Coaching

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!

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Bullies

Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy

We’re going to talk about a$$holes today, class. Specifically, we’re going to talk about the way in which our society exalts certain bullies — the successful ones, I guess you’d say. If you’re laboring under a mountain of garbage work at a big law firm right now, you’ve probably run into a few of these. They’re your bosses. Because, if there’s any rule more reliable than gravity, it’s that the legal profession is thick with barely-functioning sociopathic goons who are sadistic to a degree rarely seen on Animal Planet. These a$$holes are lauded for their rainmaking potential and their ability to camouflage any recognizably human trait hidden deep within themselves. They are terrible and they probably run your life. So it goes.

But another class of individuals not far removed from the Biglaw freak show are those coaches (especially football) who are recognized as geniuses. Those successful coaches who look across the human landscape and only see so much raw material. So many interactions that must be scripted and manipulated in order to win some g-danged ball games. Genius has never been so depressingly common. But it’s from this class of individual that we build great hoary temples of cliche. Management principles, warfare strategies, motivational seminars, successories, visualization and actualization. This mountain of detritus is sustained by a steady stream of manure emanating from our nation’s greatest a$$holes. This, of course, is not meant to tar all coaches with this brush. Many coaches manage to retain some shred of their humanity while navigating the make-believe combat of their chosen sport. These coaches are usually losers, of course. But still. They exist.

Mike Gundy is not one of these exceptions. Mike Gundy is an a$$hole.

Let’s talk a$$holes…

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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….

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In the world of sports, the figure of coach has taken on near-mythological status. Some coaches — such as the late Joe Paterno, before his fall from grace — are treated like gods, due to their legendary leadership and inspiration abilities.

What about in the world of Biglaw? Well, it’s catching on there too. An increasing number of law firms are making career coaches, including on-site coaches, available to their attorneys.

What’s behind this trend? And is it one worth celebrating? We share some survey results, as well as comments from a former associate who worked with a career coach….

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Small Firms, Big Lawyers, one of Above the Law’s new columns for small-firm lawyers.

Funny story: One day during my third year of law school, I overslept and missed an important session of my Sales class. The problem is, when I tried to get the notes for the class, the only one who had … pardon me? Yes, Sales. No, not UCC Sales. “Sales.” As in “How to Market and Sell Your Legal Services.” … So, anyway, the only one who had the notes … what’s that? You didn’t? Seriously? So how were you supposed to learn how to sell your services as a lawyer?

Turns out my story, which was going to be hysterical, was also completely fabricated. Like you, I didn’t learn a damned thing about sales in law school. But at the time (the early nineties), that seemed OK. It’s a profession, you see. Sales is for commerce. Lawyers aren’t in commerce; we’re in a vocation.

Yeah, right.

As the practice of law careens away from its eighteenth-century traditions, where clients just find you, lawyers today (and especially small-firm lawyers) need to rely on sales skills to bring in business. Since we didn’t learn these in law school, we have to rely on our natural sales ability. Unfortunately, lawyers tend not to have any.

In fact, as a group, we suck at sales. But the reason we suck will probably surprise you.…

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