Executive Coaching Drives Future Leadership Success

Executive coaching has finally made contact with Big Law, big time. Until recently, law firms did not hire executive coaches like their corporate counterparts did. Now, law firms are hiring executive coaches for their lawyers and highly-valued associate. This paradigm shift has happened because research now proves there is a return on investment realized by organizations that invest in professionally developing human capital – both in terms retaining talent and driving leadership skills for success.

Professor Hitendra Wadhwa, Professor of Practice at Columbia Business School and Founder of the ground-breaking Institute for Personal Leadership, has stated: “As a professional, the mastery of our discipline gets us only so far.  We can be the greatest accountant, consultant or lawyer in the world, in terms of our financial, business or legal acumen, but if we do not know how to get along with people, how to turn around moments of conflict, how to collaborate with colleagues and partners, how to influence people and organizations, and how to get people to trust us, we will be nowhere close to our full potentials.”

Since Professional Development is tasked with the very important job of supporting a firm’s lawyers throughout their career life span, they are in the perfect position to spearhead the executive coaching process. However, this new landscape has created a wealth of different perspectives about what executive coaching should be and the qualifications that an excellent coach should have. This article will address those points as they relate to hiring executive coaches for lawyers.


As my former teacher at Columbia University Teachers College, Professor Peter Cairo, had stated, executive coaching can be defined as “action coaching, [which is] a process that fosters self-awareness and that results in the motivation to change, as well as the guidance needed if change is to take place in ways that meet organizational needs.”

A good executive coach can be enormously helpful to a lawyer’s career. That coach can help a lawyer see him/herself more clearly and learn how to play to his/her unique strengths to achieve both personal and firm goals. A coach can improve a lawyer’s efficacy on multiple levels, including drilling down to how he/she can best maximize his/her value and contribute to a firm’s success. Specifically, executive coaching tends to focus on interpersonal skills: communicating more effectively with supervisors, colleagues, direct reports, clients, and prospects, as well as providing the knowledge and skills to effectively manage a team or department. Executive coaches who specialize in business development are a breed apart because they combine skills-based learning – e.g., teaching consultative or relationship selling skills – with behavioral coaching. The desired outcome here is for a lawyer to learn to behave and act like a rainmaker.  An executive coach can enable a lawyer who is highly valued by the firm to obtain the leadership competencies and qualities necessary for advancement and success within the firm.


The following outlines some important points law firm professionals can address with a prospective executive coach:

Chemistry – Executive coaching requires good two-way communication built on a foundation of trust and respect, particularly since a lawyer will be sharing his/her career concerns, frustrations and objectives.  Although chemistry is sometimes elusive, the first meeting between the executive coach and lawyer will often determine if they will be able to work well with each other. A good question to ask an executive coach is to ask the executive coach about his/her “personal coaching model” – which, in essence, describes an executive coach’s style and approach. That information will lend insight into whether the executive coaching and lawyer will be a good match for each other.

Process – An executive coach should be able to articulate his/her process. A clear process refers to the various steps the executive coach will take throughout the engagement. Those steps include the following: delineating the nature and scope of the engagement; meeting with the lawyer who is being coached to discuss with him/her what is likely to occur over the next number of months; collecting data via interviews and other methods from various stakeholders and from the lawyer him/herself; creating a developmental action plan and identifying real opportunities for the lawyer to practice new behaviors; and evaluating results of the executive coaching engagement to see if it was successful in meeting the firm’s objectives.  It is essential that the process be focused on learning tangible skills and behaviors and incorporating them back into the lawyer’s work life.

Assessments and Feedback – It is only human nature to have blind spots, so assessments are an important part of the process.  Self-assessments are important because they can help a lawyer better understand him/herself as it relates to his/her preferred communication style and approach, interpersonal needs and stress triggers. In addition, feedback from the lawyer’s colleagues is also essential because they can clearly point to the lawyer’s perceived strengths, weaknesses and areas needing development. This information can be gathered through a complex 360-degree feedback or brief interviews with stakeholders.

Confidentiality – Executive coaches should be very clear with the firm what can, and cannot, be shared with them. Oftentimes, lawyers will “hold back” and not fully benefit from executive coaching because of fears related to privacy if they feel their meetings with the executive coach are not confidential.

Past Experience and Credibility – Executive coaches should be able to describe how they have specifically helped other lawyers improve their leadership, management, and business operational skills in the past.  You can ask the coach about particular examples of his/her successes with other lawyers they have coached.

Training – Executive coaches should have some formal training from a well-established executive coaching training institution. They should also have experience in the business world and understand how organizations (and in this case, law firms) run.

Industry Experience – An executive coach within a particular industry (in this case, legal) should already have experience in the industry and not be climbing the learning curve on a law firm’s dollar.  Many executive coaches say they are comfortable working in any industry; this may be so, but lawyers are a group unto themselves. They may not be as open to working with an executive coach who does not know the proper lingo or understand how a law firm functions and the pressures that lawyers face.

Characteristics – An executive coach should be an excellent listener, self-aware, polished, and professional. He/she should be able to articulate why he/she went into the field of executive coaching and what his/her own value proposition is.


In summary, the corporate concept of executive coaching is being migrated over to the legal profession.  While many lawyers make partner by virtue of their technical skills, a law firm is a business organization that depends upon the skills of their leaders. Executive coaches can help turn lawyers into leaders. Effective use of executive coaching can help Professional Development departments create value for their law firms by improving retention, cohesion, and profitability.

By Sheryl Odentz, Founder and President, of Progress in Work.  This article was published in the July 2016 issue of LJN’s Law Firm Partnership and Benefits Report, which is an ALM Publication.  For more information, Sheryl can be reached at 212-532-6670 or sodentz@progressinwork.com.