The Cornerstone of Professional Development

Volume 38 Number 5


About the Author

Andrew Elowitt is the principal of the practice management consulting and coaching firm New Actions. He is the author of The Lawyer’s Guide to Professional Coaching: Leadership, Mentoring & Effectiveness

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As the practice of law has grown more competitive and demanding, lawyers have been called upon to learn and use skills that were never part of their law school curricula. In addition to technical proficiency in matters of procedure and substantive law, lawyers are now often asked to demonstrate expertise in areas such as business development, management, collaboration and the use of technology. Professional development programs—whether in-house or offered by outside vendors—have responded to these needs, and coaching has been the cornerstone of the most effective of these programs.

Law Practice Magazine | September/October 2012 | The Recruitment and Retention IssueIn the past, many law firms considered these to be management, "soft," people, or business skills that were well outside the purview of professional development in the legal context. Regardless of what they were called, the old attitude was, "If it wasn't worthy of study in law school, why should we bother with it now?" The simple answer is that firms today can't afford not to. And though very few law schools currently teach these relationship-based skills, they are rapidly showing up in the curricula of business and medical schools.

The accelerating pace of change in the legal profession has made mastery of several of these skills an imperative. Leadership skills are more important than ever, as law firms grow in size, number of practice areas and geographic scope. Working virtually and interculturally is fast becoming the norm for many lawyers. Larger and increasingly complex cases require higher degrees of collaboration within firms and between lawyers and legal process outsourcers. And to cope with today's highly competitive environment for legal services, firms are redoubling their marketing efforts and looking to their practice managers to reduce costs and improve efficiency. Firms that develop their lawyers' management and people skills gain a significant competitive advantage by boosting productivity and morale.


Instructional programs have historically been at the core of professional development activities. Through lectures, webinars or live workshops, lawyers are told, "This is what you need to know and do." Lawyers are familiar with this kind of informational learning from their years in college and law school, and these programs generally offer valuable advice on matters of substantive law and technical practice skills. The durability of this approach is understandable: It plays to lawyers' signature strengths of cognitive intelligence and informational learning.

This cognitive-instructional approach doesn't work particularly well when lawyers try to develop and use relationship-based skills. It would be blissfully simple if cognitive intelligence and academic performance were the sole and surefire predictors of lawyer effectiveness and success. As most recruiters and professional development directors know, however, these important factors are only part of the story. In their research on predicting lawyer effectiveness ("Predicting Lawyer Effectiveness" in the Summer 2011 Law & Social Inquiry), Marjorie M. Shultz and Sheldon Zedeck of the University of California at Berkeley found that several noncognitive intelligence factors show stronger correlation with lawyer effectiveness than law school admission criteria such as undergraduate grade point average and LSAT scores. Personality traits, interpersonal and communication skills, emotional intelligence, practical judgment and creativity were all found to be valid predictors of career performance.


Many of the noncognitive factors identified in the Shultz and Zedeck study are the foundations for relationship-based skills such as management, leadership, collaboration and client development. Professional development activities can improve most noncognitive capabilities such as emotional intelligence, communication and interpersonal skills, practical judgment and creativity. Personality traits are the exception, being largely fixed by adulthood.

As comprehensive and accurate as the information provided in instructional professional development programs may be, it still leaves lawyers with the challenge of putting into practice what they've learned. They run smack into the "knowing/doing gap"—they know what they should do but not how to actually do it. As a result they fumble when it comes to figuring out first steps, improvising, sustaining momentum or figuring out what to do when things don't go exactly according to plan.

In many respects, an instructional approach is like trying to learn how to square dance by reading a book. After reading the book, you might know the names of all the steps, and what order and direction your feet should move. But you would probably have little sense of what your partner is doing or how to move in time with the music. Knowing about square dancing is clearly not the same as knowing how to square dance. The same is true in learning relationship-based skills: Reading all the books on leadership will not turn a lawyer into a great managing partner, and watching all the videos on rainmaking will not make clients call.

Programs that include training and skill development address many of the shortcomings of a purely instructional approach. In these kinds of experiential learning programs, once information is provided, skills are introduced and practiced in a controlled setting (e.g., role playing). In some training programs, lawyers also receive feedback on how well they are using the new skills.

Practicing new skills typically results in deeper learning, but problems may arise when lawyers move from a controlled to a real-world setting. All too often, follow-up training and monitoring are not available to address the problems lawyers encounter. Even though lawyers may initially achieve a degree of proficiency, without continuous practice their new skills frequently are lost after six to 12 months. Reinforcement is needed for skills to stick, and lawyers to be able to sustain new habits and behaviors. Without follow-up, lawyers may end up cynically believing that their professional development program was more theoretical than practical.


Coaching is extraordinarily well suited for the challenge of learning complex and nuanced interpersonal skills. It can be used in concert with instructional and training activities, or offered as a stand-alone approach to professional development. When it comes to relationship-based skills, coaching is the most reliable bridge across the knowing/doing gap. Learning relationship-based skills by oneself is of course paradoxical—it's like trying to learn square dancing without partners. Having a coach as a partner, guide and sounding board turns professional development into a dynamic process that is, by its nature, relationship-based. Several characteristics of coaching make it the best choice for developing management, leadership, marketing and other relationship-based skills, as discussed below.

