Before becoming a lawyer, I had high hopes that practicing law would be like being on a cruise ship. I assumed that everyone shared common values and traits and those would be enough to carry us through the conflict expected in an adversarial system. I imagined that lawyers would get along, especially since we were trained to refer to adversaries in court as “friends.” When our illusory ship would dock, we would all go ashore, provide competent legal advice and representation, and return to the comfort of our staterooms at the end of the day, leaving the stresses and strains of practice behind.
Back to Reality
Whether a person started practicing law a year ago, a decade ago, or longer, the experience has likely been different than my preliminary vision. Unresolved conflict between clients and colleagues on both sides of a file can drain time, energy, and motivation. Lack of balance, empathy, and self-compassion can result in poor time and practice management habits and can increase exposure to personal and professional risk. Doubting one’s ability to be effective and successful can leave you wondering whether satisfaction and happiness are possible in a law career.
This begs the question: Is satisfaction and happiness even possible in a law career? A lawyer would say no. In years of studying lawyers’ personality traits, Dr. Larry Richard has found that lawyers are off the charts on the degree of skepticism. This means that lawyers view at the world in a “glass half full” way, assume the worst in others, and rarely presume positive presuppositions in others behaviour: there is a lower level of trust in others. This advantage in legal practice often gets in the way when fulfilling other aspects of practice – whether it is working with a student, building business relationships, helping to lead change in the firm, or working on committees.
But this is how it has always been…
The traditional model of “lawyering” is becoming less and less effective as society shifts and evolves. Today, waves of change are hurtling on both the inside and outside of our proverbial ship. Ongoing shifts in awareness of and changing social values — including diversity, inclusion, anti-racism, equity, health, and wellbeing — have driven the need to adapt and to develop deeper empathy and compassion for others and for ourselves.
“We are fine. This is the way we do things” is no longer acceptable. Recent surveys of articling students and new lawyers have revealed that many feel that they are starting their legal careers without the confidence and necessary skills needed to be effective and successful. Statistics showing high rates of attrition in the profession, along with lack of retention in private practice, may also be indicators of non-acceptance of the status quo. One survey revealed that 57% of women and 49% of men will have left private practice within 5 years of being called to the bar, and while many move to in-house or government positions, close to 30% will have left the practice of law entirely.
A Perfect Storm for Change
Some would say that a perfect storm for much needed change has rolled in. While there are undoubtedly many issues and challenges, lawyers now have a great opportunity to be better in their practices and careers and to contribute to the betterment of the profession. One of the greatest challenges the legal profession faces is the ability to “save the skepticism” for times when it is needed – in professional practice. Lawyers need to work other parts of the brain – the parts that support others, build trust, and listen to understand another person’s perspective.
Coaching Skills for Lawyers
Is this shift possible? The good news is that lawyers also have another key trait in high levels, the interest in education, ideas and analysis. Lawyers at all levels and in all types of practice can start by developing the “muscles” in the other parts of their brains. The skills needed to build relational competence, douse the impacts of conflict, and strengthen their own and others’ ability to be resilient and manage the stresses and strains of practice. Over the past five years, I have come to know these as non-directive “coaching” skills.
The type of coaching skills that I am referring to is very different from the stereotypical command-and-control style of sports coaching that I grew up with in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Instead of a person using coaching skills (and sometimes a very loud whistle!) to assert their authority based on their knowledge, experience and status, non-directive coaching skills are used in partnership with another person, engaging them in a thought-provoking process where they can generate their own solutions – an approach that many may say are actually well suited to how lawyers think!
Navigating My Own Storm
When I was first introduced to coaching skills as a lawyer turned leader in the provincial justice system, I had been struggling to find ways to effectively support change. My approach of advising and telling others how I thought problems could be solved had the opposite effect of what I had hoped — the harder I pushed, the harder others seemed to push back in the opposite direction. I realized that the knowledge I held as a lawyer and the advocacy skills that had served me well throughout my years in practice could be ineffectual in supporting change and could even escalate tension and conflict, both with others and within myself. Having subject matter expertise, being able to respond or defend quickly, and always having a solution to a problem blocked me from hearing and understanding others’ concerns and challenges. It also diminished the opportunity for others to develop and use their strengths, provide new and innovative approaches or ideas, and be recognized for their contributions.
The more I took a coach approach and used coaching skills in my interactions with those I worked with, including diverse groups of justice-system stakeholders at all levels, the more I listened to others to learn and understand, rather than to respond, defend, or judge. I became more curious and asked better questions that helped to bridge differences and overcome challenges. I also became more self-aware and my empathy and compassion muscles became stronger. I learned that I could create environments where people felt safe to share differing opinions, voice new ideas and concerns, and where people could learn from each other by giving and receiving feedback. I also learned that when I trust in the capability of others and hold them accountable, they will overcome challenges and solve problems in [often better] ways that I had not thought of.
Experiencing the many positive impacts that coaching had on myself and others, I trained as a professional coach and have since worked with a variety of Canadian lawyers. While many want to grow their practices, progress, and manage the competing demands of practice, they also want to be more effective in their interactions with colleagues on both sides of a file, team members, clients, and others. I have yet to have coached a lawyer who did not want to be both a better lawyer and person.
With a perfect storm upon us, it is time for lawyers to come aboard our proverbial ship and equip its passengers with new ways of interacting and the skills and abilities needed to be effective and successful lawyers. It’s time to set sail towards betterment of the profession. Interested in learning more? Contact me, I have some ideas.