Coaching: freeing up latent potential

Coaching can help law firms to clarify present
and future skills sets, says Peta Sweet

Coaching as a business tool is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the HR market, topping the billion-dollar revenues mark globally. But what does coaching have to offer lawyers and law firms?
The 2004 Chartered Institute for Professional Development’s training and development survey showed that nearly 80 per cent of organisations that responded now use coaching as a development tool.

Part of the reason for the growth of coaching is the flexibility it offers. Coaching can be used on one discrete level to support individuals in the development of specific skills, such as networking. At the same time, it can be used to develop potential more widely.

The first kind of coaching has proven to be an effective adjunct to skills training. In one example, coaching turned a lawyer’s fear of networking into a practical ability to deal with situations and use them for business development. No training session would have achieved that result simply by giving the individual the tools without supporting them in their use.

The second kind helps individuals sharpen their personal effectiveness in the face of rapid change and the demanding pace of work. It asks people to step back and define their values and, within that framework, what is working and not working for them. It requires them to set constructive, purposeful plans of action, week by week. Over a period of months, the coach’s role is to keep the learning process in action, challenging and supporting the individual to perform in a manner both authentic and productive.

A good coaching programme might, for example, feature a psychologist and business strategist and be led by coaches with experience of working with senior people across international organisations.

It should provide the space, structure and coaching to allow individuals to review their situation in light of their personal values. It will intersperse intensive coaching sessions with mental ‘incubation’ time, for example walking in the mountains, and it should narrow down to a core issue and plan forwards, using creative problem solving to create concrete action plans on a significant issue. Former coachees have attested to the success of such schemes: one senior partner crystallised the idea of the legacy he wanted to leave at his firm – an educational programme for young lawyers; a successful but stressed barrister made plans to explore a practice more based in mediation; while a solicitor worked out how to exit her warring partnership elegantly.

Effective coaching will often involve individuals rethinking their lives – great news for the individual, but potentially not such good news for the organisation if, for example, the person coached decides they no longer want to be a property lawyer, and instead want to set up their dream organic smallholding in Somerset. But there is a strong argument that organisations made up of individuals with a clearer sense of their purpose, strengths and weaknesses is a stronger organisation, even if some of those individuals leave as a result. And for those who are motivated by making the most of their place in the organisation, coaching provides a hugely valuable and unique resource: the support, time and space to make real changes in the way they work.

Peta Sweet is a communications consultant and coach