Monday, December 3, 2018

The Simple Way to Overcome Business Development Aversion in Lawyers

Many Lawyers eschew business development networking and outreach. Intuitively, they know they need to do it, even admire those who are successful at it. But privately, they call it ‘schmoozing’ or ‘glad-handing’ or some other negative connotation. Given the choice, they would rather have a tooth drilled.
The industry’s response has been to exclude these lawyers from training programs preferring instead to ‘work with the willing.’ But as many as 30% to 40% of a law firm’s lawyers are averse to participating in business development programs, networking activities and, what was once described to me as ‘forced’ social interactions. Assuming these activities produce results, and they do, that’s a lot of new clients left out of the firm’s mix.
Maybe we’re addressing Business Development Aversion (BDA) all wrong?

Neuroscientific studies suggest a better way to deal with individuals’ aversion to certain situations like networking and outreach activities. The technique to overcome this aversion is surprisingly simple, having already been proven effective in almost every other situation from dealing with loneliness, eating disorders, anxiety, relationships, work performance, and even depression. It does not replace business development training, social skills development or the need to get out of one’s office. Instead, studies suggest a simple change in the instructional technique and approach is all that is needed.  
The studies indicate that the most effective way to overcome business development aversion is to change how these lawyers think about networking and outreach activities. Changing a person’s mindset is, as Carol Dwerk showed in her seminal book, Mindsets, an important path to performance improvement. Fortunately, Dwerk’s techniques can work on anyone, and work on anyone easily.
The reason for the aversion, I suspect, is that BDA lawyers tend to expect networking and outreach activities to go badly. They expect to feel bad when networking or reaching out to others and project in their minds that others will also feel bad or be put off by their outreach. They approach the activity with the expectation that they will be unsuccessful, which in turn builds negative emotions into their perspective and, by extension, their behavior and body language. In other words, this expectation transmits itself to others, who detect these feelings and become less approachable themselves.  
Furthermore, it is contagious as well. BDA lawyers not only communicate negativity about these activities to other lawyers but they also elicit it from others reinforcing and perpetuating those same behaviors in others.
In my coaching, I hear lawyers make up excuses or create rationales for why their assigned outreach to a prospect was not done. They explain it as no longer worthwhile, a possible interruption, that they lacked the time or that somehow the call plan was no longer appropriate – all of this despite having agreed to it in the previous session. While their explanations are varied and seemingly rationale, their reasons have one thing in common: They had no factual basis for the perception that led to their lack of action. That is, they’ve created the rationale in their head and had no indication from their prospect that timing (or any other reason) was making the outreach a bad idea. My probing almost always confirms this.
Aversion to business development is not a function of schooling, upbringing or firm culture. The profession of law does not include inherent personality traits that work to self-select lawyers from the need to network, reach out to others or otherwise grow their practice. We all choose our perspective, including attorneys. We each have filters through which we view situations. It’s just that some of us have learned to control the aperture of our lens to find the positivity in situations. Observe the best rainmakers in your firm and you’ll see lawyers with confidence, positivity, empathy and who embrace social interactions. You’ll see lawyers with a ‘growth mindset’.

Lawyers with BDA have increased sensitivity to and actively surveil their world for negative social responses. They process negative social information first, remember more of the negative aspects of social events, hold more negative social expectations, and are more likely to behave in ways that confirm their negative expectations. This negative orientation perpetuates a deepened and more entrenched aversion to networking and social outreach. The loop of negative thinking is excusable in that it does have some short-term self-protective features. But over the long term, it builds significant and lasting adverse effects on an attorney’s physical and mental health and well-being.
While it seems obvious to address the situation head on through more training, mock social interactions or to guide them in creating snappy elevator speeches to raise their comfort level in starting business conversations, these tactics do little to overcome the core resistance to such situations. The aversion does not result from the situation. And yet, as BD trainers we tend to focus on the situation, not the perception of the situation. The source of the problem is in their heads. Fortunately, turning an aversion mindset about networking and outreach around is surprisingly easy to affect in others.

A growing body of research suggests (along with my own experiences) that emphasizing the positive outcomes, finding the good, emphasizing the small objectives which have been achieved or otherwise focusing the mind on searching for the positive in the interaction, goes further to rework the lawyer’s mindset about business development. The simple question, ‘What good happened?’, releases the benefits of training. Not just coaches and trainers can help to build a ‘good’ finder’s habit, but practice groups leaders, peer attorneys and the firm’s leadership can play an important role as well.  

