Opening Statements

Law firms add coaches to their staffs

Posted May 1, 2014 4:50 AM CDT
By Leslie A. Gordon

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Jessica Natkin is a coach at Fenwick & West. Photo by Tony Avelar.

Lawyers, get ready to add a new buzzword to your lexicon: talent management.

Law firms are now adding coaching positions to their permanent ranks. And while career coaches for attorneys aren't new, firms are now keeping them on staff to advise lawyers about everything from work-life balance to troubleshooting intrafirm relationships.

Firms like Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, Arnold & Porter, Dechert and Perkins Coie now have coaches on staff to minimize attrition, motivate high performers and, in some cases, help attorneys transition out of practice altogether.

"Coaching as a profession has exploded and grown and changed," says Jennifer Rakstad, a coach at Mayer Brown in Chicago. Like most coaches, Rakstad is a former attorney who came up through her firm's ranks. She's since been certified by the Hudson Institute of Coaching and the International Coach Federation.

"My husband works at a consulting firm and they've had an on-staff coach for years. The business world has seen the value and views it as a perk. I believe that's filtering to law firms."

Jessica Natkin, a coach at Fenwick & West in San Francisco, attributes the rise in law firm coaching to "Gen Y's need for personalized attention." She adds that "partners are more and more busy and committed, so the coach takes on the role of mentor," which is particularly necessary as pressure on associates skyrocketed alongside their increased salaries. "It can be hard for them to navigate everything."

Coaches serve a different purpose than professional development staff. "My job is to help our attorneys have the careers they want to have," says Rakstad. That includes assisting them with time management and organization, transitioning to or from a leave or a reduced schedule, specializing their practice, or coping with a bad review. Rather than focusing on legal skills, coaches hone soft skills such as relationship-building, leading a team, delegating, or getting along with colleagues.

A coach keeps lawyers task-oriented and accountable. "We develop an action plan," explains Natkin, who first worked as a coach at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati and later at Orrick. "It's very proactive. Lawyers are not just talking about their problems—that's the job of a therapist."

At Mayer Brown, Rakstad offers individual sessions for attorneys as well as coaching groups specifically for senior associates. Although coaches are firm employees, they remain a neutral and confidential resource for the attorneys. "I'm trained as a coach and we have our own set of ethical guidelines, including confidentiality," Rakstad explains. "My firm knows this."

For her part, Natkin believes law firm coaches can preserve valuable human assets. "Coaches can help with the partnership pipeline," she says. "There's not room for everyone, and coaching can help firms retain the right people. If I save that one associate who stays and makes partner, I've already made my whole salary."

This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: "Legal Wranglers: Law firms add coaches to their staffs."

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