Carrie Marker of Dechert.
Courtesy photo.

 

When Carrie Marker started at Dechert four and a half years ago, it was part of a larger talent initiative aimed at making sure the firm is known for a “supportive, high-performance culture.” Marker, whose title is associate development counselor, used her social work background to help craft how her new role should work, placing a heavy emphasis on confidentiality.

She initially set up shop in a glass-windowed office at the end of a central staircase but found her office was often empty. No one wanted to see her there because everyone else could see in. As the firm’s new in-house career coach, responsible for everything from helping new lawyers learn the nuances of partner politics to helping them find a new job, her work could be a bit sensitive.

Now Marker is in a renovated file room away from any partner offices, and business has picked up quite a bit. She estimates she has met with about 50 percent of the firm’s U.S. lawyers and helped about 120 to 150 lawyers leave the firm. Her aim, she says, is to help lawyers make informed decisions about their careers. “I don’t want you running away from this position, I want you running toward a position,” she tells her advisees. “If you want to leave, I will help you.” Dechert is part of a small group of large law firms offering the services of an in-house career coach. The job is different at each of the couple of dozen or so firms that have it, but the services typically range from helping their attorneys figure out how to juggle a new baby and billable hour requirements to how to negotiate a better salary at a new company.

A number of factors, from the millennial generation’s desire for individualized feedback to a growing interest in placing lawyers with clients, make it likely other firms will follow suit, the coaches say.

Internal career coaches date back as much as a decade at some firms and are recent additions in others. At most firms, these coaches were practicing lawyers first before moving into the career coach role, experience they say gives them morecredibility with the attorneys. Coaches typically work under the growing talent development arms of law firms, and some have coaching certificates from the likes of the International Coaching Federation or come to the role with social work experience.

The job often started with a focus on U.S. associates and expanded to include more senior lawyers across any of a firm’s offices. As their roles have matured, career coaches have overcome several initial hurdles, with partners becoming more willing to invest in the positions and attorneys growing more comfortable with using their services.

Jim Moore, who spent the last two years of his 10-year legal career practicing law at O’Melveny & Myers, moved into the role of director of career development at the firm in October 2010. He made it clear he didn’t intend to advertise his services at all, refusing to do formal introductions to offer career coaching.

“Lawyers are paranoid. They would immediately go to ‘Oh, my God, they are firing me,’” Moore jokes. Even for lawyers the firm has identified might not be a good fit, Moore will let them come to him if they choose. “It’s like therapy. You can’t … force people into it.”

But like his counterparts in other firms, he does hold broadly-focused career development programs and is involved in other firm initiatives that give him visibility among the lawyers.

At the outset, Moore says, some partners were concerned as to whether “‘we just hired this professional hugger who is now just there to listen to everyone bitch and moan about how terrible things are.’” But Moore says he quickly dispelled that notion.

While his years of practicing give him a lot of empathy for the lawyers he coaches, he is also “very big on reality checks.” He takes the tough-love approach when necessary, telling lawyers, “Sometimes, it is you.” Moore says he made horrible mistakes as a junior associate. Looking back, he says, he had no “game face” and often looked panic-stricken.

A Generational Divide?

Though none of the coaching programs are aimed at millennials, the focus on associates within most of the programs has shown the benefits of coaching to a generation that often has a different way of thinking about their career trajectory.

Whittney Beard started as a coach at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe in 2010 after finding that her own path—practicing at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy and a stint in-house—ultimately led her out of the profession. Law just wasn’t the right fit, she says, and she brings that understanding to her role as lawyer development manager.

One big challenge for the firm, she says, is finding the best way to be a resource for associates who don’t want to make partner.

“We are really trying to recognize more and more that the one-size model really doesn’t work, and it certainly doesn’t work for millennials,” Beard says. Whether it’s finding a place for these lawyers at the firm or helping them move on, “the rub is creating a space where they can come out and say they want to leave without it feeling like they’ve just stepped off a cliff.”