A positive mindset gives the business development training traction because it makes lawyers more receptive to the techniques by no longer filtering those techniques through a lens of negative anticipation. But the benefits reach far beyond the bottom line.

Guiding and helping to shift the mindset through coaching, ideally through both professional coaches and internal mentors, is an effective way to ensure that the business development training takes root. Coaching amplifies its effectiveness, especially when that coaching is focused on more than accountability for action but on shaping their perceptions of success.

The mind responds to feelings of empathy and gratitude just as it does to feelings of anxiety and disappointment. The neuroplasticity of the mind enables it to choose which emotions it will focus on. As business development professionals, we have to get better at identifying and helping BDA lawyers to change their mindset and focus on the positive outcomes that reside in every business development interaction. It is how law firms can truly ‘run on all cylinders’ in their business development efforts.

I’m not saying its wrong to only ‘work with the willing’. Sometimes early wins are important to the acceptance of new programs. But I do think more attention needs to be paid, and more compassion shown for, lawyers stuck in the negative mindset of self-doubt, a mindset that inhibits their success and the success of many law firms. 

Monday, May 28, 2018

Thinking of Making a Move? Read This First!

A 2015 study by GDC and ALM Legal Intelligence found that AmLaw 200 law firms averaged over 300 resumes a year from attorneys seeking a change in law firms. Several firms reported more than 600 resumes a year from recruiters. It’s a buyer’s market. Lawyers looking to move to a new firm face not only stiff competition but must accept the financial risk and the consequences of client disruption if their plans fail to materialize as expected.
What can make laterals more attractive and put them in a better negotiating position? The answer is an independent client portability assessment.
In business, mergers and acquisitions are considered only after a thorough due diligence process to test the viability and risks associated with an acquisition. This due diligence not only validates the assumptions of the transaction but provides insights into how best to manage the process and squeeze the most value out of the acquisition. However, in the legal sector, this level of due diligence is generally not performed on the clients of a lateralling attorney. Nor do the candidates themselves offer an objective assessment of which clients will move with them, only their own biased assumptions.
These assumptions are more often wrong than right.
A 2015 study by GDC and American Lawyer Media found that less than 30% of laterals in the study brought all of the clients they expected to port to the new firm. To alleviate this risk, most firms have adopted a performance-based compensation plan that pays only when client retention is realized.
Portability reports lay out the rationale for why each of the key clients in the candidate's book of business will likely move. For some reports, this analysis can include the projected desirability of the new firm to each client. At a minimum, the analysis examines more than two dozen factors which influence the client's decision to move. It is performed from the client’s perspective and considers their risks and potential rewards of making a move with the lawyer. The analysis does not have to include actual discussions with the client through such interviews improve the reliability of the forecasts substantially.
For each client, a confidence rating based upon those factors is given along with an explanation of each finding. Reports can then be used by the candidate and recruiter to focus their search, strengthen their case for the move, sway opinions in partnership votes, help formulate compensation plans and use the findings to form the basis for strategic integration and cross-selling plans once the lateral makes the move. 
While a client portability assessment can be done on behalf of the firm looking to hire the candidate, it makes more sense for the recruiters and candidate's themselves to initiate the analysis. Think of it like a home inspection, either buyer or seller can request a report. But the seller puts their home in a better competitive position for a quicker sale when they assess the home up front.
Client portability analysis requires a deep dive into the relationship an attorney has with her or his clients and the structural obstacles that clients face in a making a move to a new firm. For the candidate, it is often a highly educational process which provides direction to the lawyer for further cultivating and securing those relationships. It provides insights into how to position the lawyer's practice and to which firms that lawyer's practice will be most attractive. And it maintains control of the information that is or is not shared with prospective firms safely in the candidate's hands. 
Recruiters that are not getting traction in the interest firms have in their candidates can use this analysis to identify the challenges that candidate face in their practice, obstacles that are often unseen by the candidates (and frequently the recruiters) themselves. It provides an objective perspective of the marketability of the candidate giving important insights into positioning, targeting and negotiating on behalf of the candidate. This helps that candidate better understand what they can do to make their practice more attractive to more law firms.
Lawyers who are considering a move to a new firm can use client portability reports to increase the attractiveness of their practice and improve their negotiating position. Buyers, convinced of the portability of an attorney's client portfolio can act more quickly, raise the guarantee and plan more strategically for the integration of the lateral's clients.
If you are thinking about making a move, consider a confidential portability assessment and client book due diligence report. It will set your practice apart from the dozens of other laterals with whom you are competing for a placement in a new firm. Contact Eric Dewey at for more information. 

