Coaching: A Critical Component of Your Law Firm’s Talent Management Strategy

September 16, 2016

Coaching has grown increasingly popular in law firms over the last several years, and some firms view coaching a critical part of their recruitment, retention and talent management strategy. Firms have added internal coaches to their teams, trained members of their professional development staff and more senior lawyers in coaching, and engaged external coaches to work with lawyers on topics ranging from career coaching and business development to a smooth transition outside of the firm. According to a 2014 study on “Building a Coaching Culture” by the International Coach Federation (ICF), the leading global organization dedicated to advancing the coaching profession and providing independent certification, coaching has shifted from a perk offered to executives to a developmental tool provided to employees at all levels of an organization. The ICF study found that coaching programs were correlated with positive business outcomes, including increased employee engagement and firm financial performance, and they position a firm as an “employer of choice.”

Although the ICF study covered companies in a variety of industries, these same trends have been found in law firms. In Nancy Manzo’s 2012 study on coaching in AmLaw 200 firms, 98% of participating firms utilized coaching, with 14% using internal coaches, 43% using external coaches, and 43% using both internal and external coaches. Although she did not research whether coaching led to positive outcomes for the individuals coached or the firms offering coaching, anecdotal evidence in her study and elsewhere indicates that firms are using coaching as a recruitment, retention, talent management and leadership development tool.

Many of the firms Manzo studied (25%) wanted to bring more coaching capability in house, and this sentiment has been borne out by the number of firms that have added full or part-time coaches to their staffs in recent years. As reflected in Leslie Gordon’s May 2014 article in the ABA Journal, “Law firms add coaches to their staffs,” firms such as Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, Arnold & Porter, Dechert, Mayer Brown and Perkins Coie employ on-site internal coaches for lawyers. And in December 2015, the American Lawyerreported on Kirkland & Ellis’ pilot career counseling program, which aims to help alumni and current lawyers who are looking to leave the firm through internal coaching and counseling.

As more and more firms embrace coaching and look to build the right coaching program to fit their needs, they should consider several key issues. These include: (1) assessing the firm’s openness to a “coaching culture; ” (2) deciding on the recipients and target areas of coaching; (3) choosing the right type of coaching; (4) deciding who will deliver the coaching; and (5) measuring the effectiveness of coaching.

Creating a “coaching culture”—what is your firm ready for?

A coaching culture is achieved when an organization makes coaching a key part of its talent management strategy and overall firm culture, communicating to its lawyers the importance of coaching to their ongoing training and development. As found in the 2014 ICF study, organizations with the strongest coaching cultures have the highest rate of employee engagement, which leads to a positive financial impact on the organization. The study concluded that having a strong coaching culture “can have a long-lasting systemic impact on an organization’s ability to retain talent and on its financial sustainability.” Creating and implementing a comprehensive coaching program—with internal or external coaches—is a key part of creating such a coaching culture.

Before implementing a coaching program, it is important to examine where coaching can fit into the big picture of your firm’s overall strategy. For example, does your firm’s strategic plan include talent management or development objectives that could be fulfilled by coaching? Does your firm have existing talent management/professional development initiatives that might benefit from coaching? Do firm leaders embrace coaching? Or at a minimum, do they see the potential value of coaching as a talent management tool? If your firm has a history of using coaching, was it used as a remedial “fix” for underperformers, as a perk for high-potential lawyers, or a mixture of both (or something else)? Has coaching been used only for lawyers, or has the firm considered coaching for non-lawyer staff?

If coaching at your firm is more in its infancy and/or has been used in more limited ways, starting with a smaller and more focused pilot program that targets certain populations may be the right fit. A pilot program can help gauge whether your firm is open to developing a stronger coaching culture and is ready to embark on a more comprehensive program. Especially in a pilot program, a firm should decide on its priorities—discussed more fully below—including, who should be the recipient of coaching, what are the goals of the coaching, and what would success look like?

Another option for enhancing your firm’s coaching culture is to train lawyers in your firm on the benefits of using a coaching approach, including partners and those in management. In the strongest coaching cultures, managers and leaders are trained in and use coaching skills on a regular basis. These individuals are not trained coaches, but rather lawyers who are taught how to take a “coaching” approach when interacting with others—especially team members and subordinatesUsing this type of coaching approach would involve asking open-ended and powerful questions, actively listening and maintaining a non-judgmental and curious stance, and approaching conversations with transparency and openness. One way to infuse this approach into your firm is through a mentoring program. If your firm has a formal mentoring program, mentors can be trained in how to approach interactions with mentees—and others—in a coach-like way. The feedback and evaluation process is another ideal place to use a coaching approach. As more lawyers are trained in and use a coaching approach in their interactions, this can be a powerful retention tool that improves associate morale while enhancing the firm’s coaching culture.