Beard and others are hesitant to characterize any generation in a broad manner, but she notes that the millennial generation is probably more open to the idea of coaching, having grown up with an idea of personal development that the baby boomer generation doesn’t always share. Beard says she is trained as a coach to work with people to change their perspective on an issue and how they view the world.

“I can’t coach the hours away, [or] the problem partner,” she says. “I can help you shift your view of the issue or [offer] new insights.”

Millennials in particular have shown that they are willing to take chances and move jobs, Beard says. “This is a group of lawyers that isn’t going to stick around and suck it up because their partners did it or they are told to,” she says. But having a resource internally can help put things in perspective and “clear out all the noise”—which often leads to people deciding to stay, Beard adds.

Kevin Agnew, the career link coach at Kirkland & Ellis, says that he thinks the millennial mindset gets lumped into what is really a new economy and new career paths. Agnew coaches lawyers at all levels at the firm, including alumni. Lawyers in general are more open to switching jobs and are increasingly focused on work-life balance.

Internal Coach, External Focus

Norma Cirincione spent the first 30 years of her career at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton working to bring lawyers on board through her work with legal recruiting and personnel. For her fourth decade at the firm, Cirincione has focused more of her time with lawyers outside of the firm, serving as a coach not only to current Cleary associates but to any alumnus who has ever worked at the firm: A lawyer who left Cleary 20 years ago can call up Cirincione and seek advice on a new job. Her official title for the last decade has been director of alumni relations and associate life.

While some coaches stay away from recruitment efforts and headhunters and will send lawyers to an external coach once they decide to leave the firm, Cirincione and others work on resume building and job searches. Cirincione also has cultivated relationships with headhunters to help place current or former Cleary lawyers when necessary.

“When they leave, alumni know they will always be part of our family and part of a network far larger than when they are leaving,” Cirincione says, noting the firm’s alumni directory is 5,200 members strong.

Cirincione serves as a “firmwide clearinghouse” for available positions, providing an individualized approach that, she says, a job board doesn’t offer. “Alumni love to hire alumni because they know the training they have received and the quality and sense of commitment,” Cirincione says.

Much like Cleary Gottlieb’s long-term focus, Kirkland’s talent strategy is reflected in a phrase used within the firm, “colleagues for life,” and Agnew will work with current or former lawyers at the firm in any stage of their career.

Agnew joined the firm three years ago as part of the firm’s global alumni program.”I work with attorneys, alumni and select friends of the firm,” Agnew says. “People come to me for a whole host of reasons, and rarely is it that they have been asked to leave.”

Many in the coaching community described Kirkland’s program as being focused on placing lawyers with the firm’s clients. But Agnew said that isn’t always the case. If a lawyer wants to leave the firm, he takes the cue from them about where they want to go next. While some do go to clients, others go to academia, government or leave the law altogether, Agnew says.

Aside from his services, Kirkland & Ellis offers alumni access to online resources that connect attorneys and alumni or that help lawyers who have left the workforce step back in, for example.

Do’s and Don’ts

The role of a career coach varies substantially from firm to firm. Mayer Brown career development advisor Jennifer Rakstad, for example, will frequently get pulled into the firm’s review process, particularly when a lawyer received a low rating. She may work with practice leaders to find that lawyer a new professional home or improve a skill to help the lawyer stay, sometimes with the assistance of external coaches.

O’Melveny’s Moore, on the other hand, says that he stays away from reviews, bonuses and compensation on the front end. “I don’t want attorneys to think I have any influence in that in any way, because I worry that might change how they talk to me,” Moore says.

Marker and Moore say they will help lawyers with their resumes but hire outside consultants to assist in a move. Cirincione, however, works directly with recruiters and her contacts to help place attorneys elsewhere.