Monday, May 21, 2018

Two common practices within the legal industry may be increasing partner churn while eroding client loyalty. These are the practices of making unplanned and poorly vetted 'opportunistic' hires and failing to conduct thorough client portability due diligence. 

The vast majority of lateral hires are 'opportunistic' hires. That is, recruiters present candidates and law firms hire those laterals for the opportunity they present vis-a-vis their book of client relationships. But the portability of that book of clients often goes without serious scrutiny. These hires are an offshoot of a 'growth-for-the-sake-of-growth' philosophy, not as a result of a thoughtful plan to improve service delivery to existing clients. That rationale tends to come after the fact. 

The lure of easily added revenues is tantalizing if not completely irresistible in a flat market. But opportunistic hires fail more often than they succeed, a fact that is not lost on the majority of law firm leaders. To mitigate their investment risk, firms are tying compensation to the acquisition of the lateral's clients, thereby transferring almost the entirety of the risk to the lateral. When clients move to the new firm, the lateral's compensation increases relative to client billings. If those clients don't port over, the lateral bears the brunt of the financial burden.

This 'easy money' play has also incentivized growth in the number of legal recruiters. As a result, legal recruiters are inundating law firms with candidate resumes. A 2015 study by my company and ALM Legal Intelligence found that AmLaw 200 law firms averaged over 300 resumes a year from attorneys seeking a change in law firms. Several firms reported more than 600 resumes a year from recruiters. But law firms have not pushed back and required better due diligence or proof of client portability. And that's a good thing: it's not in the recruiter's interest to vet whether that candidate's clients will actually move or not. Because too many of them don’t. Were law firms to require that recruiters do so, they would surely reduce the number of resumes they received.

Guarantees based on the full value of the attorney's client relationships are increasingly rare and offered only to those attorneys with undeniably portable client books or personal brands so strong they can alter the reputation of the new firm. While it is completely understandable why a firm would do this, even advisable, one has to wonder whether this practice is in the long-term best interest of the industry. Were firms required to pay for the full value of a lawyer's client book, they would undoubtedly examine much more carefully the portability of those clients. 

What effect is this having on the legal industry?

I believe several trends are emerging which are not in the best long-term interest of law firms. First, lateral moves are increasing at a steady pace. We're beginning to see signs of churn in these numbers- partners who have moved more than once over the course of a few years.

Secondly, client loyalty is embedded in the concept of making life easier for clients. Partners who move to new firms, test this loyalty because it requires additional work on the part of clients regardless of whether they choose to move with the partner or choose not to move and substitute that lawyer. Regardless of the strength of the relationship, it is a deduction to the loyalty account of that partner's relationship with the client. Clients are responding with less loyalty to their outside counsel. 

This is not to argue that lateral recruiting is not an effective growth strategy. Hires that expand the firm's offering in substantive ways, who add needed bench strength or who bring a large book of clients to the firm can make for strategically sound acquisitions. Lawyers generally are well equipped to assess the first two strategies. But evidence suggests that they are not qualified to determine the third. A reliable system to evaluate the portability of a client book is in desperately needed in order to reduce the risk of opportunistic hires. Until this happens, clients and their lateralling lawyers are, more often than not, the end losers. 

Monday, May 14, 2018

Leave Your Business Cards Home

Extroverts are natural business developers. They crave human interaction and find it easy to initiate a conversation. Extroverts tend to meet other extroverts. For those people, don't leave home without your business cards.

But most attorneys are not extroverts.

Most attorneys are introverts. For many introverts, starting a new relationship can be uncomfortable. this may seem counterintuitive but handing out a business card can actually make it harder to connect with others.

Many conversations are comprised entirely of small talk. The discussions don't result in specific next steps, interest in information, etc.

To illustrate the point, let's look at the typical business card exchange. Here's what normally happens: You go to a networking event, meet a few people, agree to talk again and give them your business card so they can get in touch with you. Then what happens?


Your frustration builds as you wait for days, even weeks, to hear from what seemed like a promising new relationship. Eventually, you move on rationalizing that the 'chemistry' wasn't what you had thought apparently. And your suspicion of networking's value grows.

