Biglaw, In-House Counsel, Partner Issues, Small Law Firms

On ‘Coaching’ Instead Of ‘Plucking You Out Of My Life’

At big law firms, a few folks engage in “training,” but very few bother with “coaching.”

That is: A partner may spend a few minutes training you how to write a brief or take a deposition. But, if you prove ineducable, the partner will promptly cut his (or her) losses: He won’t ask for your help anymore; he’ll pluck you out of his life. You won’t be fired; you’ll simply be forced to solicit work from other partners. You’ll never be “coached” about what you did wrong, except (maybe) at the end of the year, when some guy you never worked with evaluates you by reading aloud a comment that “one partner said you don’t write very good briefs.”

Corporations are different. Coaching is the name of the game: You can’t think? We’ll coach you!

Can’t write? We’ll coach you!

Act like a jerk? We’ll coach you!

Break your arm? We’ll coach you!

I’m really conflicted here.

On the one hand, the big firm model seems a bit harsh. Given constructive criticism, some junior lawyers could surely improve their performance. I’ve seen young lawyers learn: I’ve seen folks whose first briefs were tedious realize that judges are overworked and briefs must cut to the chase.

I’ve seen an associate do a mock appellate argument. An elder suggested: “You should first answer every question from the panel ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ if at all possible. After saying yes or no, you can then offer whatever long-winded explanation you care to give. But start with yes or no, so the panel doesn’t think you’re evading the question.”

And the associate got it! In the next mock argument, and later in front of the real appellate panel, almost every answer started with “yes” or “no.” The lawyer was educable! Eureka!

But partners are busy, and time is precious, and many new lawyers prove ineducable. So, as the years go by, partners tend to cut their losses increasingly quickly, by surrounding themselves with junior lawyers who are good and immediately plucking the others out of their lives. That may be cruel, but it’s the way of the big-firm world.

Many corporations, on the other hand, found Thomas Jefferson to be persuasive: “All men are created equal.” If an in-house lawyer has written incomprehensibly for decades, despite endless instruction, corporations don’t care: “Coach him! He just needs a little more coaching!” Or: “The person probably isn’t suited to his current job. If we put the person in another job, then he’ll miraculously write with the eloquence of Shakespeare.”

At a corporation, you can’t easily pluck one of your direct reports out of your life. (They are, after all, your direct reports. You’re responsible for them.) No one wants to fire people lightly. And the professors at Human Resources University apparently teach that there’s no such thing as an incompetent person: Given proper coaching, any employee can overcome any shortcoming. So many corporations devote far more effort than large law firms do to coaching, unless (or until) the corporate supervisors finally decide that it’s time to “manage someone out” of a job.

It may well be that small law firms are caught in the hardest situation. At a firm of 20 or 30 lawyers, a litigation partner can’t easily pluck an incompetent litigation associate out of the partner’s life. A small firm doesn’t have an endless pool of alternate associates, permitting the partner to cast his line repeatedly until he fishes out an associate who meets with his approval. Small firms must either train their new lawyers or cut them loose.

Because small firms have no alternative, perhaps some small firms actually handle associate training and career development intelligently. Those firms may work closely with a new lawyer to maximize the lawyer’s potential and allow the firm to decide, over a period of a relatively few years, whether the lawyer makes the firm’s grade. If so, the lawyer is welcomed into the fold; if not, the firm works diligently to help the lawyer find a new home that makes sense.

But maybe I’m just dreaming, and that environment doesn’t exist. What can I say? Coach me.


Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at inhouse@abovethelaw.com.

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