Individual coaching can enhance the performance of a law firm and its top performers; however, the cost of providing it to every attorney in a law firm is prohibitive. Yet, coaching improves individual career development, accelerates culture change, improves organizational effectiveness and enhances personal productivity. Additionally, it is a benefit to law firms that are looking for non-monetary benefits to provide to their associates and to associates, who in these turbulent times, should be looking to develop and maintain a competitive edge.

A paper in the Academy of Management Learning & Education supports these assertions and suggests peer coaching as a cost-effective means of attaining these benefits. Peer coaching, through the creation of an internal coaching culture, is a cost-effective means of spreading the advantage of coaching from one individual to the entire organization. When coaching becomes part of the firm culture it becomes a competitive advantage. According to Sarah Boehle in the May 2007 edition of trainingmag.com, it is rapidly becoming recognized as an "essential tool" for employee retention, productivity and positive morale.

What is a coaching culture and what are the benefits?

A coaching culture is a set of shared behaviors where people help each other to develop the legal, business and relationship skills that drive the success and productivity of a lawyer. Creating a coaching culture is a business initiative to improve associate recruiting, development and retention. The additional outcomes include creating lawyers who are skilled in adapting to changing circumstances, able to build stronger relationships with colleagues and clients and competent at strategic communication.

According to the 2007 MIT Sloan Management Review , instilling a coaching culture led to improved productivity and performance in a multinational manufacturer. There is reason to believe that law firms, like multinational manufacturers, also will improve productivity by instilling a coaching culture. Coaching helps people learn how to adapt to a changing business landscape. Client demands change and lawyers and law firms are expected to quickly adapt. The U.S. Army calls the environment "VUCA": volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Peer-to-peer coaching is a cost-effective means to help attorneys learn the adaptation skills that will help them effectively respond to the challenges of living in a VUCA world.

Peer-to-Peer Coaching and Mentoring Relationships

Executive or traditional coaching was the subject of my article, "Coaching to Improve Lawyers and Law Firm Performance," published in the Jan. 9 edition of The Legal . In a nutshell, traditional coaching is a one-on-one relationship between a skilled professional coach and a high-potential performer on the leadership track. It is intended to enhance the performance and leadership skills of such a person. It is a costly, yet wise, investment.

Mentoring is also a one-on-one relationship intended to improve the skills and opportunities of a less experienced person. The mentor is a more experienced colleague, who supports a less experienced colleague through specific assignments, feedback and sponsorship. Mentors generally have no specific training in coaching techniques.

Peer-to-peer coaching is also a one-on-one relationship; however, it is between two people who are at the same or similar levels within the law firm. The intention of the relationship is to mutually and similarly benefit the peers, unlike traditional coaching or mentoring, where the primary benefit is intended for the less experienced person. By working together to make sense of particular problems, gaps in knowledge or needed skill development, each person learns about his or her strengths and weaknesses and those of the other. Together the pair learns how to change weaknesses into strengths and use opportunities for development. This benefits the individuals and the law firm.

Finally, communities of practice are coaching groups, which are led by a more experienced person, and also offer the opportunity to learn from one’s peers. The leader suggests topics and the group explores performance gaps and how to close them. Communities of practice are also means to increase social networks, another valuable asset for a law firm. Social networks are the informal and often most influential means of communication, knowledge flow and influence in any organization.

The remainder of this article focuses on the unique contribution of peer-to-peer coaching to lawyer and law firm performance, the process of peer-to-peer coaching and how to develop this asset in your law firm.

The Unique Contribution of Peer-to-Peer Coaching

Peer-to-peer coaching provides a means by which associates can achieve their job objectives in their various roles as task-focused lawyers, members of a practice group or team and sources of business development for the law firm. It also provides associates with the critical emotional and psychological support necessary for career success. The focus of this type of coaching relationship is to understand oneself, others, events and patterns and to become proactive in pursuing one’s own professional goals, career agenda and needed skills to adapt in a VUCA world.

How Does Peer-to-Peer Coaching Work?

Peer-to-peer coaching begins with choice. People choose the partnerships that they believe will be mutually beneficial and helpful to each person in the way she or he needs. This means there must be an opportunity to learn about each other’s skills, experience, goals and styles of learning and, with informed choice, form complementary coaching relationships.

Next, peers learn basic coaching skills, such as empathetic listening, providing emotional support, strategic communication (including delivering feedback and challenging underlying assumptions, beliefs and mental models), building motivation to change behavior and goal exploration and setting. These are foundational skills, which enhance a lawyer’s ability to coach, negotiate and give good counsel to clients. Thus, training in coaching skills is also training to become a better lawyer.

The coaching relationship is built on trust, mutual respect, professionalism and mutual accommodation of each other’s needs, wants, and learning styles. These are key elements, which enable each person to reflect on behaviors and examine his or her underlying assumptions, values, beliefs and mental models, which may be obstacles to or drivers of one’s desired career goals.

Typical topics for coaching are: examining a specific task, problem or decision; planning and managing one’s career; developing leadership skills; looking at job challenges; determining how to influence others; and learning how to adapt to ambiguity, uncertainty or volatility. If a law firm connects peer-to-peer coaching with existing developmental programs like leadership development, business development or any aspect of the firm’s business strategy, the use of peer-to-peer coaching becomes aligned with its business imperatives and enhances the likelihood of their success. Thus, coaching is a key means by which law firms enhance their effectiveness and competitive position while developing individual and valuable skills for the lawyer.

Embedding Peer-to-Peer Coaching Culture

Designing and creating a coaching culture is a business initiative, usually accomplished with the help of a consultant. As mentioned above, it is best when paired with some aspect of the firm’s growth strategy, so that associates see a connection between their goals relating to their professional growth and the business strategy of the law firm. There are two basic sets of skills that need to become embedded in the law firm culture, such that they are eventually passed from lawyer to lawyer, rather than from consultant to lawyer. These are the skills needed to create effective coaching dyads and those used in coaching itself.

The best way to introduce coaching into the law firm culture is to train people to coach through the experience of being professionally coached (in group training sessions or one-on-one sessions) and simultaneously coaching others. Eventually, the process of peer-to-peer coaching will include training others to coach as well. This cascading effect also embeds coaching into the law firm culture, securing it as an asset and competitive advantage of the law firm.

A typical coaching initiative might begin with the consultant designing a training program for a small group of attorneys, who receive skill development training on coaching while they coach each other on any topics that support their own professional development. These "peers" must be brought together on a regular basis for a period of time, usually six months to a year for training and practice. The consultant is able to "coach" these participants in the development of their own coaching skills and styles. Participants are chosen because they see the personal value for their own career development, are prepared to set aside the necessary time for coaching and are genuinely interested in coaching as an approach to attaining personal and organizational excellence. When peer-to-peer coaching becomes embedded in the culture of the law firm, it has the potential to transform the business and create a leadership pipeline. There is the potential for a tremendous return on the investment of time and money spent to create a coaching culture. •

Susan Letterman White is a strategy consultant and lawyer who finds solutions to the complex problems that law firms, law departments and lawyers face when they design and implement business strategies. She practiced law for 20 years and was the managing partner of a law firm before pursing a Master of Science degree in organization development from American University. She can be reached at susanlettermanwhite@gmail.com or 610-331-2539.