Coaching Solutions

By Lawyer and Executive Business Coach, Irene Leonard

Reprinted with the permission of the Association of Legal Administrators Puget Sound Chapter, October 2007.

I was delighted when Julie Brandsness asked me to write a column for Soundings, and am pleased to introduce myself in this issue of "Coaching Solutions." I hope this column will help you with the management issues you face.

My Background

My qualifications for writing this column come from 19 years' experience as a practicing attorney—in a small law firm as general counsel and in solo practice—and from my business experience as vice president and board member for a major real estate development corporation in the early 90's. In addition, for the past 10 years I've been working with lawyers to help them develop their own personal marketing and practice management styles, resulting in increased profits and work morale.

The experience of chairing the Washington State Bar Association's Law Office Management Assistant Program Committee from 2004 to 2005 gave me insight into the many issues lawyers face. I've taught numerous Continuing Legal Education courses to help lawyers build successful practices and I write a biweekly widely read e-mail column — "Law Practice Tips". (http://www.coachingforchange.com/lawpracticetips.html.)

Innovative Practices

My "Coaching Solutions" column aims to address current concerns and suggest coaching skills or other innovative practices that will help with the management of your law firm. The issues I expect to write about include professional development, management, performance, marketing, retention, and any related topic you ask me to address. I welcome your questions and suggestions, as my goal is for this column to respond to your needs.

Why Coaching

So why "Coaching?" Coaching has been a "hot" topic in the corporate world for over 15 years, but the use of coaching is still evolving as a management tool in the legal community. Recently, you may have noticed an increase in the number of articles written on the value of coaching. For example, "Coach Me," by Jenny B. Davis, which was the front page article of the June 2007 edition of the ABA Journal. The demands on lawyers and staff at law firms are escalating and it's important to develop new methods or techniques to help employees achieve their performance goals. Utilizing coaching skills can foster greater commitment, creativity, and flexibility from employees. I hope to teach you coaching skills that will help you cultivate the talent in your firm.

Coaching vs. Consulting

The underlying purpose and function of coaching is to change the way people think and ultimately act. Coaching is distinct from consulting. Consulting generally involves a consultant coming in and telling or explaining to an organization, its people, and/or staff what they should be doing and how. What's often missing from the consulting approach is an initial assessment and determination of what the organization, people and/or staff members believe is the problem and then determining the necessary changes that need to be made to remediate the problem (changes that those involved are willing to make). How many times has your firm hired a consultant to help the lawyers with marketing plans? How often have the lawyers actually achieved a consistent change as a result? It is my experience that, if ongoing coaching is not incorporated, lawyers might benefit from a day of training; but without consistent behavioral monitoring, the lawyers will not make significant changes and adequate marketing will not occur.

Coaching is a long-term solution; consulting is short term. Individuals respond best when they have help identifying problems and then are able to participate in brainstorming solutions that they will be a part of. Because they participate in coming up with the solutions, their buy-in is more likely to lead to an actual follow-through with the action. Coaching works because people are helped to solve problems based on their own determination of what is necessary.

The essence of coaching is being able to ask the right questions and then listen with the intent of identifying the problem and soliciting solutions. Your role is to listen and ask questions that will help the person you're coaching work out what the problem is. Then you brainstorm options: What options do they have? What will they do and how?

As manager you're going to be directive with your coaching. You're there to make individuals take responsibility for their behavior as it impacts the firm and the people they work with. Along with asking good questions in order to identify problems, it's important for you to maintain ongoing conversations so that people become aware of what they're doing and what they need to change in order to do better.

Coaching Enhances Management Skills

Adding coaching to your management skills will:

A Coaching Example to Eliminate Tardiness

The following is an example of a coaching interaction. Here's the scenario: Sally is an excellent employee who is frequently late. She's excellent because she gets her work done on a daily basis and is accurate and well liked by the other staff.

First, you need to help the employee identify the problem; employees often don't perceive what you believe to be a problem as an actual problem.

You: Sally, we need to talk about your lateness.
Sally: Okay.
You: You've come in late three times this week. What seems to be the problem?
Sally: I need to get a new alarm. The one I have has something wrong with it.
You: Sally, you've been late a lot in the last month, not just recently. So I wonder if there's another reason that you've been coming into work late.
Sally: Well, frankly I don't see why my being late is a problem. I get all my work done. None of the lawyers I work for have complained about the quality of my work. I'm only a little bit late.
You: You're right. You're able to get your work done, but there are other concerns within the firm with your being late so often. What do you think those might be?
Sally: I don't really know. I don't see a problem with my being a few minutes late. My bus is inconsistent.
You: Sally, what do you think the impact is when you're late and the lawyers you work for need something done as soon as they get to the office and you're not here?

Sally: Well, that doesn't happen very often, but I guess that would be difficult for them.
You: How do you know it doesn't happen often?
Sally: Well, I guess I don't really know if I'm not here.
You: Good point. Because you are good at what you do when you are here, the lawyers you work for generally let their frustration go when you arrive. But I'm the one they come to see in order to get you to come in on time. I'm also the one they take their frustrations out on when you're not here. How do you think the other staff members feel when it seems you have permission to be late?
Sally: I hadn't thought of that. I guess they might have some resentment.
You: How would you feel if others were able to get away with breaking the standard working rules?
Sally: I wouldn't be too happy about that.
You: Yes. That's why I want to work with you to correct this problem. Do you agree that your being late might be a problem? Does it concern you that the lawyers and other staff can't rely on you because they don't know when you'll be in?
Sally: It does concern me that they can't rely on me and I do want them to respect me. I know they generally rely on me for a lot. I never realized that my being a little late could matter that much. But I guess, as we talk about this, I can see that this effects other staff members, those I assist, and the firm as a whole.

In order to get Sally to appreciate the impact of the problem it was necessary to discuss the reality of the situation and determine what the impact of her behavior was on others.

The next step is to brainstorm options to help the employee change the destructive behavior.

You: Well, let's talk about some things you could do to ensure that you're on time in the future.
Sally: Well, I could buy a new alarm clock. I could have my mother call and encourage me to wake up. I could wake up 15 minutes earlier so I don't have to be so rushed in the morning. I could take an earlier bus.

Acknowledge the employee and then help him/her decide on the new behavior that will help eliminate the problem.

You: Those are great ideas, Sally. Which of them do you think would be best for ensuring you aren't late any more?
Sally: I'll get a new alarm clock and wake up 15 minutes earlier so I can make sure to get the 8:15 bus.
You: That sounds like a sound solution to the problem. Thank you, Sally. I know you are well intentioned and strive to do an excellent job. Let's check back in two weeks and see how you're doing.

Rather than simply telling people what the problem is, incorporate the use of asking questions as a means of helping them see what the problem is. Once they agree on the problem, help them find a mutually workable solution. Notice what a difference this approach makes.

I welcome receiving your specific coaching questions.

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After more than 19 years as a business lawyer, Irene Leonard offers practice development coaching services as an executive business coach. She helps lawyers improve their ability to manage and market. Go to her website www.CoachingForChange.com or contact her at 206-723-9900 for more information.