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Is Getting Coached Another Male Advantage? (July 2004)

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Is Getting Coached Another Male Advantage?

Issue # 34

July 2004



In the corporate world, coaching is viewed as a privilege, a vote of confidence from management, and a power tool for leaders. But in the legal world, coaching continues to carry a stigma. Increasing numbers of male attorneys are using coaches to proactively pursue career goals. Women lawyers' fear of being viewed as "weak" may prevent them from using coaches for career advancement. As a result, women lawyers may be allowing their male colleagues to add to the list of advantages they already have in the legal workplace. Several examples are presented to demonstrate that coaching is intended to develop talent - not to "fix" problem people.

"What is a coach anyway? What do great coaches do? Quite simply, coaches help people become more than they realize they can be....[A] coach helps a person move up a level - by expanding a skill, by boosting performance, or even by changing the way a person thinks. Coaches help people grow. They help people beyond what they are today to what they can become tomorrow." [1]


Tim* asked me to coach him midway into his fifth year as an associate in a large firm. He'd been considering his prospects at the firm: his practice group was top heavy. Even if they were willing to add another partner, there wouldn't be enough associates available for him to build a team. He and his wife were ready to start their family and it was clear to him that he wanted to devote more time to family than the current partners in his group appeared to.

He'd decided that he'd better figure out a plan now, rather than waiting until he was up for partnership to deal with the situation. He wanted to proactively manage his career - not be pushed by the decisions of others.

Within six months of coaching, Tim was able to clarify his aspirations and a path to achieve them. He developed and implemented a plan to strengthen his relationships with clients in order to position himself for one of two alternatives: to "make rain" for the firm and try to become a partner or go in house. Either plan, he realized, would give him the opportunity to do the kind of work he most loved. At the same time, he and his wife discussed the potential impact of having children on both of their careers and decided how they wanted to manage this. They considered the economic implications of various courses of action and implemented a savings plan which would allow them to make choices unfettered by fears about their financial security.

The last time we spoke, he was bringing in a considerable amount of business to his firm. Although his partnership prospects were very positive, he was thinking seriously about seeking an in-house position with one of his clients. Working for this client, Tim realized, would provide him with the kind of flexibility he needed to spend time with the baby he and his wife are expecting in the fall. Consequently, he was preparing a pitch to demonstrate to the client how hiring him would save the client large fees to outside counsel.


Caroline and I began working together shortly before her firm was expected to vote on her partnership decision. For the past several years she'd billed many hours beyond those required for associates. She'd accepted every assignment she'd been handed. No one ever complained about the quality of her work. So she was stunned when the head of her practice group told her he wasn't sure she was "partner material."

With a very small time window, I coached Caroline to do her due diligence regarding requirements for advancement to partnership and the firm's partnership decisions over the past few years. She assessed her level of support within the firm and considered how influential her supporters were. As part of the strategy we developed, she made and implemented a plan to bring in work from a client new to the firm - someone she'd known but had never before asked for her business.

We role played the conversation she anticipated having with her department head. With practice, she stopped feeling intimidated and became able to counter his assertions about her ostensible deficiencies.

Her most prized coaching success was that she did all of this while increasing the amount of time she spent with her children in the evenings and on weekends. She'd decided that whether or not the firm offered her partnership, she was no longer willing to sacrifice her life for the firm.


As I've coached lawyers over the past several years, I've noticed that the differences between Tim's and Caroline's stories are not unusual. While the majority of the men I coach decided to hire a coach to help them move proactively toward a goal, many of the women lawyers who ask me to coach them have waited until they felt desperate and out of options.

Although these are only my impressions, and there certainly are cases that don't fit this trend, I thought it might be important to give this some serious consideration.

Women's bar associations consistently encourage women attorneys to be proactive about managing their careers. It's often noted that women labor under a "myth of meritocracy" - believing that if they just do a good job, they'll be successful. In reality, just doing good work is rarely enough for success these days - especially for women lawyers. Women are urged to be proactive, to cultivate advocates, to find mentors, to seek out high visibility assignments and to negotiate flexible schedules so they're not forced to choose between their careers or their families.


