness, brings clarity, develops new habits that achieve growth, and fosters self-motivation.” Good coaching helps you realize your potential.
Look at coaching through the eyes of “investment”, that is, investment in yourself. You should engage a coach from the point you decide you want to be successful. A coach can help achieve that success more quickly than you would on your own.
In my own practice, I have constantly seen the direct and tangible benefits that my clients derive from coaching. Most of my clients have increased their revenue by five or six figures as the result of having an independent, objective ally who can listen to the challenge the lawyer faces and provide advice on what works best. The effective coach provides the kind of honest feedback and support that helps people do great things.
What Coaches Do
Coaches work with people in real life, discussing and exploring roadblocks as they are encountered and working to remove them. 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 works in partnership to achieve it. A few examples from my own practice will illustrate what this process can do.
- A young family law sole practitioner was trying to do a good job for his clients while at the same time trying to attract more business, making for 16-hour days that left him exhausted. I suggested that he first focus his efforts on a strategic plan that defined his revenue and net income goals and the types of clients and matters that would support them. Second, I advised hiring an assistant who could handle administrative chores and allow the lawyer to do the work only he could do – serving existing clients and marketing to new ones.
- A prospective client approached an intellectual property lawyer with the possibility of work if the lawyer would discount her hourly fee. I advised her that discussing discounts immediately after quoting her fee would show that she did not truly value her own services. If a discount were worthwhile, I suggested that she offer it only if the client would guarantee a set number of hours each month – and pay for six months of work in advance. In other words, the quid pro quo for a discount would be a guarantee with payment up front, an arrangement that is fair to both sides in the engagement.
- An attorney told me he was stressed because he had so much business that he was worried about inadvertently failing to do something essential for a client. We discussed his procedures for dealing with open files and I recommended that he use a project management system that would keep track of the details. In just a week the attorney reported that the system worked so well that he had his best night’s sleep in months.
- A lawyer had achieved a large settlement for a client and had even reduced his fee, but his client failed to appreciate the value of the service and threatened to withhold payment. I suggested that the lawyer prepare a letter summarizing what he had accomplished and concluding that the settlement proceeds were available once the client authorized both distribution and payment of the lawyer’s fee, in writing. This win-win approach ultimately helped the attorney earn an additional $85,000.
How Coaches Function
The point of these examples is not that coaches have all the answers. Rather, it is that they provide an on-going sounding board for your problems, questions and ideas. Coaching is convenient; there are no time-consuming office visits and little or no stress. Coaching provides instant support and feedback through regular meetings that often are conducted by phone.
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. 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 - 45 minutes. Weekly contact keeps the attorney on track with actions as needed. Of course, the coach is also available at other times as required.
How to Choose
There are definite factors to consider in engaging a coach. Here are some traits to look for when considering a coach:
- First and most important, what is your gut feeling about the person? Do you have a good rapport with him or her, even without personal contact?
- Do you respect the person’s reputation and experience?
- Has this person “walked in your shoes before?” Is this person a lawyer (not just a law degree, but an honest to goodness practicing lawyer)?
- If your coach is not a lawyer, why did he or she leave the practice of law?
- What has been the experience of the person as a coach, not just as a lawyer?
- If you’re looking for a particular trait, for example business, or life balance, or career change, or marketing, what has been the track record of the coach in these areas?
- Does your coach believe in the value of the coaching process so much that he or she also has his/her own coach in order to constantly improve in the coaching and consulting business?
One of these points, background in the law, requires elaboration. The coach who was not / is not a lawyer must be familiar with the rules of professional conduct. Other than that, a coach who is experienced in the areas of greatest interest to the lawyer/client – marketing, finance, technology, psychology – can be a worthwhile choice.
What Excuses to Avoid
If coaching helps so much, why don’t we take more advantage of it? These are the objections to coaching that I hear time and again, and the responses that I offer. Can you see yourself in them? If so, you may be talking yourself out of help that can improve your career and your life.
- If I seek coaching, it means I’m personally inadequate. Actually, engaging a coach means you’ve decided to succeed, because you’ll improve more quickly than you would alone. Athletes are the classic metaphor for this; they are not weaker because they seek coaching, they are stronger.
- Engaging a coach is too expensive. If you think of this as an expense, you will not proceed. Actually, coaching is an investment in you. The increase in your earnings or decrease in your stress level typically produces a significant return on the investment.
- I can’t commit to the time that a coach demands. No commitment equals no success. The price is the time required to do what’s necessary to improve. Don’t move forward until and unless you want to move to the next level of success.
- Coaches too often try to intimidate people. A good coach is neither a buddy nor a mentor nor an assistant. A coach offers leadership that enables you to be better.
- I can’t take direction from someone I don’t know personally. A personal relationship is unnecessary. What is necessary is the willingness to be open to change, an open mind to evaluate suggestions for improvement and a commitment to increase your level of success.
How to Define Value
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. Without the coaching (and accountability to yourself through the accountability to the coach), you would accomplish less. More is better than less and it is on this basis that you should view the benefits of the process. These “benefits” can be analyzed and measured. You are not left wondering or guessing.
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. As Stephen Covey says in his 7 Principles, “begin with the end in mind.” The coach offers support so that you follow through with action and changes. If you listen and act, you will benefit more than you can imagine.