If your firm aspires to break out of the pack, consider investing in a career coach (maybe two or three)—preferably someone down the hall who's available to give lawyers direction whenever there's a need.
Coaching is becoming ubiquitous. According to a 2012 survey by Manzo Coaching & Consulting, 98 percent of respondents (63 Am Law 200 firm) use coaches—either outside or internal ones. The survey finds that 90 percent of firms use coaching for business development, followed by leadership development (61 percent), training (49 percent), and conflict management (24 percent).
Though coaching is not new (35 percent of the responding firms say they've used coaches for seven to 10 years), the latest twist is that firms are grooming their own. "Many are former associates—usually a lawyer with four to seven years of experience—who first moved to a professional development director role, then the role of coach," says Nancy Manzo, the study's author. Among the firms with full-time coaches are Arnold & Porter; Mayer Brown, O'Melveny & Myers; Orrick; Perkins Coie; Venable; Wilson Sonsini; Womble Caryle. Virtually all lawyer-turned-coaches, says Manzo, also get professional training from organizations like the Hudson Institute of Santa Barbara.
Firms are investing in full-time, on-site coaches for a range of reasons—to stem attrition, help lawyers who have been on leave return to practice, or develop high-potential partner candidates, among others. Manzo says it's a logical extension of talent management: "Firms are investing a ton of money in recruiting, and now they're trying to find ways to care for and keep the people they'd like to stay."
There's also the reality that law firm structures are changing, and lawyers need help to navigate their options. "Associates usually ask, 'What is my path here?' They are concerned that the partnership is not growing," says Dina Glassman, Perkins Coie's in-house coach.
Coaching takes a variety of forms, says Manzo: It can be group coaching, in which participants share a similar goal (like learning about business development), or it can be individualized (either for a short-term problem—like tension with a boss—or long-term, to help an associate decide whether to go for partnership).
Former lawyers make effective coaches because they know the ropes and bring empathy to the table. (All the career coaches interviewed stressed that they keep strict confidences.) "It's important to have experience in Big Law and internal knowledge because law firms are odd," explains Glassman, about firm culture.
Lawyer-coaches also know how lawyers think. "Coaching can be a hard sell to lawyers, but I think it helps that I'm a lawyer," says Whittney Fruin, Orrick's West coast career coach (the firm also has an East Coast career coach, plus a writing coach). "We are trained to hold a lot of facts in our brain, be logical, and linear." A former associate at Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy's Los Angeles office, Fruin says lawyers expect a straightforward approach: "If you come in wearing yoga pants and talk about vibrations, that won't work. They want to talk about what's meaningful in a job, and why I'm billing 2,000 hours."
Inevitably, though, emotions do spill into the coaching session. "Touchy-feely stuff comes up, and I have a box of Kleenex in my office," says Mayer Brown coach Jennifer Rakstad, a former litigator at the firm. She says her group sessions can get quite emotional. Rakstad adds, though, that coaching is not therapy: "Coaching is very goal-oriented, which is not the same as therapy."
For now, there's little data about how firms' retention rates or billings are affected by an on-site coach, says Manzo, because it's still a new phenomenon. But she says firms should consider more than the bottom line: "There are lots of people who are passionate that we shouldn't measure it. Part of running a healthy business is to make sure people are developed and happy."
Law firms investing in personal development and happiness? That would be sweet.