Coaches Teach What Law Schools Don't

Reprinted from:

Published 5/07

Law school does not teach lawyers how to effectively interact with clients; law school does not teach lawyers how to efficiently manage their practices; law school does not teach lawyers how to become good rainmakers or make money. CLE programs generally do not offer or approve programs in these skills. Lawyers learn them, if at all, from the "School of Hard Knocks."

In conversations that I've had with educators, their view of law as a profession means that any such programs about effective client relations or practice management are trade-oriented and therefore inappropriate for law schools. Is it any wonder that many bar associations don't require law practice management programs as part of the MCLE requirements? The attitude at the very start of our training is too often perpetuated throughout a lawyer's lifetime. As Cameron Stracher, publisher of the New York Law School Law Review, wrote in The Wall Street Journal earlier this year, law school students are "reading about the law rather than engaging in it," with the result that "when they graduate, young lawyers rarely know how to interview clients, advocate for their positions, negotiate a settlement or perform any number of other tasks that lawyers do every day."

Real-World Experience

A professional coach who has real-world experience in "The Business of Law®" can be the most realistic lifeline for lawyers with practice management problems. I am typically able to help my clients increase their incomes by five or six figures through practical coaching. I am aware of one coach who, for a firm's $24,000 investment in business development coaching for 20 partners, helped them increase revenue by $1 million in one year - a 2000% ROI.

Coaches work with people in real life, discussing and exploring roadblocks as they are encountered and working to remove them. A coach provides both accountability and support. The right coach brings certain advantages: experience as a lawyer in practice management issues that lawyers face, the independence to hold the lawyer accountable for addressing these issues, the time focus on solutions and a willingness to be candid.

The coaching experience is an active process - a partnership, not an event. The foundation is trust, as the coach learns what the client "really wants" and works in partnership to achieve it. Coaches provide the discipline for lawyers to answer a crucial question: "Am I committed to my own success?" A number of clients with whom I've worked over the years have seen their level of success (measured by revenue) increase. The extra work and effort this requires reflects the saying posed to me by my mother many years ago: "Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it!" Be sure that "success" is what you want - that you are willing to do what is required to reach the level of success you envision and are prepared to accept this success. It will come - you just have to want it and be willing to commit yourself to the coaching process to get it.

Problem Resolution

I believe that many lawyers who fear success would benefit from working with a coach who can discuss and explore problems and provide a resource to resolve them. Consider these examples from my own coaching experience:

  • A young family law sole practitioner was trying to do a good job for his clients while at the same time trying to attract more business, making for 16-hour days that left him exhausted. I suggested that he first focus his efforts with a strategic plan that defined his revenue and net income goals and the types of clients and matters that would support them. Second, I advised hiring an assistant who could handle administrative chores and allow the lawyer to do the work only he could do - serving existing clients and marketing to new ones. The outcome was that he soon had a choice: Continue working long hours and earn substantially more or reduce the hours worked and earn at least the same. Ultimately, he worked fewer hours and earned more.

  • A prospective client approached an intellectual property lawyer with the possibility of work if the lawyer would discount her hourly fee. I advised her that discussing discounts immediately after quoting her fee would show that she did not truly value her own services. If a discount was worthwhile, I suggested that she offer it only if the client was willing to guarantee a set number of hours each month - and pay for six months of work in advance. In other words, the quid pro quo for a discount would be a guarantee with payment up front, an arrangement that is fair to both sides in the engagement.

  • A solo practitioner had built a successful practice in just three years, but felt that it was growing so rapidly that she needed to add an associate to keep up. Together we assessed her practice. We found that the practice's revenues were growing rapidly, but were still below the level that could support a full-time associate. I advised the lawyer to focus her community activities where she would interact with businesspeople who would be potential sources of more profitable new business or referrals. This increased focus actually enhanced both the contributions she made to the charities of her choice and provided more time to do the legal work herself, increasing both revenue and profit. Later, with more work, she would be in a position to hire an associate.

  • An attorney told me he was stressed because he had so much business that he was worried about inadvertently failing to do something essential for a client. We discussed his procedures for dealing with open files and I recommended that he use a project management system I developed for him that would keep track of the details. In just a week, the attorney reported that the system worked so well that he had his best night's sleep in months.

  • A lawyer had achieved a large settlement for a client and had even reduced his fee, but his client failed to appreciate the value of the service and threatened to withhold payment. I suggested that the lawyer prepare a letter summarizing what he had accomplished and concluding that the settlement proceeds were available once the client authorized both distribution to the client (accepting the settlement) and payment of the lawyer's fee - in writing. This win-win approach ultimately helped the attorney earn an additional $85,000.

Other coaches could have given similarly effective advice - just as I suspect a law school professor would have had little to offer. There's always plenty to learn in and from the "School of Hard Knocks." Many lawyers who fear that success requires too much of them can quell their fears with help from a coach, who can show them how to leverage their own wisdom and unique abilities to succeed beyond what they ever thought possible.

Commitment to Success

For a number of clients with whom I've worked over the years, commitment to success is the critical issue. Working with me as a coach, their level of success increased, but we made sure that it did so in concrete, achievable measurements. Expressing "success" in relative terms such as "more revenue" or "better marketing" sets a subjective standard that is difficult to discuss, let alone achieve.

The point of my examples is not that coaches have all the answers. Rather, it is that they provide an on-going sounding board for your problems, questions, and ideas. Coaching provides instant support and feedback through regular meetings that often can be conducted by phone. I believe you must look at coaching through the eyes of "investment" … investment in yourself. You should engage a coach from the point you decide you want to be successful. A coach can help achieve that success more quickly than you would on your own, by applying proven lessons rather than academic theories. The effective coach operates in and understands the real world and helps lawyers do greater things than they might ever have imagined when they walked off the graduation stage with their J.D. degrees in hand.

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