Imagine you are offered a clear picture of the path to partnership. Included is a list of competencies to achieve along the way. Training, support, mentoring and sponsorship are provided to help get you there. Should you question your commitment to the law or consider going in house, a career coach will support you in making those decisions. Your firm offers on- and off-ramp options and flexible work arrangements should you need time for medical or parental leave. Sound too good to be true? Well, not in these Bay Area firms who have taken a nontraditional approach to attorney professional development.

Reaching Potential at O’Melveny

“In my view, training, mentoring, coaching and career development all come together as part of our talent development function,” says Benjamin Bradshaw, O’Melveny & Myers talent development partner and a self-described “lifer,” having joined the firm in 1998. “I’ve enjoyed a long career here and have benefited immensely from mentors over the years. Senior lawyers took me under their wings. I would characterize their efforts as coaching, in part.”

With a full-time attorney career adviser and a talent development group, the support is there to help lawyers reach their potential. Talent development resources at O’Melveny include evaluations, reviews, mentoring, work coordination, career development advisory services, training and recruiting. “My role is to help coordinate our efforts across these different areas,” adds Bradshaw.

A 2012 research effort looked at the professional development function, including coaching, at Am Law 200 firms. Thirty-two percent of the top 200 firms participated. Of these 63 responding firms, the study found 12 who have at least one full-time, on-site coach, and more than 35 percent of these firms have used professional coaching for seven to 10 years or more.

Whether career or leadership related, coaching brings opportunity for expanding capacity, skill and self-awareness. In talking with many of these law firm coaches, we find that coaching is about growing, stretching yourself and often about navigating change. Coaching is appropriate anytime a person wants to take on something new — learning something new, getting to the next level in your career, becoming better at something or making a change, such as to a new practice area, office or even leaving the practice of law. “I get a lot of ‘test-runs’” says James Moore, O’Melveny’s full-time career adviser. “Here’s what I’m thinking, how would that be received?” O’Melveny has used external coaches for 10 years for a variety of things (behavioral issues, emerging leader coaching or business development). Moore believes that coaching is on the rise. “There is significant demand here. I have seen slightly over 300 associates and counsel since I’ve taken on the role as career development adviser,” he adds. “At a big picture level, we feel strongly that we have a role in helping to create opportunities for our attorneys at all levels to reach their potential and become better lawyers and better professionals,” says Bradshaw. “That’s our mandate. And the firm takes this responsibility seriously.”

Clear Path Ahead at Orrick

Unlike the traditional lockstep structure at many law firms, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe’s innovative talent model allows for new definitions of success in Big Law. Elizabeth McBride, managing associate in Orrick’s intellectual property practice, has taken advantage of many of the firm’s programs as her life has become more complex professionally and personally. “Coaching has been an invaluable resource for me to map out where I want to be and create a plan for how I’m going to get there,” says McBride. She took advantage of parental leave yet says she was able to advance along with her peers because she was proactive and received coaching to help with the transition back to work. “I needed help to figure out how to ask for the work I wanted and also needed in order to advance,” says McBride. In addition to colleagues, practice group leaders and professional development support, McBride worked with Orrick’s career coach to find ways of building important relationships in the firm, including with mentors and sponsors.

“At Orrick, you’ll find amazing partners and senior associates who will teach you to be a top lawyer. But it’s harder to find someone to help you think about your internal brand and how to project that to others in your firm. Coaching has a strong role to play in helping us learn how to be good managers and how to relate well with colleagues. The truth is, those elements are just as important in being successful in a big firm as being able to write an amazing brief,” she adds. Attorneys at Orrick contribute a self-assessment during performance reviews. “Reviews are often a launching pad to set goals,” says Whittney Fruin, West Coast career coach at Orrick. The firm also employs Patricia Zeigler as its East Coast career coach. Zeigler splits her time between career coaching and practicing as an of counsel in the antitrust practice.

On-site Coach Role Growing

While not having specific coach training, O’Melveny’s Moore has background as a trained college counselor and brings 10 years’ experience as a practicing attorney who knows the firm and has developed a reputation as a trusted adviser. “I appreciated Jim’s counsel when I needed to carefully inquire about transferring to our D.C. office,” says Matthew Cohen, third-year associate at O’Melveny. “I tend to gather opinions to see a variety of viewpoints,” he says. A coach who is not your practice group leader can be neutral and provide insight not found elsewhere in the firm. Moore offered ideas for how to set up the transfer appropriately, including some ideas that Cohen hadn’t thought of. “It went beyond the transfer to how to deal with various aspects of completely relocating your life which I hadn’t really thought enough about.”

