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Has Coaching’s Time Come for Central European Law Firms?

Has Coaching’s Time Come for Central European Law Firms?

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Although in most respects the law firm business in Central Europe is on par with other sophisticated practices in the rest of the world, coaching is one thing that has not been as widely adopted as elsewhere. This article addresses the questions of what coaching is, what it offers lawyers and law firms, and whether it should be more widely embraced by the legal profession in Central Europe.

Dentons is a dramatic exception to the rule as it has, during the last several years, developed its own internal team of professionally trained and accredited coaches, coming from both its lawyer and support staff ranks, with each of its Central European locations having at least two of such coaches in residence, according to Warsaw-based Patryk Zamorski, Dentons’ Europe Director of Talent Development. Dentons also maintains a standing panel of external coaches.

Another firm that puts a high emphasis on coaching is Schoenherr which views coaching as playing a critical role in their lawyers’ development, according to HR head Sabine Binder-Krieglstein. Coaching opportunities are made available to lawyers as they progress in rank utilizing Schoenherr’s external coaching panel.

What is coaching? How does it differ from mentoring and other forms of trainings that are recognized as important by and are quite common in the Central European legal community?

“Coaching is a one-on-one bespoke process in which a coach acts as a confidential and neutral thought partner to effect behavioral change,” according to Lane Vanderslice, a principal with Volta Talent Strategies, a U.S.-based coaching group that focuses on lawyers.

How is coaching different than mentoring, a process with which most lawyers are familiar? To contrast the difference between mentoring and coaching in very simple terms, experts say mentoring can be thought of as a mentor showing a mentee how to “do it my way” whereas in coaching a coach will seek to help a coachee “do it your way.”  In mentoring, the theory presumes that, if a mentor has been successful in the applicable environment, then by following the mentor’s footsteps the mentee should be successful, as well. In contrast, “coaching presumes the coachee has the ability to reach the same (or better) result on her or his own with the coach’s role being to facilitate the thought process needed to productively deal with any internal/external roadblocks and to achieve the coachee’s defined goals,” notes Strauss of Vilnius-based Trinitas Coaching.

“Many lawyers in the region may not yet understand coaching,” notes Marta Niedzialek, an accredited coach who heads marketing and business development at DLA Piper Warsaw. “Unlike, say, therapy, coaching is all about the here, now, and future – things we can influence.”

Coaching advocates point to the established science of learning as well as common sense which hold that permanent behavioral change is much more likely to come about when we decide what to do ourselves versus being told or taught what to do, the latter approaches forming the foundation of existing law firm mentoring and other training programs.

That being said, is there really any need to introduce anything new and/or different into the mix of tools used to maximize the performance of Central European law firms and lawyers? At the very least, such a change would come with additional cost and diversion of resources at a time of growing business uncertainty and budgetary pressures from things like technological upgrades. What’s missing? Why change?

For some firms and lawyers, the answer may well be that nothing is missing and there is no reason to change. However, observing that lawyers can be a bit “set in their ways,” Strauss, believes further reflection would show the issue deserves very close examination by the Central European legal community.

Being historically based on an “apprenticeship” model, the practice of law should be the ultimate “one-on-one” experience in which law firm lawyers receive considerable individual attention and encouragement in their professional growth and personal happiness.

That’s the legacy notion, for sure. In the “here, now, and future,” though, we all can see that the mobility of lawyers in the region, as elsewhere in the world, has greatly increased. There is also widespread recognition that younger lawyers, in particular, have different expectations about their careers and life than preceding generations. Retaining the best talent is increasingly difficult and, in response, many law firms have stepped-up formal mentoring, training programs, and other “benefits” (including money) to help address that challenge.

Despite the best of intentions, the nature of today’s law business will preclude the complete success of such programs in some, and probably most, cases. Tugging against the clear advantages of true teaming and more inclusive and welcoming firm cultures, the underlying reality of the importance of hours recorded and fees collected affects the amount of time and effort any colleague can devote to the development of another. Some may very well thrive on their own in such an environment. Others may not. The fact of the matter is that everyone a lawyer interacts with in even the most enlightened law practices will have an agenda of their own, notes Andrea Yang, an internal coach with Mayer Brown. She adds that a coach, in contrast, “is all about the coachee’s agenda” and responds to the universal human desire to be “individually listened to and understood.”

“A sweet spot for lawyer coaching is at any transition point in a lawyer’s career,” says Vanderslice, “such as promotions in associate ranks, becoming Partner or appointment to a leadership position such as a practice leader, achievements that recognize past accomplishments but also demand new or higher-level skills and behaviors, such as business development and managerial responsibilities.”  Niedzialek notes that “investing in coaching is not just for the more senior lawyer ranks,” as coaching can result in a junior lawyer gaining “grounded self-confidence” when directly interacting with clients and lawyers on the other side of the table.  Binder-Krieglstein adds coaching can help develop the entire “package” of skills and behaviors that make for an excellent lawyer. “Just understanding the nuances of productively working in a law firm environment can present a challenge for newer entrants that may be facilitated with coaching,” notes Damir Topic of Zagreb-based DTB. “Coaching can really pull everything in a lawyer’s professional and personal life together,” observes Yang, “enhancing the effectiveness of a firm’s mentoring and other learning programs.”

