The drama of the Tour de France and the Summer 2012 Olympics has passed. Peak performance is no longer visible every night on television. What of the lawyer encased within a law office in the 15th year of what may be a 30-year legal career?
In that environment, “peak” can be hard to conceptualize. “Very good,” “experienced” and “skilled” are all in the cards. But routine has a way of dulling us all. Unlike every cyclist in the Tour and every athlete in the Summer Games, few if any lawyers have an expert by their side to coach them to excellence. But should we?
Consider an article Dr. Atul Gawande wrote last fall for The New Yorker. In “Personal Best: Top Athletes and Singers Have Coaches. Should You?” Gawande describes reaching a “plateau” in the operating room. After an unexpected tennis lesson that immediately added velocity to his serve, he noticed that the best performers in the world have coaches. This goes for athletes like Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte and musicians like Itzhak Perlman. These people might be better at what they do than most lawyers are at anything, and yet they still have coaches.
Gawande took the rare step of hiring a surgery coach, a former instructor who he admired and wanted to emulate. His coach scrubbed in and looked over his shoulder, taking notes and breaking down the details of surgeries that he witnessed. Even as good as Gawande already was, his performance as a surgeon improved. Gawande attributes it to the coaching.
Coaches serve as external eyes and ears; they observe and analyze details of a performance that escape the performer’s notice. It happens all the time in music lessons, and every football team in America has committees of coaches for specific positions, for specific skills and even for individual players.
Practicing law is at least as complex as playing a zone defense. But true coaching is probably just as rare in law as it is in medicine. After clinical instruction where some law schools offer practice skills, where does coaching really occur for lawyers?
True coaching differs from attending a seminar or participating in mock trial exercises at the hands of a famous trial lawyer. That’s a one-time event with fake cases. Seminars do not break down or analyze an attorney’s day-to-day performance habits as an ongoing method for improving them.
Having a coach also differs from having a mentor in the way that most firms use mentors. Firm-sponsored programs often impose a mentor from the top down. Those relationships mostly are for the mentee to tag along and observe the mentor or engage in a conversational relationship.
While beneficial, that type of interaction does not lend itself to the delivery of detailed criticism, because the trust is flowing the wrong way. The mentee has not invited criticism from the mentor, as a student musician does when he pays a teacher or coach. A singer can move on from an unsatisfactory vocal coach, but a mentee cannot fire the firm-imposed mentor. Imagine Tiger Woods laboring under a swing coach who could fire him and was chosen by someone else. Coaching like that is not coaching at all.
Receiving edits on a draft is coaching of a sort but not in a full sense. Edits come from all kinds of sources that no one would ever choose as a coach. And different editors contribute their revisions during different cases. Imagine instead if a lawyer could trust a single expert to give consistent feedback concerning her writing over time. Similarly, holding a mock appellate argument is a kind of coaching, but it is not a detailed evaluation of actual arguments over time by someone specifically hired for the task.
Legal coaching only seems prevalent outside the actual law part of the practice. Attorneys can pay a coach to teach them how to make more money. The internet overflows with all manners of coaching for business development, career enhancement and proper Twitter use. But that is like a singer having a marketing coach instead of a vocal coach. Who wants to listen to that?
Hard to Find
So why is one-on-one skills coaching so rare? Here are some educated guesses.
First, good coaches are rare. Few people in a lawyer’s sphere are so skilled and so respected that the attorney would want them looking on critically during trial or oral argument. Candidates might include a trusted law professor, an experienced firm colleague, or maybe a recently retired lawyer or judge. But a bad coach could be more of a detriment than no coach at all. So finding the right fit is a risk and a challenge.
Second, accepting in-depth criticism from someone who really knows what he is talking about hurts. Indeed, the more respected and knowledgeable the coach is, the more the feedback hurts. But change and improvement always hurt. Olympians and middle-of-the-pack runners all develop sore muscles. A top-flight musician who seeks coaching will feel the pain of facing his shortcomings and making the necessary changes to improve.
Maybe lawyers don’t use coaches because we aren’t very coachable. It takes humility to realize the need for improvement and to accept criticism. Humility is not a character trait typically associated with lawyers.
Or maybe lawyers over-value the wrong things. The abundance of coaching on business development might be the market’s way of revealing that the legal profession places more value on boosting earning power than on elevating professional skill — the opera diva with a marketing team but no vocal coach. Ouch.
But the legal profession needs coaches. During almost any appellate argument, no matter how good the lawyers, there is a moment where the advocate does not communicate effectively to the court — very often without realizing it. At any trial, even the best lawyer’s annoying tics and habits will surface. Eventually, the crucial moment comes when the jury and advocate disconnect, often without the lawyer even knowing it. In that moment, a coach would see what the lawyer cannot.
Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin has a coach. So does Ryan Lochte. They are better at swimming than I am at lawyering. Hmm.