Take Your Practice to the Next Level: Hire a Coach

  • July 17, 2014
  • Ann Macaulay

When Meldon Ellis returned to Vancouver to practise law in 2003 after running an online gaming company in Antigua for a few years, he was unsure about where to take his career. “I was stuck,” he says. “I needed to brainstorm about how to resume my career in law.” He set up his own firm at the beginning of 2004 with a single file, but his biggest challenge was staying motivated.

That’s when Linda Robertson entered his life to coach him on developing a personal strategic plan. She helped him discover his strengths and weaknesses and take an inventory of his skills. Ellis says that although he knew he needed to develop a business plan and acquire work, it was easy to get discouraged and off task because he was working on his own. Strategizing with Robertson gave him a goal and personal accountability. “Committing what I needed to do to someone other than myself was a big part of it.”

Within a year of being coached by Robertson, Ellis took over another practice and successfully moved from being a sole practitioner to hiring an associate and staff. He calls the experience of working with a coach incredibly valuable: Robertson gave him support as well as a business model, a chance to brainstorm and a focus on strategy and planning.

Ellis says that working with a coach gave him a chance to brainstorm about his strategic direction for an hour at a time. “That’s very hard to do when you’re just by yourself or you’re busy doing other things,” he says, adding, “There’s no question that I was able to develop this business faster than I would have if I’d been bumbling along by myself.”

Why a Coach?

Lawyer coaches are trained professionals who counsel lawyers on various aspects of their legal lives, including goals, time management, career transition, personality issues with co-workers, and client-relationship building. Top-level coaches have completed accredited training at schools certified by the International Coaching Federation, including the Hudson Institute and Royal Roads University.

A coach works with a lawyer one-on-one to design the best solutions for that person’s job, career and life, with the ultimate goal of equipping him to continue the process alone. Coaches also work with groups of lawyers, including litigation teams or partnership groups, to promote better communication and teamwork.

A growing number of lawyers have discovered personal coaching as a highly effective way to improve their careers. Since the key elements of a lawyer’s career are uniquely individual — personality, ambitions, preferences and goals — it makes sense that individual, tailored coaching is the most effective route to get there quickly.

Traditionally, training delivered to the legal profession has been provided by professionals, including marketing specialists or management consultants, who analyze a situation then dictate what’s needed. But “coaching works in a different way,” says Vancouver coach Allison Wolf. It involves partnering with clients and helping bring out their best wisdom through the use of strategic questions. That in turn helps guide clients to find the best answers for themselves. “You’re honouring the experience of a wealth of knowledge that the individual in front of you brings to the table” Wolf says. “You’re offering up the benefit of your own experience in the area. You’re helping them and guiding them to making the best strategic decisions for themselves, for whatever challenge they’re facing. You help them basically learn.”

What Wolf hears most often from her new clients is “I’ve hit the wall. I don’t know what to do.” She gives clients feedback, offering the benefit of her own experience. In building a relationship with a client, a key part is to form a foundation of trust, honesty and openness. The client cannot hold back on his thoughts or ideas about a situation.

Training comes in one simple phrase: “Ask, don’t tell,” says Wolf. “Consultants will just tell. A coach helps the individual really find the information they need for themselves; it’s to help them really learn powerfully and resolve their challenges that way.

“Coaching works on the principle of learning in action where, in order to really know something, a person has to learn it,” Wolf adds. “Coaching is not remedial. Coaching is not for those who just can’t make it on their own. Coaching is for high achievers. Like Tiger Woods has a coach, this is for people who really want to step up to the next level.”

Increasing Demand

The demand for specialized coaching is increasing as more high achievers discover its benefits. “The corporate world sees it as their competitive edge,” says Robertson. “You want results around behavior change, and coaching is the most effective way to get you there. That’s why the corporate world has really embraced it, and more and more law firms are embracing it. Coaching is a way of taking your practice to the next level.”

Robertson works with lawyers who are struggling in a variety of ways, including stress-related problems and time management. One of her most popular services is helping lawyers increase their recording of time and their billing practices. She tells clients, “I want your firm to recoup every penny they pay me in coaching with your improved billing. You’ll record more hours and bill more after you’ve done some sessions.”

Robertson, a Vancouver lawyer coach and practice consultant, is well-placed to coach individuals in the legal profession, having practised as a senior lawyer for 24 years. She was general counsel at a large corporation, then moved to a position as senior vice-president of law and human resources. At that point, “I was drowning,” she says. That’s when her CEO told her she needed a coach to help her get up to speed with her new job, and learn to prioritize and to allocate her time. “It was a great experience for me and it saved me. I probably would have quit out of sheer overload, I had so much on my plate, ”Robertson recalls.

