Professional coaching isn’t a new topic to lawyers or even to the pages of the ABA Journal. Yet we at the Journal continually hear lawyers say they are reluctant to turn that awareness into an actual working relationship.
Perhaps they don’t understand what, exactly, a coach could do for them. Or they’re not sure how to find the “right” coach–and even if they could, how could they spare the time?
That made us wonder what would happen if we helped the process along–if we custom-matched a lawyer with a coach and let them work together for one month at no cost to the lawyer beyond the expense of time and effort.
And so the ABA Journal Coaching Project was born. Last fall, we issued an invitation to interested lawyers via our electronic newsletter, the ABA Journal eReport.
Although the invite appeared in only one issue, responses poured in from talented, successful lawyers across the country who are practicing in a variety of different areas and at every career stage, from new graduate to senior partner.
Despite the differences, these lawyers all had something in common: They wanted a boost–a shot of motivation, an outside opinion, a trained perspective–to help them achieve peak performance.
Working with our volunteer coaches, we analyzed more than 100 e mails and were able to home in on three lawyers. We asked them to join the project and bare their professional souls–first to a coach and again to the Journal. Luckily, they embraced the task.
What follows is a summary of what they achieved in only four weeks (with some extensions due to scheduling conflicts). We hope their stories will illuminate the professional coaching experience and invigorate you to reach for your own brass ring.
The Lawyer: Jamie R. Abrams
Stats: Abrams is a fifth year litigation associate at a large firm in Washington, D.C., and teaches legal rhetoric as an adjunct professor at American University Washington College of Law.
Challenge: As Abrams gains more expertise and experience, she wants to sharpen her career management skills. She believes that developing a career plan based on a better awareness of her professional skills will make her a more valuable member of the firm and ultimately bring her a higher level of personal and professional fulfillment.
The Coach: Rachelle J. Canter of RJC Associates in San Francisco, rjcassociates.net.
Stats: With a Ph.D. in social personality psychology, Canter has spent more than 20 years assisting lawyers and executives across the country with work transitions and career management. She serves on the executive committee of the ABA Women Rainmakers and is the author of Make the Right Career Move, a career guide for lawyers and other professionals.
Commitment: Canter and Abrams talked two to five times a week. The initial and final calls lasted about two hours, and other calls clocked in between 30 and 60 minutes. Abrams also completed assignments in advance of each call.
Week No. 1: Canter’s goal for the first session was to explain the coaching process generally and to discuss what Abrams was looking for from the experience. As a fifth year associate, Abrams says she felt as if the firm had increased its expectations. Her work as a junior associate typically involved larger projects, and over time she had been assuming more responsibility, spotting issues and prioritizing the tasks of others. She felt she had reached a threshold, she says, and she “wanted to step it up a notch.”
Abrams had also become more active outside the firm, taking on the teaching position and increasing her involvement in voluntary bar committees and community organizations, and she wanted to manage her time and activities in a way that would best enhance her career.
The timing could not have been better. The teaching semester had just ended, freeing up space in her schedule for a new project, and she had recently attended her firm’s midlevel associate retreat. It was also annual review time, when she would be discussing with partners her accomplishments and goals.
Accordingly, Canter and Abrams decided to inventory and examine strengths and weaknesses, career values and workstyle.
To do this, Canter assigned some “homework.” A fill in the bubble type assessment tool called the Birkman Method questionnaire would help examine the way Abrams works. “Its empirical feedback allowed Jamie to look at her impact on others–intended and unintended,” Canter explains. Canter also asked Abrams to complete a test to identify the values that drive her career choices. (The test can be found in a book called Career Anchors by Edgar H. Schein and in Canter’s own book.)
Week No. 2: Abrams and Canter discussed the results from the assessment tools. The information, Canter says, allowed her and Abrams to create a career plan that would “take best advantage of what Jamie does well and likes to do, as well as where she wants to grow.”
Abrams says the results provided a sort of objective validation of her own instincts. “There were tasks and roles I knew I liked more than others, and experiences that were more enjoyable than others, but I could never put my finger on why that was,” Abrams says. “This gave me much more focus.”