Who and what gets coached?

Deciding who will be the recipient of coaching and what areas of coaching will be offered is a threshold issue for many firms. While firms with more established coaching programs often offer coaching to a wide range of lawyers—from first years to seasoned partners—firms with a less robust coaching culture often target certain populations and issues. Also, while my focus here is on coaching for lawyers, some firms (and many organizations) offer coaching to non-lawyer staff as well.

In deciding who should receive coaching, the goals of a coaching program—including the coaching areas offered—will be a critical factor. For example, if coaching is being viewed primarily as a recruitment and retention tool for younger lawyers, a firm may want to offer coaching to associates and tailor the coaching to issues of particular importance to millennials. Such coaching can included career coaching, “peak performance” coaching (also known as stress management/life management coaching), and outplacement coaching. On the other hand, If coaching is viewed as a way to support the development of high-potential lawyers, the coaching can focus on select populations—such as senior associates or new partners—and on particular issues such as business development and leadership skills, including executive presence and people management. Other traditional areas for coaching in law firms include transition coaching for new lawyers and laterals, coaching for those going on and returning from a parental or other extended leave, and coaching for those working on alternative/flexible work schedules. More recently, coaching has also focused on senior lawyers at the end of their careers and as they transition to retirement, including succession planning.

Coaching can also be an effective tool to reinforce skills learned as part of a broader training program and to support firm diversity initiatives. For example, a program focused on building business development skills and habits for newer partners can include individual or group coaching (discussed below) as a way to practice new skills, get input and provide accountability. Similarly, coaching can be targeted to particular groups, such as women partners or diverse lawyers, who may be part of other firm initiatives and who would benefit from coaching on growth areas. One challenge that may arise when focusing coaching programs on diverse populations is when a firm doesn’t have a strong coaching culture or views coaching as remedial instead of for high-potential lawyers. In this scenario, the coaching program could be viewed as a sign that participants are deficient in some area or need extra help to succeed. To avoid this perception, firms should be thoughtful and deliberate in communications about the program, including how it fits into the overall initiative and—ideally—that it is targeted at high-potential lawyers the firm is invested in developing.

What type of coaching is offered?

Coaching is traditionally done one-on-one and in person, although most coaches offer coaching by phone or by Skype/FaceTime and group coaching. Individual coaching typically lasts for a set period of time—anywhere from three months to a year—or when the coaching goals have been reached. Group coaching has several benefits, including the ability to serve a larger number of participants at one time, and by providing group accountability and a broader set of ideas and perspectives to group members. As noted by coach Diane Costigan, a partner at SJL Shannon LLP who coaches lawyers on a variety of topics, group coaching is an emerging trend for law firms and is often done around business development.

Most firms offer a mix of individual and group coaching, and both can be paired with existing training programs. For example, a business development training program can offer follow up one-on-one coaching sessions for a set period of time to help the lawyer integrate the new skills into their practice and provide accountability. Similarly, a group of similarly situated lawyers (such as new partners) can meet on an ongoing basis as part of a broader business development program to discuss what they are learning, provide peer support and coaching to group members on their individual goals, and provide group accountability.

Who does the coaching?

While the majority of firms hire external coaches to provide coaching, there is a trend toward bringing coaching in-house. Over a dozen firms employ full-time internal coaches, and some firms have trained members of their professional development team in coaching. These part-time coaches typically offer spot-coaching to lawyers in the firm as part of other training responsibilities, while full-time internal coaches have coaching as the core component of their role and meet with lawyer clients on a regular basis and for extended coaching engagements.