She says mentoring has traditionally filled an important role in helping younger lawyers get up to speed, but many senior lawyers simply don’t have the time to do it anymore. “Coaches like me fill a huge need in talking to young associates and helping them get that kind of coaching and mentoring they might have received before,” says Robertson. Plus, she says, “I’m an outsider, so they can be more open and frank with me than they’re ever going to be with an internal mentor.”

The practice of law can be an isolating and lonely profession, and it’s hard to get support and advice from busy colleagues. Robertson says her clients are “grateful to be able to talk it through and find a solution, instead of just struggling with it year after year.”

Building a Relationship

Coaching operates on a deeper level than training or counseling. Unlike taking a course that teaches a certain subject or hiring a consultant who will advise clients on the best approach to a problem, coaches work with individuals to identify their specific needs and goals and gives them ongoing support and accountability.

Acting as an ally and a supportive partner, a coach asks questions that identify barriers, then strategizes with the client about paths and solutions. “But it has to be their strategy,” cautions Robertson. “I can make a lot of suggestions that might have worked for me, or might have worked for other clients, but I want them to figure out what will work for them. That’s the value of coaching: the client develops — and I offer suggestions of course — a strategy that will work for their personality.”

Coaching can be done face to face or over the telephone. Robertson has coached lawyers she has never met in person and she says it works just as effectively over the telephone as it does in person. She adds that many of her lawyer clients prefer to be coached over the phone because of the confidentiality factor — once they close the office door, no one needs to know that they’re talking to a coach instead of to a client.

When she coaches a team, Robertson starts off with each member individually, then she silently observes a team meeting to find out how the members interrelate and what problems they face, such as leadership issues, people not showing up on time, not attending meetings or coming unprepared. She then makes suggestions on what she has observed. “Then I sit down with them and together we work out a strategy. I don’t come in now and say, ‘You have to do this and this and this.’ I get them to come up with the solutions. I facilitate the conversations, so they come up with the solutions about what they need to do differently to work more effectively together.”

Having worked in a corporate environment where teamwork was emphasized, Robertson says she had a lot of training on how people can cooperate and work effectively as a team. But lawyers aren’t necessarily accustomed to thinking of themselves as members of a team. “Coaching partnerships is very different,” she says. “They often think of themselves as a group of independent individuals…[who are] sharing office space. So to get them to think of themselves more as a team to work more cohesively together for the betterment of the firm is a completely different challenge.”

Coaching as a Lawyer Retention Tool

Although coaching has become increasingly popular with lawyers, the legal profession lags behind the rest of corporate Canada in its acceptance of it. Many large organizations in a variety of industries adopted coaching a decade or more ago, and saw increased productivity and organizational strength as a result. With attracting and retaining top players being an ongoing challenge for law firms, coaching is one tool that can help distinguish lawyers — and their firms — from others in the marketplace.

“One of the biggest challenges for lawyers is that they come out of school with their law degrees and they’re dropped into law firms where they are, for the most part, expected to learn by osmosis,” says Wolf. “Coaching provides on-the-spot, in-the-midst-of-your-daily-busy-life training and learning opportunities. It’s growing around the world and in all professions.”

And it’s likely that the coaching industry will continue to grow in the coming years, says Calgary coach Joan Paul, who adds that research indicates that coaching offers a big return on investment. “Job satisfaction goes up significantly. Working relationships with bosses or peers improves greatly. All of this contributes to bottom-line profitability.”

Since recruiting and keeping high-quality lawyers is so vital, Paul’s advice to law firms is to implement coaching programs for associates. As law firms struggle to get top-quality people and keep them, she says, coaching “is a wonderful way for them to distinguish themselves, especially if it’s considered to be an investment in their younger people and not necessarily just in their top-level people.

“They can catch people earlier in their careers and help them to understand what it takes to become a partner in a firm. What does it take to build leadership skills? How do you need to really behave in a law firm to be successful?

“This isn’t just a nice thing to do for people, and it’s not just about helping to attract and retain,” says Paul. “It really does make a difference, it does help bring in results. The more clarity they have around what it is they want and establishing great goals for themselves, the more likely they are to reach them.”

Ann Macaulay is a Toronto writer and editor.