Everyone needs a little help sometimes. Even Biglaw attorneys. But Biglaw firms are not the kind of place to find it. No matter what level you are on. The higher up you are on the food chain, the lonelier it can be. And with the good ship Biglaw puttering around listlessly like the Triumph “cruising” through the Gulf, it is no wonder that everyone wants whatever edge they can get. Forget about glamorous trans-Atlantic voyages, most Biglaw captains just want to keep their ships pointed in the right direction nowadays.
And so we have entered a bit of a “coach moment” in Biglaw. As in everyone recognizing that coaches are good. They help you develop a “practice” (otherwise known as finding clients able to swallow your hourly rate), or teach you how to “manage” people and things, or even help you “balance” your life. (By the way, “balance” keeps away “chair sores” from too many hours reviewing term sheets.)
And “Coach” can remind you that an hour in the gym a couple of days a week is a pretty solid idea for someone whose other regular exercise mainly consists of the following: (1) open desk drawer with right hand, (2) reach into box of processed sugar-based item, (3) grab said item, and (4) place in mouth. (Interchange hands for best results. A Biglaw gut or jiggle to be proud of is literally within reach.) Since most people can’t get break such wonderful habits on their own, coaching can help….
Like anything else, there is a place for coaching in Biglaw. As Lat pointed out, two of the key Biglaw demographic groups that have been targeted for coaching are what we would consider among the most vulnerable: (1) laterals and (2) associates trying to navigate the partnership track. Biglaw firms know that they generally do not do a job taking care of most of their population components (basically anyone other than rainmakers and IT are either ignored or viewed as dispensable), but are usually unable to figure out how to improve. Someone must have suggested adding coaching fees to the budget. So hiring or paying for coaches seems to have stuck, and as long as there are some successes to tout, it will probably continue.
Now there were definitely times in my Biglaw career when I could have benefited from some coaching. Put aside the fundamentals — staying busy, keeping partners and clients happy, having a good attitude. If you can’t get those right, your firm could hire a host of Biglaw luminaries from the grave as coaches and it won’t help. Coaching can help with the lesser things in my book — such as making sure you develop and stick to a marketing plan, for example. Or help you do a better job as you figure out how to effectively take and defend a deposition. In short, actionable and direct advice, preferably given over the course of an event or period of time. In the process, with the coach’s guidance, you learn how to harness and apply your talent. All good.
Of course, a good coach needs credibility. Ideally, that means that they have already done what they are now asking you to do. And have failed a bit along the way as well — but made the most of their opportunities regardless. Think Riley or Phil Jackson. Better basketball players than 99 percent of the populace, sure. But not superstars in their own right. You want your coach to have experienced that bitter taste of loss, of being just good enough to realize that they will never be the best. But also good enough to appreciate just what being the best takes. The best coaches work within that space, pushing their subjects to achieve what they themselves just missed out on. But without that threshold level of credibility, it is hard to take a coach seriously unless they are bringing unbelievable knowledge about their field to the table. Experience or knowledge. Best if you have both in your coach.
The way I see it, I would never want a firm-supplied former associate turned “career coach.” I’d rather hear from a now-failed former rainmaker or managing partner. They would have more to teach me on how to succeed as a Biglaw partner. For that matter, I’d also rather hear from a formerly successful salesman in any professional services field. Because more selling success is what I need to get to the next level. Like all of my fellow partners. Old, young, and even those too busy right now to remember the days when they promised themselves that they would stop working so hard if they just made enough to “live on, with a little left over.”
But for current associates, your typical career coach is fine. They are there as a sounding board. In an environment when nobody really makes partner anymore, such coaches are really just there to help with exit strategies. And they can probably do a better job of that than your stubborn columnist, for instance — who still believes in the promise of Biglaw. And who thinks that making partner is still a worthwhile goal to have.
A few final thoughts for those giving it a go in Biglaw and considering utilizing a coach. Remember to never show weakness. Coaching will simply allow you to do what you are already doing fantastically — even more fantastically. Keep it simple and targeted — like a three-month engagement to help you develop a more efficient assignment system within your group, for instance. Remind everyone that it is all about you developing into a Biglaw leader, since you have already mastered the art of being a worthy Biglaw foot soldier. And seek out intra-firm resources first. Ask that rainmaker for a copy of his last successful client presentation. Or make a copy off the firm’s document repository. Only play the coach card when it is really needed, since that is when the effort is most likely to succeed anyway.
Ultimately, coaches remind us that there is always more for us to learn. And because our ambitions can sometimes outpace our current capabilities, having another set of eyes on us can be a good thing. It can also help us tweak what we are currently too comfortable doing to consider that we may be able to do it better.
For right now, I don’t really want a coach. But that’s because I am challenging myself on a number of fronts to really execute on some long-held plans, and I feel like I need to taste the success or the opposite on my own. But that can change quickly. Like if I am going to trial, where having someone with a few dozen trials under their belt coaching me would be great. Until then, it would be nice to have an intern… and not in the Monica sense. (Sad that I have to add that bit.)
Have you had any Biglaw coaching experiences? Let me know in the comments or by email….
Anonymous Partner is a partner at a major law firm. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.