April 02, 2019

Working with a Professional Development Coach

Jamie J. Spannhake


Much like working with a personal trainer to boost your physical performance, working with a professional development coach can boost your professional performance. Here’s advice to help lawyers get the most from the coaching investment, complete with hands-on tips gathered from professional development coaches who specialize in working with lawyers.

Effective coaches help lawyers develop their professional lives by bringing about changes in behavior and giving them the tools they need to progress. Coaches can provide help with making career choices and transitions, building or managing a practice, improving marketing and rainmaking techniques, or cultivating executive or other high-performer skills.

So what should you expect from your coach? A professional development coach can provide support in at least four areas: assessing strengths and weaknesses; setting goals; planning and implementing strategy; and integrating and sustaining change.

However, it’s critical to remember that coaching is a collaborative process. Although a coach will help break down your goals into actionable steps and offer options for how to achieve goals based on your strengths and weaknesses, you must do the work. So your first step is to decide whether you are truly prepared to work with a coach.

Are you coachable? "You must be committed to the process,” says Ellen Ostrow, founding principal of Lawyers Life Coach, who compares working with a coach to working with a trainer at the gym: The trainer develops the weight program, but the client must do the program to achieve results. If the client is not willing to put in the time and effort, the program cannot be successful. For the relationship to succeed, the lawyer must also be “coachable,” explains Shelley Canter, president of RJC Associates. That is, the lawyer must acknowledge that change is needed and be open to feedback.

For lawyers in particular, coaching can be uncomfortable because many lawyers just don’t like to ask for help. Be aware that coaching requires acknowledging weaknesses, mistakes, or inadequacies, and it will require you to work outside your comfort zone to change behaviors that are not working. The right coach will challenge the lawyer in a way that makes the process “optimally uncomfortable” and effective.

You also must set specific goals: “You need to understand why you are seeking help from a coach and what you’d like to get out of the process,” says consultant and advisor Ida Abbott. “Think deeply about what it is that you want to do and achieve.”

To begin, spend time assessing yourself and your professional past. What have you tried before? What worked and what didn’t work? What do you like doing, and what are you uncomfortable doing? Seek self-awareness, and review prior evaluations to assess opportunities, skills, strengths, and weaknesses.

Then, to get the most from the coaching engagement, you must be open during the sessions; the coach’s advice and feedback are based on what you share. “Be as honest with yourself and your coach as you possibly can be, otherwise the entire exercise will be worthless,” says Raquel Rodriguez, a coaching client and a partner at McDermott Will & Emery.

You must also respect the process. “Treat the coaching session like a meeting with your most important client,” says John Mitchell, executive coach at KM Advisors. During telephone sessions, turn off your computer, close your door, and use a headset. Also, schedule ten to 15 minutes before each session to transition mentally from work to the work of the session. Afterward, take the time to consolidate your notes and review your action plans. You need to be proactive between sessions and implement the strategy you’ve developed. Do the homework assigned, including assessing your progress since the previous session.

How to find the right coach. Not surprisingly, it’s important to find someone who syncs well with you and your needs. Start with  referrals from others who have worked with a coach in the areas you want to address, and ask your bar association for referrals, too. Research the coaches. Visit their websites and read their articles. Consider education and credentials as well as experience, including the types of clients they’ve worked with. For example, is it important to you that your coach be a lawyer, have familiarity with law firm culture, or have experience working with lawyers?

Next, take the time to interview your candidates. In the interview, you want to get some details on the coach’s experience and perspective. A key point to consider: Do you prefer a coach who will be able to offer you a perspective different from your own, or are you more comfortable working with someone whom you feel is more like you? Ask about “coaching philosophy” as well. For example, some coaches make a distinction between consulting (offering solutions) and strict coaching (offering tools and options for self-determination of solutions). Find out a coach’s views on this difference in philosophy and assess which philosophy you believe will work for you.

Also consider whether you feel a personal connection. “Make sure there is a personal connection and a professional understanding with your coach because you are trusting this person with your career,” advises Faye Patterson, managing partner of PSA Consultants.

Most important in the interview, discuss why you are seeking out a coach. The coach should be able to tell you if he or she can help you achieve what you want—and good coaches will tell you if they can’t.

What to expect once you sign on. How much time will it take? Although the duration of individual sessions will vary, it’s typical to have a longer first session—60 to 90 minutes—with shorter follow-up sessions of 30 to 60 minutes. Typical frequency is once or twice per month, with e-mails or calls to check in as needed. The length of the entire engagement will depend on your goals. The minimum for many coaches is three months—most people need at least that amount of time to change behaviors, develop new habits, and implement their strategies. Usually, though, there is no limit on the duration of an engagement.

In person or on the phone? Most coaching is partially in person and partially on the phone. In-person sessions are the most beneficial, at least initially, to help establish a good working relationship between the coach and lawyer, but nearly every coach offers telephone coaching—it is efficient and can be very effective, especially for checking in between sessions.

How much does coaching cost? Most coaches charge by the session. Fees vary, ranging from $100 to $1,000 per hour for individuals. The other common fee structure is a flat fee for a set period of time at a predetermined frequency—for example, $5,000 for a three-month period, with planned sessions every two weeks. Generally, if a firm seeks out coaching for its lawyers, then the firm pays the bill. If the lawyer seeks out coaching, he or she is more likely to pay.

Getting the most from your investment. Keep in mind that there is a distinction between a coach and a mentor. Mentors take you under their wing and take actions for you. According to Regine Corrado, a coaching client and corporate restructuring partner at Baker & McKenzie, “a coach, like in sports, is on the sidelines and encourages you to reach the goal, but you do the work.” 



- This article is an abridged and edited version of  one that originally appeared on page 48 of Law Practice, September/October 2010 (36:5).

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