Your Voice

How executive coaching enhances attorney performance and eases burnout

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Anjali Desai headshot

Anjali Desai.

During lunch on my first day as a first-year associate at a large international law firm almost 15 years ago, one of the partners in my practice group gave me one of the bluntest pieces of career advice I’ve received: “No one cares more about your career than you do.”

My unease with this advice, or at least my interpretation of it—that I had to do everything for my career by myself—is in part why I returned to the large law firm environment as an in-house executive coach. It was evident to me that despite the tremendous strides law firms have made in supporting attorney career development since my early days as an associate, executive coaching was an underutilized talent development tool for the legal field that could be used to invest in the growth of high-potential individuals.

Large law firms were and are starting to recognize that this type of support and attention can serve simultaneously as a retention and development tool for high-potential talent at every level.

Optimizing performance outside of the billable hour

By investing in more formalized talent development infrastructure, law firms can optimize an attorney’s experience both inside and outside of the billable hour. Specifically, executive coaching can support any attorney in leveling up their performance or effectiveness, whether they are seeking to:

    • Evaluate career options.

    • Advance to the next level.

    • Cultivate a new skill or their personal brand.

    • Maximize team performance.

    • Develop leadership acumen.

    • Manage time and stress.

    • Enhance their well-being.

    • Generate client business.

    • Enhance confidence, presence or productivity.

    • Build constructive and collaborative relationships with colleagues and clients.

By working with an executive coach, attorneys can feel more empowered to be in the driver’s seat of their careers and lives in general by discovering how their intentions, behavior and choices intersect.

I remember all too well from my own legal career how easy it was to get caught up in what everyone else was doing (or how they were doing it) or trying to follow their exact paths without necessarily pausing to evaluate what I enjoyed, was good at or even wanted.

Coaching can help an attorney address those questions and become more intentional about taking their unique route to arrive at a destination of their choosing by leaning into their values and strengths. While some attorneys realize through this process that their current environment or career path is no longer the right one, many more identify what actions are in their control to enhance their current experience.

Several attorneys I coach feel unable to manage the stress that comes with an overwhelming workload, and therefore initially seek to change things externally, such as finding a different practice area or firm.

However, through coaching, we uncover their various blind spots, including that they don’t say “no” effectively; don’t communicate around expectations and their current workload; don’t delegate enough; or they volunteer for every project, whether it’s because they want to please everyone, don’t trust others to do quality work or another reason. Once these attorneys gain insight into their own behaviors and what is driving them, they feel empowered to make different choices that can lead to an improved experience and performance.

Provoking awareness to drive positive change

Attorneys are often high-achieving individuals who seek to clarify and attain their goals, yet I’ve seen how their mindset or negative thinking can get in their own way, undermine their potential or keep them stuck. Helping individuals shift or broaden their perspectives so they can take forward action is a cornerstone of the coaching process.

Lawyers have been extensively trained and practiced in thinking critically and identifying “what’s wrong” or what could go wrong. Because this way of thinking becomes habitual and is continually reinforced, I’ve seen it bleed into the relationships that lawyers have with themselves and others.

I’ve had many coaching clients who turn their critical eye inward, manifesting in a variety of ways, including rarely feeling good enough or acknowledging their wins. They struggle with perfectionism, imposter syndrome, catastrophizing, having an “all or nothing” mentality and the list goes on. I’ve also seen attorneys turn their criticism on others in the workplace in a way that is not productive, which leaves them with impaired and ineffective relationships. All of this, in turn, can be an unnamed yet significant cause of attorney stress and anxiety affecting overall mental well-being. Many times my clients are largely unaware of how their habitual way of thinking limits how they experience life.

I also work with many clients on cultivating practices of being in the present moment, taking stock of what they have accomplished or what’s good in their life, focusing on gratitude and being self-compassionate—all for the purpose of exercising neglected muscles so they can build new neural pathways to habituate these more empowered ways of thinking.

Finding alignment affords greater satisfaction

Attorneys who engage in executive coaching have found, at a minimum, it can lead to optimal performance and mental well-being, including becoming more self-reliant, to establishing and taking action toward achieving goals, gaining more job and life satisfaction, communicating more effectively, and working more productively with others. Anecdotally, I believe these and other positive coaching outcomes I’ve witnessed are in part attributed to the confidentiality afforded to the coaching process. Creating a psychologically safe, judgment-free environment for an attorney to explore their inner world is of utmost importance.

Stanford University-trained psychologist and executive leadership coach Jacinta Jiménez, PsyD, posits that the buildup of burnout in individuals occurs when there is a mismatch between their work environment and their human capacities, which can manifest in many ways, including a misalignment of core values.

One thing I work on with clients is to help them articulate their core values and then explore where their actions are and are not aligned with these values. For example, if an attorney indicates that “family” is a core value but isn’t feeling connected to their family, we explore that mismatch and their choices and establish new habits they can practice to prioritize what’s important to them, such as texting more during the day with their spouse or spending interruption-free time in the morning with their kids.

Similarly, operating from a place of our strengths can lead to a sense of efficacy and control over our lives—and is likely far more enjoyable. Assessing attorneys’ top character strengths (you can utilize the free VIA Character Strengths Survey or a similar tool) and identifying ways to incorporate those strengths into the way they live and work helps them to achieve more work-life integration. When I’ve done this exercise with attorneys, they have recognized how they can lean more into their strengths of “creativity” or “appreciation of beauty and excellence” by thinking through creative arguments for a brief or joining the board of an art-focused organization where they can meet like-minded individuals and prospective clients, respectively.

After years spent in and around the legal profession, I recognize that it takes a village to support an attorney’s career success, even—or maybe especially—if they care more about their careers than anyone else does.

Enlisting the support of an executive coach can help attorneys effectively maximize their opportunities and address the challenges they will inevitably encounter along the way.

Anjali Desai is director of coaching with Foley & Lardner and is a member of the talent department. As a certified coach, Desai coaches attorneys at all levels on a variety of topics, including career strategy and management, leadership and business development, productivity and time management, effective interpersonal communication, work/life integration and team dynamics. In her role, Desai supports Foley’s attorneys in designing strategies to achieve their individual career, leadership development and performance goals. is accepting queries for original, thoughtful, nonpromotional articles and commentary by unpaid contributors to run in the Your Voice section. Details and submission guidelines are posted at “Your Submissions, Your Voice.”

This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.

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