For senior lawyers, transitioning out of leadership and/or practice roles and on to other life phases is a very common subject for coaching according to coaching practitioners.  They add that coaching can also be a powerful intervention in the more dramatic situations of direct personal conflict among lawyers and/or their firms.

Tatiana Krumova and Tatyana Hristova, of the Sofia-based coaching firm WeCoach.Team Ltd., note that the experience of actually engaging in the coaching process, which involves the use of “powerful” and “open-ended” questions, can expand the way lawyers think, helping them better interpret client needs and deliver creative solutions, matters that directly affect the bottom line, and also helps them deal with the softer but equally real issues of work-life balance and trying to also find personal meaning in work rather than just “playing roles,” i.e., meeting the expectations of others by trying to be someone else – pressures they find particularly acute in international operations.

Coaching is not a substitute for mentoring and other learning programs, heathy cultures, and good management practices. While coaching is an important and critical tool, it should be thought of as “complementary” to all the other things lawyers and law firms need to do to achieve their best results, according to Yang.

There are many coaching models, philosophies/approaches and techniques a coach may deploy in individual situations. No matter what, all coaching contemplates the identification of a problem and/or goal to be achieved, thinking through how to get there and how to deal with obstacles, doing it, and evaluating the successful (or unsuccessful) results, notes Strauss, a process he feels that lawyers should identify and feel comfortable with as it very much emulates day-to-day lawyering. Although time periods are situation-specific, coaching engagements geared for lawyers generally run from two to six months with coaching sessions occurring bi-weekly, monthly, or even quarterly.

Successful coaching engagements require a relationship of confidence and trust between a coach and coachee, even when coaches are internal or in situations where a law firm is acting as a program sponsor of an external coach. For sure, tensions can arise when the goals of a lawyer and her or his firm do not seem to align; but coaching can enable a coachee to explore apparent differences and find mutually beneficial outcomes. In other words, coaching helps with lawyer retention and promotes goodwill among those who move on, observes Yang. Reflecting these realities, and the importance Dentons attaches to its coaching program in Central Europe, the external panel of Dentons’ coaches have all been interviewed and approved by Warsaw-based European CEO Tomasz Dabrowski.

Do coaches have to be experienced in the actual practice of law to successfully coach lawyers? The response of Vanderslice, who had a prior career as a “big law” partner before turning to coaching: “Although it is not absolutely critical, a coach that is a lawyer is certainly in a position to rapidly sync with a coachee’s thought processes and lived reality without any learning time. But even more important than that, though, a coach must be a person that is a good, non-judgmental listener who can focus on putting the coachee first.” Yang adds that being a lawyer certainly adds to a coach’s “credibility,” an important factor in many lawyer coaching situations. Schoenherr has generally found it helpful to have coaches who, if not lawyers, are at least very familiar with the industry, but will occasionally turn to coaches with different backgrounds for added perspectives when warranted, says Binder-Krieglstein.

Few Central European firms will be in a position to develop the sort of internal coaching capacity as has Dentons and will thus need to look for external resources. So, where do you start? The process is not dissimilar to that engaged in by clients when they select lawyers.  There is widespread agreement that there is nothing better than going with someone you know or with an informed referral from a trusted source.

What if you don’t know any coaches and/or are unable to secure a referral in which you have confidence? As coaching is a self-regulated industry, new users should start with potential coaches that have individual accreditations recognized by one of the major trade groups, i.e., the Association of Coaching, the European Mentoring and Coaching Council, and the International Coaching Federation, each of which have established ethical codes for their members that parallel in many respects the ethical codes observed by lawyers (confidentiality, no conflicts of interest, etc.). The publicly available membership lists of those associations are also good places to start when looking for a coach.

Again paralleling the counsel selection process, experience and fit are critical coach selection factors, although the “fit” part is probably even more important in coaching than in lawyering. You should expect an initial “chemistry session” just to make sure the crucial personal connection is there, observes Niedzialek.  It is not customary to be charged for that first session.

You should also expect coaching to begin with a “contracting” phase during which an engagement letter-type agreement will be signed among all participants (coach, coachee, and the sponsoring firm) that will articulate the initial expectations of the coaching mandate, including specific objectives which may well be modified or otherwise evolve during the course of the coaching.

Pricing is an important topic to be covered in the contracting phase. Like pricing for legal services, there is a great amount of variation depending on the experience of the coach, the seniority of the coachee, and the specific geographic location of the participants within Central Europe. However, Zamorski says that you can expect a regional pricing range of between EUR 200 and EUR 500 per coaching session, which typically last around an hour, with the coach’s session preparation time being included in the rate.

So, has the time come for a more wide-spread adoption of a coaching culture in the Central European legal community? “Law firms should simply note the wide-spread and successful use of coaching among their clients, particularly the international ones, and ask themselves why their own businesses would not also benefit from the practice,” says Suesal Arieli, whose UK-based coaching firm has worked with ABInBev, BlackRock, EY, Cummins and many others. Firms like Dentons and Schoenherr already seem to have taken this point to heart and are running with it. The rest of the regional community should at least consider whether the practice could also help them maintain their momentum towards excellence in both the profession and business of the law as well as the conduct of their lives.

Ron Given has been both an external and internal counsel, living, practicing law, and managing and growing law practices throughout the world, including Central Europe. From Chicago he currently sits on various boards, consults, and engages in executive coaching. Given can be reached on LinkedIn or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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