Here's another situation. A better one, but still not optimal for the introvert. You go to the event, meet a few people, agree to talk again and exchange business cards. Now, when you don't hear from them, you can reach out to them. You have their business card.

Here's what the introvert thinks: "Yes I have their business card, but they gave it out of duress (or they felt obliged). You could send them an article or your recent newsletter but will that be viewed as presumptuous? If you hear from them, great. A new relationship could be blossoming. But if not, it's up to you to take the initiative. If you are not comfortable doing it, doubt how you'll be perceived or aren't comfortable reaching out, it can be tough.

Too often, the follow through never happens.

Now consider what happens when you don't have your business cards with you. It's probably happened to you before. You apologize profusely when the exchange ritual happens, take your new friend's card and promise to send them an e-mail with your contact information. If they also don't have a card, write their email or phone number down on something. Make sure you leave with the contact info and the responsibility to connect.

Now, there's a very legitimate reason to establish the first contact- you promised to share your contact information and are following through on that. But you almost HAVE to add something else to the email/discussion. Just sending your contact information with nothing else might as if you are just checking off a to-do item. So adding a mention of a recent news item about the company or attaching an article they'd be interested in feels much more natural. And it sets the start of a dialogue off on good footing.

The moral of the story? Leave your business cards behind and get the card of whoever you meet. now, the ball is in your court, right where you want it.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Planning For a Lateral's Arrival

Successful integration of a lateral into a law firm can be measured by new originations. But the number of new clients only tells part of the story. The success of the recruiting process can also be measured by how quickly the lateral assimilate into the culture of the firm and the speed and scope of the marketing and business development issues that were successfully handled. These 'soft' variables depend on a thorough integration plan and diligent execution.

The risk of poorly executed integration is also pronounced. Studies show that thirty percent of laterals leave after three years and nearly one-half leave after five years. With as much as $1 million of investment in each large law firm lateral hire and only about 30% bringing their entire client roster to the new firm, there is a lot of reason to pay special attention to this process.

Get Started Early
The sooner the firm begins planning for the lateral's arrival, the better. There is a lot to do and time is needed to plan accordingly. It's important to the Firm's brand that marketing materials, website and bio information for the attorney are updated before the announcement is made. Don't wait until a day or two before the announcement to involve marketing. Set up a meeting with the marketing folks and the lateral early on to enable marketing the time to put a thoughtful plan together. This also ensures that the lateral has the time to collect the materials that marketing will need to update the website and marketing materials.

Set Realistic Expectations and Communicate Often
Most firms rely on their hiring agreement and the HR manual to convey expectations to the lateral. But those are typically economic expectations and policy mumbo-jumbo that the busy onboarding lateral is not likely to read. Left out of the equation too often are critical socio-cultural expectations that make up a firm’s culture and that can make or break a lateral’s success. Some firms assign a mentor to the lateral in the hopes that the institutional ‘know how’ is passed along. But regular conversations which probe the real challenges a lateral is having in a safe and non-judgmental forum can do wonders for ensuring laterals know the guardrails of their new firm and successfully navigate the darker waters of firm life.

Plan Accordingly
A lateral integration plan is actually several distinct plans.  A well developed 'master' plan includes a public relations plan, an internal communications plan, a marketing plan, a client development plan and a plan for 'on-boarding'  the new partner including the human resource, operations, training, conflicts, and technology issues that need to be addressed. Firms active in lateral recruiting should have a robust template and process in place that can be quickly updated for a new lateral candidate.

The PR plan should identify the media channels and any 'exclusivities' which the firm will grant in exchange for prominent coverage. The plan should identify the publications and reporter contact information to whom press releases will be sent along with the main 'talking points' or specific reasons that clients will benefit from the combination. The PR plan should identify and determine responses to any potentially negative information which might arise from media coverage of the move.

Lastly, don't forget to notify and monitor coverage of the move among the main social media channels, blogs, and discussion groups that follow developments in the lateral's practice area.
The marketing and promotional plan should include a list of the marketing materials that need to be updated, the authored publications coming with the attorney and the updates needed to the attorney's bio. It should itemize the directory listings, social media sites, award publications and professional associations in which the attorney's profile will need to be updated. The plan should also outline the advertising which will be placed to announce the attorney's move as well as any events or client receptions held in her honor. Lastly, the plan should describe how the clients of the firm will be notified of the new attorney's arrival and who will handle the notification.

