Are lawyers impossible to coach?

Having been in the corporate world for the majority of the last seven years, I’ve been exposed to some great examples of coaching to improve individual and team performance. I’ve seen first-hand how a twice-a-year coaching index that operates as part of the performance management system really works (read it hits your pay packet!) and how coaching training for all managers benefits not just their teams, but also themselves.


The partners of Crevice & Co were slightly disappointed that the executive coach they were promised was not what they expected

But in law firms, I’ve yet to see the coaching culture really take hold, despite the fact that there is a wealth of research from the corporate world that the benefits are significant and measurable, not just in terms of employee performance, but also in the areas of employee engagement, motivation and retention. In the war for legal talent, that must count for something.

So why is this? Why don’t lawyers coach each other?

The most obvious reason is that they’ve not been taught to do it. While in most larger firms, there has, over the past twenty years or so, been an increasing recognition of the need for management and leadership training, in many cases this training (of which coaching could be an important component) is much less extensive than in other businesses, often because the individuals continue to be revenue producing assets first, and managers second (often termed the “producer/manager dilemma” in management theory).

Perhaps a further reason is that there is confusion over what coaching actually is, and it is often confused with mentoring. In fact, the non-directive nature of true coaching, where the answers come from the client rather than the coach, is a great fir for lawyers who often don’t like to be given advice (for the reasons for this, including their training and common characteristics, see my most popular post in “You are wrong, I am right”).

Another explanation is that it might be that spending time coaching colleagues (as opposed to formal supervision or training) doesn’t get much credit in the eyes of the tyrannical god of chargeable hours, who still rules most law firms with a rod of iron.

But I came across another idea recently that hadn’t crossed my mind. Maybe it’s that the best lawyers love their work too much…..

I know – you’re thinking of the City partner working a 75 hour week, but let me explain.

I was reading a blog recently from Nick Mayhew, who heads up the management consultancy team at a firm of accountants. Many of Nick’s consulting engagements include some form of executive coaching for the senior management teams, and I was intrigued by his thoughts on why high-flyers are hard to coach.

Nick kindly gave me permission to quote from his post, so have a think about this:

Common barriers affecting high flyers include fear of action, poor decision making and beliefs that do not support success. However, each of these is relatively easy to spot and there are good ways to work on them to get an impact.

Perhaps the hardest barrier to deal with is loving work too much. Here,  positive intentions collide and the appearance of success in every area distracts the executive from realising there is an even greater potential to reach.

What this means in practice is that personal success combines with a highly positive attitude leading the executive to focus only on what is achieved rather than what is not achieved (but could be with a different approach).

Who in the business is constantly challenging the executive to act with the greatest impact and focus?

Who is forcing them to take a step back and stay focused on a simple list of his or her greatest strengths?”

Now this really struck a chord with me for two reasons. Firstly, lawyers are often serial achievers, not least because the entry requirements for the profession typically require a high level of academic success before the would-be lawyer gets exposed to his first statutes and case law. The status of the profession (be it perceived or real!) reinforces this, and then to reach managerial level in the tough world of the modern law firm is another milestone to be ticked off. So the idea of high achievers concentrating on the success that they have achieved, rather than reflecting on what they could achieve really resonated with me.

Hell, I’ve done it.

More than once.

Secondly, the importance of peer challenge for senior lawyers interests me. Once a partner reaches the echelons of a firm, if the numbers are good, who will challenge that person and stretch them, both for the good of the individual and for the good of the firm?Arguably the firm management may do so if the person is acting in a way that is not consistent with overall goals, or being seen to underperform, but if it’s a question of ensuring a senior lawyer reaches their potential, that’s a different story.

So many possible reasons, but what’s the truth?

I suspect there’s no single answer, but I hope it gets you thinking. If you’ve not experienced coaching, take the time out to find out a bit more about it, even if it’s not part of the firm culture. I’ve certainly benefited from it, and if you’re a high achieving law firm partner who loves your job, maybe you could too…..

6 thoughts on “Are lawyers impossible to coach?