For example, Abrams knew she enjoyed interacting with clients–she even felt a stronger connection to a case once she was able to make a personal connection–but the Birkman results gave her a real context for these feelings by reporting that interpersonal skills are among her strengths.
In a law firm context, these skills could help Abrams sense personality dynamics and power structures in group settings, as well as understand how to best present her own clients to others.
The assessment tools also helped Abrams examine her management style. Abrams had wanted to address this area, and she welcomed suggestions on ways to improve, especially when it came to delegating. “I have a sense of when something should be delegated, but I have to work on my actual ability to delegate because I have a strong desire to stay connected to all aspects of a task,” Abrams admits. “I can see now how staying so involved doesn’t empower a lawyer to take ownership and feel connected to the result.”
Week No. 3: In the final week, Canter and Abrams reviewed what they had worked on during the previous weeks. In that time period, Abrams had taken on a new leadership role, becoming involved in a new case in an area of law she had not worked in before. She believes this was a direct result of her work with Canter.
“Opportunities come up all the time in practice, and I don’t think I would have been as prepared to seize this opportunity had I not been working with Shelley,” she says. “I had a greater sense of drive to go out and ask for this project.”
Abrams also believes her annual review was even more productive because of her work with Canter since she was better able to articulate her value to the firm and her goals for the next year. Case in point: her teaching position. Mentoring was something that was very important to Abrams, and Canter helped her to explain how working with law students fulfilled this desire, making her a happier and more productive lawyer–even if it did take her away from her desk at times.
Canter says there was an additional element that ensured success: Abrams herself. “Jamie was the ideal person to work with because of her intelligence, enthusiasm and high level of interest in and commitment to the career development process,” says Canter. “She jumped in wholeheartedly and showed how much you can get out of active career management.”
And that’s something all lawyers should do, Canter says. “You cannot and should not depend on your firm, your mentor or anyone else to manage your career,” she says. “Good work does not guarantee success. A firm can decide to let someone go for any number of reasons–style, performance, a merger, decline of a practice group–you name it, I’ve seen it.
“The strategy of letting your career take care of itself does not work.”
The Lawyer: Larry A. Koch
Stats: A partner in a midsize Minneapolis law firm, Koch has more than 25 years of business law experience with clients ranging from individual sales representatives to multinational corporations.
Challenge: Koch wants to make more rain. In 2003, one of his corporate clients–a tech company with revenues of about $300 million–was acquired by another company, ending a 17 year attorney client relationship and slashing his book of business in half. Koch has since recovered a significant portion of this lost revenue, but he wanted to bring his client base back to its former level.
The Coach: Arnie Herz of Port Washington, N.Y., arnieherz.com.
Stats: Herz has coached more than 3,000 lawyers and executives through his 15 years of experience as a lawyer, mediator, public speaker and business adviser. In 2004 he launched Legal Sanity Learning Programs, a training and development venture that incorporates his trademark approach to achieving career and personal success.
Commitment: Herz and Koch spoke four times, for about an hour each time. Call topics followed this pattern: Establish the basics, determine a game plan, work out an implementation plan, and conclude the relationship. Koch also completed assignments in advance of each call.
Phone call No. 1: Herz began the call by asking questions designed to get Koch thinking about where he was and where he’d been–and evaluating where he wanted to end up. “I wasn’t satisfied with where I was–with the stroke of a pen it was like going back 15 years,” Koch says. “I had done a lot of reading about how others develop business, but actually doing it is a totally different challenge.”
They talked about the type of work he was doing, who his clients were, what he did for them and what he didn’t. They also went over an e mail questionnaire that Herz had sent to Koch a couple weeks earlier. Questions included: “What are your five most important clients right now?” and “Identify five past clients who have not fired you but who have not given you work in a while.”
“I wanted him to get organized, to understand the real state of his union,” says Herz. “You can’t solve a problem unless you know what the problem is and the context.”
