Solo/Small Firm

Develop Your Talent

Use coaching as a management style

By Martha M. Newman

Athletics is not the sole domain of professional coaching. Over the past 15-20 years, coaching has morphed into a management style and talent development tool for law firms across Texas that want to help their attorneys and staff excel in performance, manage conflict, and acquire the self-confidence to think creatively about problems and their solutions. Attorneys who use coaching methods to manage their teams are making a business decision that their firm’s success depends on putting time and money into managing people effectively and develop-ing the full potential of their lawyers and staff.

Traditionally, lawyers have used a style of people management characterized by top down decision-making that takes problem-solving out of the hands of associates who are unsure about what to do or how to do it. Senior lawyers dictate solutions without asking for feedback from those they are trying to help. That kind of management is outdated and counter-productive to the professional growth of junior attorneys.

Stop Telling. Start Asking.
Questioning is the essence of coaching. When junior lawyers come to you for help, instead of shooting down their ideas or spoon-feeding answers, ask open-ended questions that stimulate independent thinking, challenge assumptions in a positive way, and work toward collaborative solutions. You engender self-confidence in your lawyers when they know you are open to their ideas and trust their judgment. You make it safe for them to have the wrong answers. They open up to you because they are not afraid you will think less of them for ideas that may be flawed.

When they proffer solutions that you think are unwise or not feasible, instead of saying “No, that won’t work,” or “You are wrong,” consider asking questions such as:

• What result do you want?
• What are your thoughts about how to solve the problem?
• Help me understand your reasoning here.
• Have you considered this alternative?
• Have you thought about what would happen if ____?

By asking questions and giving feed-back instead of providing immediate answers or being judgmental, you are encouraging junior lawyers’ creative thinking and helping their analytical skills mature. Rather than leading or pressuring them to agree with you, let them discover their own answers. Challenge their conclusions by presenting new ideas and hypotheses that cause them to examine the pros and cons of their initial conclusions and reach sound decisions. This collaborative approach to problem-solving fosters self-confidence and moves the junior lawyer from dependence to eventual autonomy.

Hear and Listen.
There is a distinct difference. As Harvard Business Review contributor Ed Batista wrote in his article “How Great Coaches Ask, Listen, and Empathize,” “Hearing is a cognitive process that happens internally—we absorb sound, interpret it, and understand it. But listening is a whole-body process that happens between two people that makes the other person truly feel heard.” According to Batista, that whole body process involves significant eye contact, focused attention, and elimination of distractions.

Prolonged eye contact does not have to be awkward. A sustained gaze enables you to see subtle cues like the speaker’s facial expressions and body language, which—along with tone of voice—convey the emotional part of what a person is saying. You pick up on a person’s stress, anxiety, frustration, and other feelings that are influencing his or her thinking.

The Number 1 Thing Not to Do.
The ability to multitask is often lauded as a valuable skill, but it obstructs listening and insults the speaker. A person with a question or a problem feels unheard and undervalued when you glance down at your smartphone, write a text, take a call, read a message, or answer an email. Eliminating those distractions leads to meaningful conversations. Close your door, silence your email pings, and ask your assistant to hold your calls and prevent drive-by interruptions. Effective listening requires absolute focus on the other person. Not only is it polite, but your complete attention also communicates to the speaker your respect and your genuine interest in what he or she has to say.

Empathy: the Key to Coaching.
Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes and to experience vicariously someone else’s emotions. By empathizing we are not excusing poor performance or expressing agreement; we are simply making the other person feel understood. We demonstrate empathy by paraphrasing what we hear (“So, what you are saying is...”) and reflecting back the emotions evident from the speaker’s words and tone of voice (“I can tell this issue is really frustrating to you.”).

Start Coaching.
Coaching is recognized today as a critical component of law firm management. Firms that prioritize the professional development of their junior attorneys and the retention of high potentials are investing in training their leaders to coach. They know coaching is an indispensable management tool that makes business sense and contributes to the long-term success of their top talent. TBJ

Headshot of Martha M. NewmanMARTHA M. NEWMAN is a former oil and gas litigator and owner of Top Lawyer Coach. She has been awarded the Professional Certified Coach, or PCC, credential by the International Coach Federation in recognition of her coaching excellence. Newman specializes in lawyer coaching and consulting in the areas of law firm management, business development, leadership, time management, presentation skills, career advancement, and job interviewing. For more information, go to

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