The internal communications plan should include how the firm will notify people inside the firm of the lateral's arrival and who will sign the notification. It should also detail the meetings that the new partner will be asked to attend as well as outline important firm event dates and the role the new attorney may be asked to play in each event. If appropriate, a plan to inform the firm's network of referral sources (bankers, accountants, referral networks, etc.) along with any strategic alliances or consulting groups should also be outlined in this section of the plan.

Most importantly, the master integration plan should include a client development and cross-servicing plan. The plan should outline the new attorney's clients likely to port over to the firm, the firm's clients with expansion potential and prospective clients who may be attracted to the firm as a result of the combination. Each key client and prospect should have a plan of action with specific strategies for how the introduction will be made.

Don’t be Penny Wise and Pound Foolish
Integration takes time but it also requires money. Laterals will want to visit their clients, bring them swag, dine them, wine them, and hopefully sign them. That doesn’t always happen immediately and sometimes requires multiple client visits, client incentives, travel time and the participation of other partners.  Make sure you’ve allocated enough business development resources to the lateral so they can do what they need to do to get their clients in the door. Make resources available but also manage the time and the firm’s expectations. Laterals distracted by administrative work, who are given work to keep their billings up while waiting for their client or who must finish up outstanding matters can get distracted and lose the momentum of early integration success. Bringing clients overtakes months to accomplish, sometimes years. Increase budgets, extend the time available and lower expectations will help the lateral integrate more successfully.

Adopt Realistic Client Portage Expectations
All honeymoons are rose-colored. It’s only after the initial surge of good feelings that reality sets in and firms find that clients aren’t all rushing to the new firm’s doors.  There are a host of reasons why clients don’t move. Law firms that conduct client book due diligence before the lateral’s move can get a big jump on client transitions (as well as use that information to make better hiring decisions). Most firms simply don’t do a good job of assessing which clients are most likely to move and setting expectations in the firm according to a rational analysis. They take the laterals word for the likelihood that their client will move with them. Rather than have the uncomfortable conversation to question which clients will move and why firms opt instead to lower the guarantee and offer performance tiers that protect the firm from its lack of client book due diligence. In most moves, the risk of client entropy falls squarely and solely on the lateral’s shoulders.

If you sense clients are moving, sit down with the lateral and look at each client’s situation and motivations to move. Look at the full scope of factors that influence the company’s decision to change providers: which competitive firms work with the company; the relationships the lateral has within the company and her institutional knowledge of the company; the strategic importance of the work to the client; and the objective rewards and risks the client faces in making a move. Then craft a plan for each of the most important clients that you want to move. Just because you have one lawyer with a relationship and work history, doesn’t mean the client won’t need a push. So, take some time to make a plan for how you are going to nudge that client into the firm.

Bring Value to Your Existing Clients
The lateral formula typically has both an import component (bringing new clients to the firm) and a cross-servicing component (serving more of the needs of existing clients).  In most cases, those clients aren't waiting with bated breath to meet the new partner. A meeting solely to introduce a partner is often seen by clients as unnecessary. So, plan meetings to include other agenda items that provide value to clients. To make a change, clients need a compelling reason to switch providers. That means your introduction of the new partner should be accompanied with a summary of how they have helped similar companies, how they can solve a unique problem for the client or ways in which they can generate greater efficiencies or cost reductions. Finding a. ‘added value’ angle requires research, planning and a heavy dose of objectivity. But the result will be appreciated by clients.

Plan Support for the Long Run.
The integration of a lateral's clients can take several months to complete, if not years. So integration plans should pay special attention to the period of time after the initial enthusiasm and energy have waned. In particular, create check-in or progress reporting deadlines and have two to three people assigned to mentor, guide, coach and troubleshoot for the lateral throughout the plan period. The team could include a senior partner with influence in the firm to troubleshoot problems, a partner to act as a mentor and a dedicated marketing support person. Consider using an outside coach trained in business development and experienced in lateral integrations.

Planning for the integration of a new partner is a series of distinct activities and plans which all must be implemented quickly and seamlessly. But in all of these plans, strong and consistent communication is the key to the successful integration of lateral partners.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

A Changing Legal Industry Requires a Change in Leadership Styles

The workplace hierarchy is alive and well in most companies. But in law firm partnerships the vertical hierarchy also has a horizontal component. This makes leading a large, matrixed law firm quite challenging. Leaders have few resources to consult on leadership techniques and even less time to consult them. With this alone in mind, you can see how extraordinary it is to witness a well lead law firm.