From there, the next step was formulating an action plan–a matrix of tasks, time frames and client contacts that Koch could use to jump start his rainmaking efforts. Herz asked Koch to complete this task independently; the next two sessions would be based on his plan.
Phone call No. 2: Koch completed his draft practice development matrix, so he and Herz started off by discussing the client contacts Koch had listed.
“I had Larry go through [the list] and look at key relationships,” Herz says. “I wanted to know: What relationships were working? What has worked in the past? Is there room in these relationships to expand, to get more business?”
Koch had developed his business organically over time–there was never a hard sell, nor was one necessary. And he didn’t want to take that approach now.
“Frankly, I shuddered at the thought of asking someone for business,” Koch says. “The last thing I wanted to be was an ambulance chaser–that’s just not who I am.” So Herz and Koch worked on an alternate approach to generating business, one that would mesh with Koch’s personality and also be successful.
Herz challenged Koch to approach his marketing efforts not as a sales pitch but rather as an opportunity to help clients. “Find out how you can offer them something of value. When you go to them, say, ‘How can I help you?’ ” Herz suggested.
For example, Koch and Herz decide that Koch would offer to sit in on a client’s board of directors meeting, free of charge, to gain exposure to situations where Koch and his firm could help the client.
Phone call No. 3: During this call, Herz and Koch emphasized action setting goals and deadline establishment. “It’s easy to put off doing something you haven’t had to do before, especially when you have other client demands to meet,” Koch says. “Arnie asked the questions that got me to commit to a deadline.”
Herz stressed the practical over the theoretical, asking questions like:
• What’s the next thing you need to do and by when?
• Which clients do you need to see, and what do you want to do for them?
• Who are you going to take to lunch, and by when will you make the call to invite them?
Working from the matrix Koch had constructed earlier, they used the information from this line of questioning to construct a 20 line table with three columns: action point, date and status. The purpose, says Herz, was to hold Koch accountable. For Koch, it was something tangible–a game plan, he calls it–that he could now execute.
Phone call No. 4: Herz and Koch reviewed the progress they’d made and Koch’s plans for the future. Both felt the sessions had been successful.
“I think most people need this type of assistance–someone to help them with planning, execution and accountability,” Koch says. “Especially with activities that don’t come naturally and for which you haven’t been trained.” Herz likens it to a golf swing that feels somewhat awkward at first, but that eventually becomes very natural.
The experience, says Koch, “made me think about other relationships, other possibilities–and then take a disciplined approach to it all.”
The Lawyer: Frank V. Petrosino
Stats: For the past nine years, Petrosino has practiced with a 25 lawyer firm in Burlington, Vt., focusing on corporate matters such as commercial financing, mergers and acquisitions, intellectual property and tax.
Challenge: Petrosino wants to become the go to lawyer for the Vermont hospitality industry. While he has been handling a variety of matters for different corporate clients, he wants to focus on clients in the local travel and tourism industry.
The Coach: David Freeman of David Freeman Consulting Group in Boulder, Colo., davidfreemanconsulting.com.
Stats: Freeman, a lawyer, specializes in revenue focused leadership and business development training for firms, practice groups and individual lawyers. With nearly 25 years of experience, he has worked with thousands of lawyers in more than 85 firms across the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
Commitment: Freeman and Petrosino spoke five times. The first call, which lasted about an hour, was the longest. Petrosino also completed assignments in advance of each call.
Phone call No. 1: Before the first call, Freeman gave Petrosino a worksheet to complete to get a better sense of his business. The worksheet asked Petrosino to rate, on a scale of one (“hate it”) to 10 (“love it”) his level of comfort with a variety of marketing activities, including cross selling, conducting new client pitches and cold calling new prospective clients.
“Part of the art of coaching is making sure you work with a person’s strengths to help them achieve,” Freeman says. “I wanted to probe some areas to find out what his perception was.”
The area Petrosino ranked the lowest, giving it a one, was cold calling. Next to the number, he wrote: “I will not cold call without first having presented new prospective clients with some type of written marketing materials. Even then, I am not a big fan of cold calling.”