Hiring an internal coach is obviously a huge investment with significant benefits—and some downsides. An internal coach often has a keen sense of the firm, the people, the politics, and the overall system in which their lawyer clients operate. As Jim Moore explains in an article in the May 2016 issue of PD Quarterly, “Is it Time to Add a Coach to Your Team,” many internal coaches have a JD and/or were practicing lawyers in their firms before transitioning to their role as a coach, and so can provide an insider perspective and deep understanding that external coaches cannot. While that insight can give an internal coach a leg up, it also can present some unique challenges. For example, the lawyer-turned-coach may struggle to be recognized in their new role as a coach, and lawyer clients may look to them for mentoring and advice instead of for coaching. In addition, coaching clients typically benefit from having some “skin in the game” through paying for coaching or engaging in coaching on their own time. This can be a challenge for internal coaches, who are typically available at the lawyer’s request and are paid by the firm.

Concerns around confidentiality and perceived divided loyalties for the coach between the firm and the lawyer client also may be problematic. One way to overcome these types of obstacles is for the internal coach to be formally trained and become a certified coach (such as through the ICF). This can help give the internal coach additional credibility and knowledge, and it would require them to follow ethical guidelines, including those around confidentiality. Internal coaches also may want to be more explicit with their clients about confidentiality, and have a coaching contract with their clients that outlines these obligations and other issues, such as expectations around rescheduling and cancelling meetings.

External coaches…

External coaches are used frequently in firms, either in lieu of or in addition to internal coaches. External coaches often have the benefit of working with a wide range of clients and organizations, and many specialize in law firms as well as particular areas of coaching, such as business development, leadership skills, and career coaching. Especially for firms that are considering a coaching pilot or more limited coaching program, external coaches can offer flexibility and a broad range of experience. Some firms have a roster of external coaches available to coach on specialty areas, and some provide lawyers the option to work with an external coach for a set number of hours (typically 5-7) on particular issues such as career coaching or time management. Many external coaches also provide training and consulting services, and are able to provide a wide range of options to firms including combination training/coaching programs.

One of the downsides—and upsides—of an external coach is a lack of intimate knowledge of the firm. Although this may be a perceived disadvantage, it can allow the external coach to provide a more objective perspective from outside the firm system. And since some external coaches work regularly with the same firm, they have the benefit of being an outsider with an inside perspective, and can function similar to an internal coach. Another potential barrier to hiring an external coach can be cost. Especially for one-on-one coaching, external coaching can be a challenge for training budgets. As cited in the 2014 ICF study, only an average of 11% of training budgets were devoted to coaching with no anticipated increase in coaching spend absent an available budgetary surplus. When return on investment for coaching is difficult to demonstrate, a large coaching budget can be a tough sell to firm management.

How can firms measure the effectiveness of coaching?

One of the challenges to implementing and measuring the success of a coaching program is the difficulty in assessing return on investment (ROI). In the 2014 ICF study, the challenge of measuring ROI was considered the second-largest barrier for organizations looking to provide coaching, with lack of time being first. Lisa Edwards has been a pioneer in this area and works with organizations on measuring coaching ROI and designing coaching programs that will demonstrate ROI. (See Measuring the Success of Coaching: A Step-by-Step Guide for Measuring Impact and Calculating ROI, Patricia Pullman Phillips, Jack Phillips & Lisa Edwards). To date, however, the most common ways that law firms and organizations have measured the effectiveness of coaching are through surveys where coaching clients self-rate behaviors (before and after coaching), by tracking employee retention, and by reviewing feedback from the coach and/or other key stakeholders. For business development coaching, some firms measure the increase in revenue or business development opportunities generated, and in the case of career outplacement coaching, successful placements are tracked.

The current ways firms measure coaching success and anecdotal evidence provided by clients and coaches shows that coaching works, and that coaching programs lead to additional benefits such as employee engagement. Having the ability to better measure—and monetize—the benefits of coaching, including through ROI, is the next frontier for coaches and firms. Firms can design programs to target the results they are looking for, such as increased retention and engagement, business development success, and positive transitions outside the firm. Coaches can help facilitate these efforts by being open to closer scrutiny of their methods and outcomes within the bounds of confidentiality.

Increasing your coaching offerings can benefit your firm and lawyers.

There are more available options and resources than ever for law firms looking to increase their use of coaching and that want create a more robust coaching culture. Firms are increasing the reach of coaching programs by hiring internal and external coaches and by using coaching in unique ways—such as through outplacement career coaches and group coaching—to address the realities of the market and the changing lawyer population. Coaching success isn’t always easy to measure, but it has been shown to increase lawyer engagement and can lead to a positive impact on the firm’s bottom line. Adding coaching programs that foster a coaching culture can help place your firm on the front line of talent management both now and in the future.

BY JENNIFER RAKSTAD

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