  1. scott

    Hi Mark,
    Great blog as usual. As a certified coach I’m not sure lawyers are anymore difficult than execs than demand value for money, though I have heard the coaching horror stories. There is a stereotype that their:
    – detail focus and thinking (vs perceiving) personalities
    – high need for significance (by cutting others down)
    – aggressiveness
    – being answerable to few
    – infantile rut

    makes them difficult to coach. Perhaps many lawyers have ‘fix it’ dramas as that’s what they are paid to do, so avoid/deny they need ‘fixing’ themselves?

    The stigma of coaching doesn’t help either: ‘something must be wrong’ in order to need it.

    I question whether these steroeotypes are true. However, those that need it the most are generally the ones that want it the least. I suspect mentoring is more frequent in law firms which is totally different but perhaps conflated.

    I couldn’t agree more with you of it’s benefits…but you can’t want it more for the coachee than he/she wants it for themself unless their dysfunctional behaviour is affecting their performance and working relationships.

  2. Paul Rutherford

    This may not be just a lawyer issue; it possibly applies to many of the professions. And the root causel is that they have are almost always successful at what they do.

    Not just at work; in life. They are where they are because they did well at school, they did well at university, they did well in their professional qualifications. They’ve always done well. For many professionals, the career has been a straight line.

    They are the product of a Darwian education system, and have emerged at the top of the food chain.

    That’s not to say that it breeds conscious arrogance (although that can sometimes happen :-); rather it sets the bar of performance extremely high and, more crucially, means that they go out of their way to avoid error.

    So who wants a coach if it implies not knowing? Not only does that give the wrong message to others, especially peers – also it implies something that the Professional doesn’t want to experience.


    Professionals don’t do failure. It’s a scary, uncharted place.

    If they do go there, they are brilliant at making argument to rationalize it away. Not just to others, but to themselves. Being THAT clever, THAT capable, THAT professional leaves no room for mistake.

    In short, lawyers’ greatest challenge may be that – as a type – they have forgotten how to learn.

    For more on this, and possible solutions, see Professor Chris Argyris brilliant HBR article “Teaching Smart People How to Learn”.

  3. Sally Calverley

    Dear Mark

    I loved this blog as it resonates so strongly with my own beliefs (ego..oops!). The introduction of coaching into any business, let alone a law firm, can produce spectacular, beat-the-market results. It seems strange then when it comes to playing sport, the necessity of a coach is a given, but that in work we think we can do it all by ourselves?!

    The changes that need to come in the legal profession will challenge the resources – mental, emotional, physical – of all lawyers at some point. And yet I firmly believe that the profession is capable of rising to this challenge by accessing the resources that it does have – and using them to best advantage.

    In my own business I offer coaching for partners, associates and senior leaders. All have slightly different challenges. The delight for me is helping clients to be the best that they can be. I love that moment when I see the client suddenly find for themselves a new way forward that will change what has gone before.

    Because that is the key. Coaching has to be about change, about achieving goals and most importantly, about finding the answer yourself.

    Funnily enough – lawyers are pretty good at the last two. Can they use these to achieve change? You bet!

  4. Nick Mayhew

    Thanks for the guest post, Mark.

    Great comments above from your readers. I love the thought about Darwinian Education Systems….that’s leaving me mulling.

    I think Sally is spot on with the challenges facing partners in law firms to come, indeed I am already seeing it across my coaching practice. Courage to face the issues is a good start…some help with how is where the coach can then really add impact and I think this is the point of Scot’s last para.

    Thanks again


  5. Intelligent Challenge Post author

    Great comments all – thanks for sharing them – there’s clearly a lot of coaching know-how there from all of you. Perhaps the most interesting opportunity I see is where the need for coaching meets the changes in the current environment – those that are most change adaptive can thrive, and maybe coaching is one of the tools that can help most

  6. Nick

    Hi Mark

    I love your last comment. One of the main roles of coaching in business at least (and in my practice anyway..can’t comment beyond that) is to refine and improve the range and impact of choices facing partners/execs. Pretty much a perfect definition of this is better adaptation to changing circumstance.

    Where you primed by the Darwinian memes in two prior responses? If so, deliberate? Or suggestion?


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