Rakstad says she isn’t comfortable coaching lawyers on public speaking skills, for example, but she does handle value and strengths analyses. When it comes time for outplacement, Rakstad works with legal talent management agencies Volta and Greiner Consulting Group, providing Mayer Brown lawyers six hours each of external coaching.

For Beard, an increasing amount of her work is focused on business development coaching, helping younger associates think of themselves as having a network that could generate business. And she has consistently counseled lawyers on work-life balance issues, with a growing number of male attorneys seeking advice on that subject.

All of the coaches say they refer lawyers to the firms’ employee assistance programs for counseling if it is an issue moving too far into the realm of therapy. And confidentiality only goes so far. If the coach learns of anything illegal or that could get the firm in trouble ethically, they say they will report it.

Despite their differences, the coaches are a close-knit group, holding regular conference calls to discuss best practices.

Why Would a Firm 
Invest?

All of this talk of helping lawyers work through their feelings and career paths might leave some wondering, “What’s in it for the firm?” Return on investment is admittedly hard to measure—although Rakstad’s responsibilities include working with lawyers who are consistently delinquent with getting their time sheets in, for example. Improving lawyers’ skills in that area can directly improve collections.

Using an internal coach could save firms money in some respects. Marker says lawyers may be more inclined to speak with her sooner than they would if an external coach had to be hired. “It doesn’t have to be a long, drawn out, large enough issue that the firm is agreeing to pay a fee,” she says.

A service that sometimes helps lawyers leave the firm can also improve recruiting and retention. Coaching services show that firms are invested in lawyers on a deeper level and care about their success, whether in their current job or somewhere else. And of course, coaching just might serve to help people work through a tough issue and stay at the firm—no small benefit, considering the cost of hiring and training associates.

“It’s a great retention and overall morale tool, because people have said to me so many times, ‘You are the reason I stayed at the firm,’” Rakstad says. Orrick’s Beard says she tells the lawyers she coaches that she isn’t trying to get them to leave or to stay: Her goal is to get them to a place where they aren’t making a decision from anger or frustration but because they’ve decided on what they really want. And often they decide they want to stay. “It’s a retention tool without intentionally being so,” Beard says of coaching.

Mitchell Zuklie, chairman of Orrick, says that associate turnover is a major pain point not just for a law firm, but for clients too. “Clients make a big investment in getting their outside lawyers up to speed, and they want to see consistency on their teams,” Zuklie says. “By providing career coaching, I am certain we’ve helped many of our lawyers see a path to success at Orrick and stay a member of our team.”

Zuklie says the firm supports coaching on a number of levels, with Beard’s work serving as a backstop to the firm’s mentor and sponsorship programs. It also serves as a resource to women and diverse lawyers who may value a safe space to talk, he says. For management, the coaching gives the firm an earlier view into the associates’ support needs, Zuklie says.

“In this highly competitive legal environment, if we can show a lot of support for the people who work here, if they have good things to say … 
it gives them more of a loyalty and love of the firm,” O’Melveny’s Moore says. Coaching can also help maintain ties with the lawyers that Cleary Gottlieb’s Cirincione calls “boomerangs,” who leave and come back to the firm. All of the coaches note they are involved in other programs at the firm, too, often working with diversity and associate committees.

Coaching services also can help market the firm by building goodwill externally. Alumni can be effective ambassadors—even if sometimes the full benefits of the relationship take years to be evident.

“When they first leave us, they might be young and not in a position to refer business to us, but we all get our gray hair, and we all move on,” Cirincione says. “We are also very gracious to people who might go to other firms, because you never know when someone is going to leave another firm and go to a client or become a client, so maintaining that relationship is extremely important.”

For Orrick’s Zuklie, coaching is one of the top responsibilities of law firm management—and that includes career coaching as a key element. “As firms move away from the up or out model, as career options and law firm talent models become more complex, and as agile working becomes more commonplace, I expect this kind of role will make sense for many firms,” Zuklie says.

 

Contact Gina Passarella at gpassarella@alm.com