The Challenge of Law Firm Leadership

Law firm leaders must at once provide vision, inspiration, motivation, cohesion, consensus, and direction. And, they must provide this to the uninterested, the doubters and the curmudgeons and equally to the ‘rainmakers, advocates and reformers’ in the firm. Add to that the fast-changing dynamics of the legal industry, the quickening pace of competition, an increasingly diverse workforce and the need to lead five distinct generations of lawyers and staff all with divergent sensibilities, values and motivations and one begins to get a sense for the unique challenge of leading a modern corporate law firm.

Looking to their business clients for best practices, law firm leaders have adopted the leadership styles and techniques most prevalent in business today. The result is a ‘command and control’ style of leadership applied to the vertical relationships in the firm (‘do this because I said so’) and a gentile, consensus-building style of leadership applied to the horizontal relationships in the firm (‘how shall we proceed together?’). These divergent styles of leadership result in a kind of caste system of have’s and have not’s that complicates performance management and slows progress in law firms. In particular, the command and control style of leadership increasingly cannot solve the intergenerational challenges of today’s modern law firms. In fact, a command and control style of leadership may do more harm than good.

That’s not to say a command and control style doesn’t have its place. In times of crisis, or where the clarity of a client’s directives or the fine-tuning of the firm’s strategic direction leaves little room for interpretation, a direct communication style is best. But those situations are relatively rare. More common is the need to animate a higher level of performance from each individual in the firm on a daily basis. If your leadership style is command and control, it is neither effective over the long run nor scalable.

The bottom line challenge for most law firms is to expand the population of high performers in order to lower its dependence on a minority of individuals that ‘have carried the firm’. How can practice group leaders, administrators or executive committee members get a higher level of performance from individuals throughout the organization? Their challenges are many and varied. How can they help people break through their personal roadblocks, drive more collaboration or help build personal accountability for client development in, for instance, long time service partners? These challenges and many others are best addressed using coaching skills and techniques that build high-performance behaviors and activities across generations and organizational roles.

As an example, look at the challenge of building business and client development capabilities in the firm. The predominant methodologies to transfer business and client development knowledge and skills in law firms includes mentoring, counseling and training. Each of these methods, however, have their own challenges and risks. For instance, mentoring assumes the tactics that got the mentor to his or her place in the firm will easily translate across practice areas, levels of experience and personality types. But too often I hear younger attorneys complain that their mentor did not have to deal with certain realities when they were coming up through the ranks. They complain that the resources, required skills and time were of such a different configuration as to make the comparison moot. As such, they are suspicious of the lessons taught by comparison to the mentor’s experiences of days gone by. 

Counseling is similarly marked. Only those who struggle to pull their weight get counseled. So, a counseling session carries with it the assumption that the lawyer’s behaviors and tactics are broken and need to be fixed. But rarely is counseling precipitated by a thorough exploration of the root causes of the lawyer’s struggle to build their practice. Thorough practice development analysis is bypassed in the belief that no one knows their practice better than the lawyers themselves. They alone should know how to fix it. But without a deep and objective analysis of the structural and behavioral challenges, any counseling regimen is little more than a reprimand. As a result, too often the lawyer is left to fix their situation themselves or, worse, are told to find a new home.

As a means to transfer business and client relationship development knowledge, business development training programs can be very beneficial. But these too often have their limits. For one, the training is rarely customized to the specific needs, strategies and buying processes of the firm, the practice area or the client type. Too often, legal marketing training courses are grounded in the precepts of product sales and introduce concepts and skills that are incongruent with the lawyer’s perception of themselves and their understanding of the calling of their profession. Lastly, training often suffers from episodic, inconsistent implementation and/or lacks a formulation based in reality and actual experience. The best training programs result from direct observations of lawyers pitching and servicing clients and are applied consistently, liberally, frequently and as integral to the business of lawyering.

If used consistently by a majority of the leaders in a law firm though, training in a coaching style of leadership has the ability to significantly improve individual and firm performance. Its use can result in a more collaborative business development culture and can help to ensure practice development self-sufficiency among individuals and groups. A coaching style of leadership not only provides better performance results over the long run but will augment the mentoring, counseling and training programs already in existence.

What is ‘coaching’?

