Coaching lawyers – what can success look like?

Frequently, I’m asked to coach a lawyer who is viewed as being a “high potential” professional

Emily Morrow

The unspoken (or not so unspoken) agenda is that, as a result of the coaching relationship, the individual will “change” to better meet the needs of the organisation and I will somehow “fix” the situation. Interestingly, in most such cases, I find there is nothing to “fix”. Instead, there may be better ways to think about and approach the status quo. I often say to clients that I only do developmental work and not remedial work. Such engagements cause me to think about “change” in the context of law professionals and the extent to which we are the product of “nature” or “nurture”. Research indicates that about fifty percent of human behaviour is nature; that is, our essential temperament hardwired into our DNA. The other fifty percent is nurture, the cumulative, ever-changing result of our many lifetime experiences. Generally, I find the nature part can be enhanced but not fundamentally changed. The nurture part is endlessly malleable, and that is the focus of much of my consulting work.

One of my basic approaches, founded in neurological research, is that if an individual engages in clearer, crisper, better thinking, that will result in more appropriate and enhanced behaviour. It is our behaviour that others experience, so ultimately changing that is what most matters. Typically, “lower quality” thinking occurs when we function in the cerebral subcortex of the brain (the “reptilian brain”), which often happens under stress. When we function in the cerebral cortex of the brain (the “upper brain”), we become more creative, innovative, logical, empathetic and generally more “executive” in our thinking. Invariably, our self-management skills and our overall functioning improve. Coaching involves learning how to identify different levels of cognitive functioning and making intentional choices to engage in higher-level thinking. That said, coaching can be of assistance in many different professional contexts. Consider the following.

Business development skills

Anna is a lawyer with outstanding technical skills and an impressive professional background. She was told she needed to demonstrate the ability to build a partner-level practice before she could be considered for partnership. Despite her diligent networking efforts and strong desire to succeed, Anna was having difficulty cultivating and attracting new clients. She is, by nature, introverted, detail- and goal-oriented, concrete in her thinking, logical and she seeks closure in her work. Anna can present as being somewhat two-dimensional, inflexible, lacking in personal warmth and imagination and uncharismatic. In a candid moment, Anna once told me that she admires those of her professional colleagues who easily “pull other people into their slipstream”, even though these individuals lack her technical skills.

I asked Anna to articulate her long-term vision for her practice. What types of clients did she wish to attract? What kinds of strategies were likely to work for her? What approaches would be best suited to who she is personally and professionally? What might success look like if she were to build such a practice? Anna tends to focus on the trees, rather than the forest, and she found it challenging to articulate a clear strategic vision for her practice. We also discussed her anxieties about engaging in business development activities that were outside of her comfort zone. I encouraged her to tell me about business development initiatives she had undertaken in the past, what was successful and what was less successful. We had several good brainstorming, open-ended discussions about how to best grow her practice. What emerged was the beginnings of a “roadmap” for Anna to follow in building her practice.

Anna articulated that, despite her strong goal orientation, she lacked confidence in her relationship-building skills, without which she would have difficulty attracting and retaining clients. She identified how to enhance her relationship building skills by being more flexible, a better listener, less critical of others, more “fun”, and generally lightening up a bit. She also began to ask others with whom she worked to give her feedback on changes they had noticed in their interactions with her. This, coupled with her formidable technical skills, was a “winning combination”. Anna’s approach to personal/professional development was consistent with her intrinsic nature as a person – focused, concrete, goal-oriented and logical. However, she intentionally nurtured other previously dormant capabilities and encouraged those around her to do the same. The results were clear and quantifiable. Not only did Anna enjoy her work more and experience less stress, but her practice grew and her professional revenues increased. She had effectively created her own tailored slipstream into which others are now being pulled.

Succession planning

John is successful, energetic, in his 60s, and the managing partner of a mid-sized law firm. Realising that succession planning is a critical component of effective leadership, John had given considerable thought to what will happen to the firm when he retires. Nevertheless, John was puzzled by his inability to make any progress in implementing a succession plan. Initially, John engaged me to work with him to design a succession plan and the steps needed to implement it. In discussion, it became clear these objectives were premature, because John needed first to address several existing management and staffing issues within the firm.

My subsequent interviews with key employees revealed four major issues: John was not adequately developing the next level of leadership; there were significant inefficiencies in the firm’s administrative systems; several personnel changes were required; and John was not mentoring or encouraging others in actively building and maintaining the firm’s practice.

In the course of our discussions, John realised that, despite his ostensible interest in retiring and succession planning, he had unresolved concerns about his future after retirement. Further, he worried that others in the firm would not service his clients as well as he had. Both of these concerns were unfounded – John had many interests outside of the law and he practised with extremely capable people. He was able to step back, identify his flawed thinking and replace it with more appropriate attitudes and approaches. Consequently, John has made one of his colleagues a new partner in the firm and is introducing that partner to his client base. He also has initiated necessary personnel changes, the firm is poised to improve its financial performance, and internal systems have been improved resulting in cost savings through increased efficiency. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the firm is gradually implementing a succession plan under which John can ultimately retire, ownership will be passed to others within the firm, the transition will be seamless for clients, and this successful firm will continue into the future.

Strategic planning capabilities

Eric is a long-time member of the management board in a successful law firm. However, when asked by the firm’s managing partner to design and implement a critical new strategic initiative for the firm, he became uncharacteristically indecisive and unable to provide direction and leadership for the project. I was engaged to work with him on personal and professional development issues and to assist in the formulation and implementation of that strategic initiative.

First, Eric and I focused on identifying his personal leadership style and improving his self-confidence and self-presentation skills. Through our discussions, Eric came to realise that the strategic initiative required a level of conceptual thinking that was new to him. When he sought to engage in long-range strategic thinking, he became anxious and uncomfortable. We identified his specific skill deficits, how he wanted to address these and the best ways to do so. Consequently, Eric’s personal and professional “presence” improved, his anxiety level diminished, and he began to do his best thinking relative to designing the strategic initiative.

Second, Eric began to articulate a conceptual framework for the strategic initiative – specific actions to be taken, a timeline, staffing, benchmarks, and the other details of implementation. Once he realised the importance of getting buy-in to his proposals from the managing partner and other members of the firm, he focused on his group presentation and relationship building skills to create consensus in regard to the new approach. Eric’s self-confidence increased, he improved his self-presentation skills, and he realised that he had significant conceptual thinking capabilities. In addition, his reinvigorated commitment to the firm resulted in his improved ability to manage and grow his own practice. A detailed plan for the strategic initiative has been approved by the managing partner and is now under review by the senior management team, with the expectation that implementation will begin this year.

These are just a few examples of outcomes that can result from a successful coaching intervention. Nothing was initially “broken”, nothing was “fixed”, but real change occurred and individual lawyers and their colleagues experienced the benefits of enhanced thinking and behaviour.

Emily Morrow, BA (Hons), JD (Hons, Juris Doctor), was a lawyer and senior partner with a large firm in Vermont where she built a premier trusts, estates and tax practice. Having lived and worked in Sydney and Vermont, she now resides in Auckland and provides tailored consulting services for lawyers, barristers, in-house counsel, law firms and barristers’ chambers focusing on non-technical skills that correlate with professional success; business development, communication, delegation, self-presentation, leadership, team building/management and strategic planning. Emily Morrow is a skilled and experienced retreat facilitator for law practices. She can be reached at

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