Using this as a starting point, Freeman gave Petrosino some ideas on how to warm up to those calls. Petrosino says he learned the importance of having a lead in of some sort.
“Research is the key, and with that a common interest or contact helps the relationship. You also need to be able to give something–to show the person what you can do for them. It doesn’t have to be a legal issue; it could be someone they are interested in meeting. Just something where you can say, ‘I can do that,’ ” he says.
In contrast, Petrosino gave speaking a 10, and Freeman suggested ways to play to this strength, such as offering to make an in house presentation like a “lunch and learn” to build the relationship.
“This lets people sample Frank to see him as an attorney before they hire him,” Freeman says.
But Freeman warned that speaking isn’t a stand alone strategy. “There’s a common fallacy that speaking itself will generate all the work, but if you ask lawyers if they get everything they want from speaking, they’ll say no,” he says. “There has to be an after strategy to follow up and continue the relationship that was made.”
Phone call No. 2: Building relationships was a major theme throughout the sessions. Freeman introduced Petrosino to his five habits of successful business development:
• Differentiating and defining yourself.
• Generating awareness.
• Getting live meetings.
• Building trust.
• Getting “the advance”–that second meeting.
“People who engage in the five habits form relationships, and then when something comes up for the client, they’re top of mind,” Freeman says.
They also broke down Petrosino’s target market–the Vermont hospitality industry–into smaller components, running numbers and writing it all down on a worksheet. “We looked at who the players are and what type of revenue generation can be drawn from their legal needs,” Petrosino says.
Then they added a billable goal, an origination goal and a client mix goal.
Petrosino was thrilled with the results. “I had some ideas about how to establish this type of foundation, but David really helped me organize it and get to a place where I had more focus and clarity.”
Phone call No. 3: The topic of this call was positioning. They started with Petrosino’s goal of becoming the go to lawyer within his practice area and then “drilled down to a level of detail” to establish concrete ways to achieve this goal, says Freeman. “We were in a process that allowed him to stop, sit back and think a bit–to say, OK, if I did this, who could I follow up with?”
They decided to ask Petrosino’s firm to create a hospitality law group and to make Petrosino in charge of it. The group would also include other lawyers at the firm with complementary practices. The purpose of creating the group was to establish credibility–to create a positioning tool and a credential that Petrosino could use throughout his marketing efforts, which include article bylines and client communications.
“It says to potential clients: If the firm trusts me, you can too,” Petrosino says. After the call, Petrosino recruited colleagues and then approached the firm’s executive committee with his plan. He explained the purpose of the move and also what it could mean in terms of dollars and cents. The firm signed on.
Phone call No. 4: Petrosino invited his firm’s marketing director to sit in on this call, and the three discussed existing opportunities and what it would take to create new ones.
“That was pretty helpful to me–to be aligned with my colleagues at the firm and have them really on board,” Petrosino says. They discussed the marketing budget and also put together tentative plans for the firm to host an executive roundtable to bring prospective and existing clients together.
Phone call No. 5: In this final conversation, Freeman and Petrosino discussed the age old issue of time. “This is the ubiquitous issue, but one of our creative solutions was to carve out an hour and a half on Friday and put it on his calendar as if he hired himself,” says Freeman. “That way he’ll focus on this time to do business development and move other issues to the sidelines.”
In the time following the first call, Petrosino had been able to set up multiple new engagements, including several lunch appointments, speaking gigs and even a chance to sit in on a client’s management meeting.
“Obviously I have a full plate at work that I need to get done, but David’s calls gave me motivation, encouragement and energy that maybe I wouldn’t have had if he wasn’t there cheering me on,” he says.
But Freeman also cracked the whip, Petrosino admits. “David would say, ‘What are you going to do?’ and then set specific time frames.”
Freeman credits Petrosino’s dedication for the incredible progress he was able to make. “You don’t always get this level of motivation, but he was there ready to go, ready to act,” Freeman says. “He really cares about doing these things.”
Jenny B. Davis, a lawyer, is an assistant managing editor for the ABA Journal.
Jenny B. Davis, a lawyer, is an assistant managing editor for the ABA Journal.