Are lawyers impossible to coach?

28 02 2011

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…..