I wonder if there's another message that needs to be included in the list of success-recommendations: ASK FOR HELP - IT'S NOT A SIGN OF WEAKNESS.

Those of us who are dedicated to empowering women lawyers to achieve career success without compromising the quality of their lives may be exhorting you to do all the right things, but failing to address the issue of how you can develop the skills to implement our suggestions.

Not long ago, I addressed a group of law students at Yale Law School. After the presentation, a young woman approached me. "I know you said we should take the initiative to seek out mentors," she said. "But how exactly would I do that? What would I say?"

The difference between a strategy and a successful outcome is all in the details. No one learns these skills in law school - that's not its purpose. And unless you're fortunate enough to find someone who can manage her own practice, balance her life, and still find time to work with you on the details, how are you supposed to develop skills beyond conscientiousness?

However, part of the challenge of being a women lawyer is feeling the need to prove that you're "tough enough." I recently asked a woman lawyer whom I admire and respect whether she'd ever hire a coach. "No," she replied. "I'd feel badly about not doing it all myself."

It's not that all male attorneys are comfortable with the idea of hiring a coach. Independence and self-reliance are valued characteristics among lawyers, in general. But perhaps because they don't feel the same burden to prove their strength, or perhaps because they have some experience with coaches in the context of athletics, some male attorneys seem to have gotten past the idea that being coached is a sign of weakness. Instead, they can see how a coach can help them proactively gain the competitive edge to accomplish their career and life goals.


Certainly, there are many male lawyers who flinch at the idea of being coached. In a meeting with my personal attorney a couple of weeks ago, we were discussing my work. "Well, you have to admit," he said, "there still is a stigma attached to coaching. Only people with problems use a coach."


In the corporate world, if management hires a coach for you, you know you're being groomed for great things. There is a clear understanding that future stars might not realize their full potential if left to develop on their own. Providing coaching is a way that management supports and retains the "keepers."

Particularly in today's economy where the "lean" organization expects maximum productivity from individuals, there's a shortage of resources to train attorneys in the non-legal, non-technical "soft skills" that make all the difference in maintaining good client relationships and effectively managing teams. Even firms with dedicated professional development directors can't provide the individualized, collaborative planning, encouragement, accountability and follow through that coaching is designed to provide. Even the best professional development program doesn't offer "just-in-time," practical, applied in-context and in-the-moment learning that is the core of a coaching relationship.

Furthermore, most CEOs have been reaping the benefits of executive coaching for some time. They recognize that the higher you rise in an organization, the less likely you are to receive candid feedback or to have peers in whom you can confide. That's why business leaders have taken advantage of coaching services to help them manage the pressure of pivotal decision-making, high visibility and lack of time for non-work pursuits.

Although today law is a business as well as a profession, lawyers have been slow to make the investment in coaching while people in the corporate world are enjoying their returns.

Often, when a firm does decide to provide coaching services, it does so for remedial, rather than developmental, reasons. For example, not long ago I was asked to coach a partner who had a long history of overt sexual harassment. He had no interest in coaching or in changing his behavior, but the firm wanted him to change. I declined, thinking how much better my skills could be used coaching the managers of the lawyers he'd harassed to regain their trust and commitment and to help them regain focus and energy directed at doing the work of the firm.

When firms hire coaches to "fix" problem people or to punish rule-breakers who've stepped out of line, the stigma of coaching is reinforced. Under these circumstances, it takes a great deal of courage for an attorney to risk hiring a coach and being found out. And it's understandable that women attorneys might view the potential consequences as dire.


Richard's firm understood the value of developmental coaching. A senior associate, he was viewed as a "keeper" because of his excellent legal skills and the many ways he contributed to the firm. As the partners considered his potential for partnership, they decided that he might benefit from coaching to help him strengthen his leadership skills. They knew he could get the job done, but wanted to be sure he could inspire others to do the same.

