GPSOLO July - August 2008
In The Solution
Coaching for the Elderly Lawyer
Executive coaching has become an explosive phenomenon in the corporate world during the past few years. Membership in the International Coach Federation, the premier credentialing organization for coaches, has jumped from 1,500 in 1999 to 10,000 in 2007. Large organizations such as IBM currently have dozens of certified coaches among their ranks.
Coaching for lawyers seems to provide particularly good opportunities in several areas including leadership, relationships, marketing, achieving professional goals, achieving a positive firm culture after a merger, addressing issues such as ADD, and dealing with issues faced by the elderly lawyer.
All of these areas seem to have one thing in common that coaching helps nurture: the connection of the individual lawyer’s performance and the lawyer’s values during a time of change. The elderly lawyer has great connection to the identity of being a lawyer, and, closely connected to that identity, with his or her values as a lawyer. This is true because the elderly lawyer has spent 40 or 50 years in that role. By the time lawyers become elderly, the line between their identity and the value and meaning of their work as lawyers is blurred.
The goal of a lawyer’s life is not about the outcome of a particular case or the gilt edges on a particular transaction; rather, it is about the way a law practice hones individual personality. Satisfaction is not about product but person. Ultimately the lawyer, like an athlete, succeeds by the fine tuning of who he or she is as a person. For the elderly lawyer, like the aging athlete, the challenge is to be in a game that may seem to be rapidly changing or to gracefully hang up the cleats. No athlete would either abandon or pursue a career without having a good coach.
We all are aware of our inability to see the limitations we create for ourselves. We all need a more objective mirror than what we get from our own vision. This is the role of the coach—to help the lawyer client clearly see where faulty perceptions of reality, limiting beliefs, or limiting behaviors block the lawyer’s effectiveness. As we age as lawyers, we develop ways of practicing that become automatic. What once was a good second-nature response can over time become a limitation.
The coach’s role is to help the lawyer recover lost authenticity and become more effective as a person based on who he or she is and the values the lawyer has.
Much of the expansion of coaching in the executive world has occurred because business organizations are changing so rapidly these days. Where coaching initially was thought of as a way to help correct under performance, today it is much more widely seen as a way to support those in up-and-coming leadership roles. As organizations have become flatter in the corporate world and more diverse, good skills of personal interaction are even more important. The same fast-paced changes in the legal world make it important for an elderly lawyer to get effective feedback on a real-time basis. Unlike a daylong or weekend leadership course that provides someone with good theory, coaching is oriented toward providing effective real-time adjustments in the course of dealing with everyday issues.
Maximizing the gifts of senior lawyers ready to pass the leadership torch is an important issue for any firm, no matter its size. When linked with a coach, senior firm leaders have the chance to experience problems, get real-time feedback, and make course corrections.
In many law firms, relationship skills are equally as important as navigating change transitions. These skills include learning how to mentor new lawyers, how to work with law firm staff in the most productive and enjoyable way, and how to continue to have meaningful relationships with clients over longer periods of time. Elderly lawyers have a real contribution to make in this area. Studies have shown that cognitively healthy 65- to 74-year-olds are much better at resolving interpersonal issues than younger individuals. Again, CLE courses that focus on professionalism may offer some theory around how to develop and sustain productive relationships, but coaching offers the opportunity for more productively utilizing such skills in the midst of the experience of difficulties that are encountered in relationship challenges.
Natural reductions in cognitive function also may be an issue for elderly lawyers. The impact of such natural reductions may be abated by a work organization that reduces stress. Difficulties in hearing or seeing also seem to tax cognitive function. Good remedies are available to ameliorate hearing and vision losses. Good coaching may help the lawyer directly address such issues.
Coaching is not therapy. Nor is it a replacement for it. Therapy tends to include a focus on the past and understanding how certain emotional blocks or limitations emerged in a person’s life and how such conditions may be ameliorated. Coaching, on the other hand, is present focused and goal oriented. Coaching concentrates not on what may be causing a limitation but on understanding it as a limitation in the present moment and learning how to take the necessary actions to expand opportunities consistent with the lawyer’s values and goals. This is precisely the place the elderly lawyer lives as he or she adjusts to physical and emotional changes that occur in life transitions as one ages. Coaching helps one learn emotionally healthy skills to adapt to change.
Coaching is not normally limited to helping a senior lawyer only with work and work transition issues. A coach’s job is to bring up for direct examination any issue that by being avoided may weigh negatively on the lawyer’s performance. This includes for senior lawyers coaching around such personal issues as:
• finances and sources of income for retirement;
• retirement goals and lifestyle preferences;
• health insurance after retirement;
• trust and estate planning issues;
• living will and power of attorney;
• grief issues where a spouse has died; and
• issues regarding children both before and after retirement.
The coach’s job is not to provide answers to these issues but to help the lawyer create plans to address them, thereby relieving the stress of ignoring these issues and freeing up productive energy.
Ultimately, what coaching helps do is connect people more authentically with who they are. This is extremely important for the elderly lawyer as his or her very identity may be threatened by the process of change. Coaching is important in any kind of transition. For elderly lawyers it is a way of being supported in making the kind of course corrections that are going to be necessary as both external reality and internal perspectives change.
At the heart of our legal system is commitment to the proposition that no one stands alone against the power of the state. Those who have stood by others and advocated for others for decades do not need to stand alone in our profession in their elderly years. A firm can do its elderly lawyers a great service by getting them a stalwart ally, a professional coach.
W. Donald Carroll Jr. is director of the North Carolina Lawyer Assistance Program. He is the author of A Lawyer’s Guide to Healing: Solutions for Addiction and Depression , published by Hazelden (2006). He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.