News & Insight
December 2006

Executive Coaching for Law Firms

Because of the very nature of the practice of law and the culture of many law firms, there are many potential benefits from executive coaching for these organizations.

The Issues

In general terms, law firms are made up of intelligent, ambitious, and talented people trained in the legal profession to effectively and successfully represent clients while making a profit. Frequently the demands of being a successful attorney lead to the development of an assertive, independent personality, often complementing a healthy ego and driving ambition.

While these traits often serve lawyers well, especially those involved in litigation, they may lead to conflicts and challenges to relationships within the firm, with other lawyers (partners and associates) and with the firm’s staff. This is not to suggest attorneys are not good, well-intentioned people. But, it is inevitable that these interpersonal conflicts and disruptive relations will interfere with the quality of work, productivity, morale, and eventually adversely impact the entire culture of the firm. Once created, this culture is difficult to cure, and may become entrenched and the firm suffers. More often than not, this dysfunctional culture is passed on from lawyer to lawyer and becomes the way things are, the way they have always been.

Few law firms place the appropriate value on the firm’s most important asset - the firm’s human capital. It doesn’t have to be this way.

When one advises and counsels others about their conflicts, need for growth, or interpersonal issues, they are usually able do it from an objective and detached point of view. However, when one seeks to counsel themselves, they rarely have the ability to deal with their own conflicts and need for development and change with that same detachment. Instead, they tell themselves stories, rationalize, and defend what they do and what they have done. As a consequence, few issues are truly resolved.

Most lawyers are highly skilled in their abilities to counsel and advise their clients and manage their cases and lawsuits. But how about when they have to deal with the following significant issues within their own firm?

  • Effective leadership and firm governance
  • Firm vision and mission, firm and individual goals, and strategic plan
  • Associate satisfaction/dissatisfaction, retention and partnership spin-offs
  • Developing and sustaining healthy and open communication and empathic listening
  • Office politics, dissension, power struggles, infighting, and

Building trust, accountability, commitment, and work teams.

These are some of the issues which, if not addressed seriously and with consistency, can cause law firms severe harm, ruin careers, and may cause firms to fail. So, how can these issues be effectively addressed?

It has been my experience that lawyers sometimes forget they are also people - people with sensitivity, families, secret insecurities and weaknesses, and the need to be recognized, validated, valued, and appreciated. It is important to remember that we all share these qualities and many more with those we work with.

A Solution

Like many senior level executives, lawyers often feel some degree of isolation within their jobs. As their level of leadership and responsibility increases, this isolation often increases. These professionals sometimes wonder, “who if anyone, can I talk to about this?” The executive coach provides a forum for the open discussion of the issues that are impeding the individual’s, and thereby the firm’s, progress and development.

The potential is that with effective leadership, vision, direction, and with attorneys working within a culture of open communication, trust, respect, and personal accountability, the firm’s success will grow, as will its bottom line. Less time, energy, and therefore money will be wasted on dealing with conflict, politics, and lack of trust. The situation can improve.

Like other intelligent, self-reflective people, attorneys are often aware of their personal weaknesses. However, few are willing to discuss these issues with others for fear that they may be judged or misjudged. However, once a trust relationship is built with the coach, these issues can be openly discussed, developed, and improved within a positive, creative climate.

People at all career levels of a law firm can benefit from coaching. Coaching enables and encourages the individual to learn for themselves through self-assessment, consideration of issues and imagination, by considering what has been done before and discovering alternative ways of thinking about things, people, and processes that are not working, that need to be repaired, or need to be abandoned.

Coaching is a one-on-one confidential process of discussion that takes place over a period of time. It provides the coachee an opportunity to learn more about themselves and how they view others, improve motivation, develop effective, honest, comfortable communication skills, and actually begin to listen to people without interrupting. The individual being coached can develop a new appreciation for the thoughts and views of others, including the partners, associates, and clients. This new behavior may startle and surprise some at first, but over time genuine trust and respect will follow and the firm’s culture will begin to shift to a better place.


When one becomes committed to the coaching process, open to feedback, willing to look inward, embrace change, and acknowledge a need for change in their own behavior, coaching can take them where they want to be. But it will take time to transition old habits into new more constructive behaviors. As Mark Twain once said:

"Habit is habit and not to be flung out of the window by
any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time"

For those who persist, the result can be life changing. They can become a more effective and aware leader, more thoughtful in the manner in which they view themselves and how they consider others, and in the end, more successful in the practice of law. The bottom line is a more profitable firm that will move forward and endure.

Robert Dunn is a member of WJM Associates’ executive coaching and organizational development faculty. Robert focuses on coaching within law firms. He has spent more than 25 years in the active practice of law within firms of varied sizes, and cultures. He is admitted to the practice of law in New York, Illinois, Michigan, and Colorado.

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