Richard understood that the offer of coaching was a vote of confidence from the firm and was eager to take advantage of it. We worked together to identify his strengths and further develop these while strategizing about how to address his weaknesses. Now he enjoys leading his team in his new role as partner.

Jen, a partner in a mid-sized firm, asked me to coach her when the mentor on whom she'd relied for most of her work retired. Now that she was on her own, she wanted to take control of the situation before it deteriorated. As a mother of young children, she could not imagine becoming a rain maker. We explored her idea of business development and re-crafted it to suit her strengths and to fit within her current life priorities. The following year, she was her firm's top producer and was elected to the management committee.

Stephanie was an accomplished attorney and the general counsel of a large corporation when she asked me to coach her. In spite of having been a successful litigator, she was not as effective as she wanted to be holding her own with the all-male executives on the business side. Together we worked on developing and implementing plans to get paid an equitable salary, to increase her influence at executive committee meetings, and to strengthen her own leadership skills in relation to her staff.

Val had just closed her litigation practice when she contacted me. She'd had her fill of adversarial interactions and assumed that meant she'd have to leave law altogether. But as we examined her strengths and the activities she most enjoyed, she was able to recognize that she often took on a strategic planning role both at her church and with friends starting their own businesses. She used the coaching relationship to enable her to start a solo business law practice. She realized that the many community ties she'd already developed were a solid foundation for an initial client base. She built from there, only taking work she really wanted with clients she genuinely enjoyed helping.

Denise's firm hired me to coach her when she made a lateral move from another firm. The partners wanted her to lead her practice group and they recognized that many of the firm's attorneys were more accustomed to being managed by men than women. They hoped that coaching could prepare her to face these leadership challenges, increase her confidence in her role, and help her to grow the practice. She successfully assumed her leadership role quite a while ago, but still contacts her coach from time to time to help her brainstorm solutions to new challenges that arise.

Jane hired me to coach her as she was approaching the end of her maternity leave. She'd been able to negotiate a flexible schedule with her firm, but was concerned about managing all of the competing demands on her time as she returned to work. We worked together to develop a marketing plan that would produce a steady stream of business while requiring a minimum of her time. She almost relented under pressure from the partners to return to full time, but as her coach I reminded her of her commitment to being home with her children during traditional working hours. She developed efficient systems for choosing clients, getting them into the system and moving their cases along. Last year she was invited into the partnership - and is still working her reduced-hours schedule.


If you work for an employer who is sufficiently progressive to be able to see the potential return from an investment in coaching, you might try asking for a coach. Find out if other attorneys are receiving coaching services. You might discover that a number of male attorneys are already reaping the benefits of coaching.

Even if your employer is not forward-looking, you can still hire your own coach. Many attorneys choose to do this simply because they feel more comfortable maintaining absolute privacy in their coaching relationship. Most of the time, coaching benefits both the individual and the organization. But there are times when an attorney would prefer to avoid having her coach accountable to her employer.

The fact that coaching is not remedial doesn't mean that the stimulus for seeking out a coach can't be dissatisfaction. Frustration can be an indication that you're not using your strengths to your full potential.

A coaching relationship is a safe place for change. By allocating time for coaching, you temporarily suspend the pressures of the many demands on your time and energy. Taking this time to reflect allows you to stop being reactive. Instead you can act in a purposeful, proactive, strategic way to develop and practice new skills, increase your effectiveness, and accomplish your most important goals. In the legal profession, men have so many advantages. Don't let coaching be another one.


1. Goldsmith, M., Lyons, L. & Freas, A. (Eds) (2000). "Coaching for Leadership: How the World's Greatest Coaches Help Leaders Learn." San Francisco: Jossey- Bass. Pp xi-xii.

* In order to protect client confidentiality, names have been changed and composites of multiple coaching relationships have been used.


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