Coaching is confidential. At the beginning of a coaching engagement, lawyers and their coaches agree on conditions for confidentiality. These may vary from complete confidentiality to partial confidentiality (e.g., information on topics addressed and general progress will be shared but not specific conversation details). Coaching confidentiality—unlike attorney-client or doctor-patient privilege—has no common-law or statutory basis. But when confidentiality exists, it promotes honesty, trust and progress. It gives lawyers the chance to drop any pretense and communicate what they're really thinking and feeling without fear of criticism or reprisal. This is particularly helpful when lawyers are confused or lack the motivation (either internal or external) to use the new skills they're acquiring through a professional development program. Absent the need to manage appearances, more learning takes place.

Coaching is a robust dialogue. Instructional and training conversations generally take place in groups and are usually one-directional. After information is imparted, skills are demonstrated, and there may or may not be time allocated for Q&A and practice. Out of necessity, a standardized approach is taken that assumes that all lawyers have the same questions and challenges. Coaching conversations, by contrast, are dialogues where sound advice is balanced with probing questions. As a result, lawyers become more-active participants in their professional development and can direct their coaching to specific areas where they need more attention and assistance.

Coaching is result-oriented. It is one thing to learn new information and skills and quite another to set specific goals for using them. Coaching is goal- and result-oriented. Training and instruction often leave lawyers with the desire to make improvements but only a vague plan for doing so. Absent follow-up monitoring and training, lawyers are left to chart their own course. Setting goals with a coach's assistance focuses on tangible results and fosters a sense of urgency that ensures that more will be achieved in less time.

Coaching provides valuable feedback. Many professional development programs ask lawyers to self-assess and report improvements in their performance. This reliance on self-assessment is a problem because studies have consistently shown that few people—not just lawyers—see themselves with much clarity. Most people are unaware of the ways their walk doesn't match their talk, and how the people they work with truly see them. Coaches give lawyers the kind of honest, direct and descriptive feedback they need and receive nowhere else. From this, lawyers can develop real insight into how they're actually seen. These insights in turn can become the impetus for acquiring new skills and making sustainable changes.

Coaching saves time and moves lawyers out of their comfort zones. Knowledgeable coaches save lawyers time by filtering through the seemingly endless supply of information, techniques and tips, and selecting those that are truly useful rather than the flavor of the month. How does a lawyer know which advice to follow? Sometimes what resonates is advice that hits the nail on the proverbial head, but just as often lawyers will gravitate toward advice that keeps them stuck in their comfort zone. Coaches can help lawyers stretch and make the most beneficial, rather than the easiest, changes. Coaches also help lawyers develop a keener sense of when to use a particular skill. All too many lawyers become so smitten with their new skills that they insist on using them at every opportunity, regardless of their appropriateness or value. Coaches help them avoid falling victim to the cliché that the whole world looks like a nail when you have a hammer in your hand.

Coaching can go deep. Do lawyers really need to reflect deeply on their behavior when they're learning new skills? Depth isn't per se better, and there are lots of skills that don't require reflection, let alone soul searching. But going deeper is tremendously helpful when lawyers are struggling with obstacles, dilemmas and tradeoffs. In those situations simply encouraging a lawyer to work harder or be tougher isn't very effective. Skillful coaching helps lawyers look at their underlying attitudes, beliefs and assumptions. By doing so, they may recognize that, for example, their perfectionism is preventing them from being a more productive and effective delegator, or that their belief that "professionals don't sell" is undercutting their efforts to build a book of business. These kinds of realizations are necessary before lawyers can adopt new beliefs that will become the foundation for their new relationship-based skills.

Coaching helps lawyers unlearn old skills and habits. Old behaviors and habits are often the biggest obstacles to learning new skills. Many professional development initiatives fall short because lawyers are unwilling to let go of their old ways of doing things. They frequently revert back to their old behaviors within just a few months of learning new skills. This is particularly true when their old ways were responsible for past achievements and successes. Coaching helps lawyers look at their old habits and behaviors and honestly assess their current usefulness. It also helps lawyers understand what attitudes, assumptions and beliefs are preventing them from letting go of their old way of doing things. No other approach to professional development addresses this challenge of unlearning old habits and making room for new skills.

Coaching fosters commitment and accountability. Accountability is one of the defining characteristics of the coaching relationship. At the outset, lawyers agree to be accountable to their coaches for reaching the goals they have jointly set. Coaches help lawyers declare goals that are relevant, realistic and attainable. They also ensure that lawyers' goals are specific enough so that progress—both in terms of proficiency and timeliness—can be objectively monitored. When goals are reached, coaches and lawyers celebrate that achievement. When goals are missed, coaches and lawyers get curious and try to figure out the reasons why, and what additional resources or coaching the lawyer may need to be successful. This heightened sense of commitment and accountability means that professional development objectives are more frequently met.

Coaching is neither a professional development panacea nor a replacement for all instructional and training-based activities. Its unique characteristics do however make it the preferred choice when lawyers are stuck, struggling or in the process of mastering leadership, management, marketing and other relationship-based skills.





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