Some attorneys are skeptical about coaching. Building a reputation of trust and having practiced law are helpful. But a true coaching relationship is one of equals where there is no agenda on the part of the coach. “Jim has always been able to gain that trust. It’s just who he is naturally,” adds Cohen.

Lauri Damrell, senior associate in the employment litigation group at Orrick, first experienced coaching when she read the book, Positive Coaching, to help when she was a rowing coach for a high school team. “I learned that getting folks to do something with a carrot works better than a stick, where you can stress the positive. Our career coach works in a similar way,” she adds. When asked to share some examples, Damrell offered that a coach can help you get across the finish line. “Our jobs are hard. When you get back a ‘bleeding redlined brief’ sometimes it’s good to have someone in your court to remind you of your big goals and keep you on track to get there,” she adds.

At Orrick, attorneys seek out coaching when they are looking for some direction and not just when facing career-related change. The firm has delineated clear benchmarks and a well-developed talent model. The firm considers its career coaches a distinguishing element of the approach to associate development. “A managing associate [i.e. midlevel] who is starting to take on more responsibility at this stage in their career may benefit from coaching to get support in juggling it all,” says Fruin. “It no longer works to be a really good ‘doer’ of it all. At this stage, they need to manage, lead others and be responsible for their timelines,” she adds. This is a great time for coaching and learning upward management and delegation skills. Coaching helps you share responsibility, learn how to trust your team, give up control and allow others to do their best, while still maintaining ownership of your own work product. “I work with associates on communication skills and asking for what they want, and making others aware of their goals,” says Fruin.

Most big law firms provide business development staff and often require that attorneys put together a business plan. “I love the business development side of my job,” adds Damrell. “But I needed to be more strategic about it. Having an accountability partner in my coach helped me actually get it done.” The 2012 coaching study revealed that 90 percent of participating firms use coaching for business development. Sixty-one percent employ coaching for leadership development. Other areas included career, professional development training combined with coaching, conflict resolution and integration of laterals.

Is Coaching Like Therapy?

Many on-site coaches indicated that sensitive, personal information comes up. “Sometimes you talk about personal things that cause you anxiety or stress, but career coaching is much more pragmatic and solution oriented,” adds McBride.

Coaching is future and goal oriented. Attorneys expressed that there is an element of introspection and sometimes having the good ear of a coach might feel like therapy because of the quality of the listening. A good coach will ask powerful questions and help you reach insight about your situation. “I think in our culture there is a stigma that anything perceived as therapy is a sign of failure, or that you’re falling behind,” said one midlevel associate. “I don’t share that perspective at all. I’m very ambitious, but I also understand there is a lot I need to learn about myself and how to grow in my firm.”

“Lawyers are tough when they are doing their jobs. They can be great at what they do and fight hard for their clients. But when it comes to difficult conversations with co-workers, they can be pussycats,” says Orrick’s Fruin. Fruin practiced law, taught at a law school, then went on to train as a coach. She is now certified by the International Coaching Federation with more 2,000 hours of attorney coaching. She was brought into Orrick two years ago.

A trained coach listens to a client in a particular way, and from the perspective of what the client says they want. “It’s a powerful experience that attorneys don’t get elsewhere in their lives,” says Fruin. “Imagine having a direct conversation about what you want most, what might get in the way, what you’re going to do to get that out of the way. It can recharge you, get you excited and recommitted to what you want to do,” she adds.

Let’s face it. There are very real pressures on lawyers in big law firms today and that’s not changing anytime soon. You must be really good, really efficient and be the one clients choose when there are many options in the market. All those pressures make the perfect recipe for receiving coaching. If you have to perform at that level, chances are that on your own you may come up with some good strategies. But with the support of someone who has your back, knows what you want, and is willing to hold you accountable is a real bonus and more likely to help you be successful.

“You only have something to lose by not going. You are a fool to think you can get through a professional career without a sounding board,” says Orrick’s Damrell. “Everyone needs a little push once in a while,” she adds.

Nancy Manzo is a coach and law firm consultant with over 20 years of experience helping lawyers and law firm leaders create positive change, whether in business development, technology adoption, or organizational change. Her firm offers group workshops and executive coaching. More info at www.manzocoaching.com.