Coaching is a deliberative process to unlock a person’s potential so that the individual can maximize their performance. The purpose of coaching is to raise awareness and, with heightened awareness, increase personal responsibility for results. It is a process to help individuals learn and solve their challenges through a Socratic method of inquiry and guidance. Coaching provides the context and support to improve performance and gives the coachee the tools to find their own solutions- a skill that will pay dividends many times through the years.  

Coaching assumes people can and should find the solutions to their challenges on their own, as opposed to being told the solution. The technique helps individuals identify the tools and techniques that work best for them considering their unique personality, practice, challenges, and values. Coaching encourages trial and error and personal reflection. While this may carry with it a degree of risk or be more cumbersome to implement, over the long run the ability of people to operate independently within the context of a clear firm strategy ensures better overall performance.

Implementing a coaching style among the law firm’s leaders isn’t necessarily a quick way to boost revenues. It requires a long-term view of the professional development of everyone in the organization. But there is evidence that this emotional intelligence type leadership style can help a firm to achieve significant results. According to a Harvard Business Review study from 2000, the leadership style of managers accounted for up to 30% of bottom-line profitability.

Moving Toward A Coaching Style of Leadership

Leadership is best observed when someone asks for help. It is in this moment of seeking advice that a leader can inspire and motivate, deflate and discourage or, worse, leave a person more confused. Great business leaders help people become great performers by asking the questions that help a person evaluate their situation, set objectives, identify challenges, chart a course of action and break down the immediate steps that must be taken. It is an iterative process that sometimes looks like fits, starts and a two-stepping dance around the real issues that inhibit progress. It is a process and as such requires dedication to both the process and the individual. This process gives the person the space to clarify their situation, attenuate bad habits and map a path to accomplishing their goals. It takes more time, requires consistent follow up and requires a questioning conversational discipline. But the coaching style of leadership discipline builds the skills that lawyers need to assess and adjust to their constantly changing circumstances. Stated anecdotally, coaching is the ‘teaching a man to fish’ technique that performs much better over time than does the direct advice ‘feed a man a fish’ technique.

In my coaching of lawyers, I’ve devised a simplified, three-point practice assessment and six questions that can be used as a conversational structure to work through any challenge a lawyer may face. The combination of a simplified assessment tool along with the PROPS questioning methodology enables anyone trained in coaching to effectively guide any other professional in developing their practice and focusing their efforts to get the most improvement in the shortest amount of time. The process is memorable making it easier to use in spontaneous discussions. It is flexible, meaning it can be adapted to a wide range of practice areas and business challenges and can be done verbally or in written form. It’s scalable for use with individuals or groups in small firms or large. And it is a highly effective technique similar to how executive coaching has proven essential across a wide range of industries. There are numerous coaching techniques out there available to you. Mine was simply devised specifically for lawyers.

Building Personal Accountability is at the Heart of a Coaching Leadership Style

Coaching allows the subject to find their best solution, even if it means failing a few times in the process. Direct advice, as efficient it may be in terms of time, carries with it the burden of failure, or more specifically, the transfer of responsibility for that failure to the advisor. More simply, if you tell someone what to do, you become responsible for that action’s success or failure. But if the subject arrives at their own solution, they assume full responsibility for its success.

Lawyers, who are untrained in coaching techniques and practice assessments, can also suffer the blinding influence of confidence bias in their discussions with their charges. Confidence bias is the tendency to interpret new evidence or information as confirmation of one's existing theories and carries with it a tendency to disregard factors that might lead the discussion to new ground unfamiliar to that coach.

A Note of Caution: Coaching Requires Trusted Relationships.

Bearing responsibility for your actions or, more intimately, sharing your fears and frustrations with a colleague requires a high degree of trust between individuals. Developing a coaching leadership style in the firm sometimes requires ground rules and even training in how to build trusted internal relationships. Compensation decisions should be walled off from coaching discussions and a strict adherence to confidentiality must be maintained in order for colleague coaching to take hold. But a coaching style of leadership builds self-sufficiency in individuals and groups, producing higher performance levels.  For those with responsibilities for executing the strategy of the firm, leaders who listen carefully to the coaching dialogues can also see how the firm’s strategy is being understood and implemented at the most granular levels of the firm.

A coaching leadership style works across generations, practice areas, roles and even between attorney-client relationships. Coaching is a conversational discipline that has the power to change the culture of the firm and ignite performance even among the most incalcitrant. Good coaching inspires and encourages with the fortunate by-product of building stronger bonds between people in the firm.