Creating a Coaching Culture

Law firms face a new legal landscape comprising a myriad of interconnected internal and external challenges. How they respond to those challenges will inevitably mean the difference between success and failure. Internally, low levels of well-being and resilience, coupled with elevated anxiety, depression, substance abuse and burnout, appear to be accepted as the stresses inherent in the practice of law, and the occupational hazards of what has been described as the “unhappiest job in America.”

Low levels of psychological health are compounded by the sweeping structural changes that have been facing the legal profession since the global financial crisis in 2008, including shrinking margins, the outsourcing of legal services, disruptive technologies, discounted prices, shifting demographics, global mergers, and the collapse of a number of large law firms. Turbulence is becoming part of the everyday experience in legal practice, causing greater demands to “do more, to a higher quality with less.”

We live in an age of unprecedented complexity, uncertainty and change. Law firms stand at a new frontier, one typified by increased volatility and ambiguity. Law firm strategy, culture and learning need to keep pace with the context and environment in which they operate. Lawyers must be willing to adapt and remain agile to respond effectively and more creatively to this ever-changing context. In Darwinian terms this equates to survival of the fittest.

Coaching, with its focus on ongoing self-directed learning and personal growth, enables individuals to harness their potential and respond to this challenge. This article provides an overview of the benefits of coaching, and outlines the key elements of creating a coaching culture—a culture that is characterized by high levels of engagement, motivation, performance, and well-being—a culture that prepares lawyers for the legal market as it will be, rather than how it once was.

What is Coaching?

Coaching is a collaborative, solution-focused, results-oriented, systematic process in which the coach facilitates the enhancement of performance, goal attainment and the functioning of other individuals. Over the last two decades, the use of coaching as a means of enhancing performance and development in organizations has increased substantially. In addition to individual one-on-one coaching, successful organizations are using group coaching, peer coaching, internal coaching and leader-as-coach programs. A more recent development has seen the introduction of systemic team coaching, stakeholder coaching and the creation of coaching cultures.

Effectiveness of Coaching

This increased interest and use of coaching has, in part, resulted from growing evidence supporting its effectiveness. Research on coaching has found the following benefits:

  • Increased goal striving, commitment and attainment
  • Enhanced performance, productivity and environmental mastery
  • Solution-focused thinking, creativity and innovation
  • Enhanced hope, optimism, resilience and self-efficacy
  • Increased well-being, mental toughness, cognitive hardiness and flexibility
  • Reduction of workplace stress, anxiety, depression, burnout and turnover
  • A greater ability to deal with change and transition
  • Improvements in transformational leadership

What is a Coaching Culture?

According to Professor Peter Hawkins, “A coaching culture exists in an organization when a coaching approach is not only a key aspect of how the leaders, managers and staff engage and develop all their people and engage their stakeholders, in ways that create increased individual, team and organizational performance and shared value for all stakeholders.”


A Coaching Strategy

Critical to the development of a coaching culture is the development of a co-created, dynamic coaching strategy that supports change, builds leadership capacity, aligns with and supports the broader mission, vision and strategies of the law firm, whilst simultaneously supporting the goals and aspirations of the individual lawyers. The coaching strategy needs to be constantly evolving as new learning, key business drivers, and stakeholder challenges emerge. It also needs to be supported by an appropriate coaching infrastructure that comprises: a strong sponsorship/steering group; a management group to drive, integrate and co-ordinate the various coaching activities; and a community of practice committed to ongoing learning and development.


What Are the Key Components in Creating a Coaching Culture?

The structure and design of a law firm’s coaching culture will ultimately be determined by a consideration of where coaching can add most value. It needs to be developed and refined as part of an emergent, adaptive and iterative process. While not without challenges, when done well, the success of coaching is exponentially multiplied. In other words, the whole is much more that the sum of its parts.


1. External Coaching

Developing a pool of quality external coaches is an essential component of developing a coaching culture. While there are, necessarily, many desired coaching competencies, critical competencies include a deep understanding of: 1) the theories, methodologies and techniques fundamental to coaching; 2) the psychology and adult learning principals that underpin behavior change; and 3) business, organizational behavior, and the dynamics of working with groups, teams and systems.

2. Internal Coaching

Increasingly, organizations are developing communities of internal coaches. These are typically either full time internal coaches or line managers who coach those in different parts of the organization on a part time basis. Once selected and trained, internal coaches need to receive supervision and ongoing professional development. In any successful coaching culture there is a need for both internal and external coaches, particularly where there are concerns regarding trust and confidentiality.

3. Leadership Support

Senior leadership support, commitment and encouragement are critical to the success of a coaching culture. This includes leaders using a coaching style in their own leadership as a way of engaging with all staff and stakeholders. This ensures that they not only get optimal performance from those they lead, but are responsive to the needs and challenges of all their key stakeholders.

4. Team Coaching and Organizational Learning

Research suggests that coaching is a key aspect of high-performing teams. While quality conversations and generative dialogue are at the core of the coaching endeavor, coaching a team also requires a deep understanding of the dynamics of complex systems. Further, putting in place processes that harvest the learning from all of the law firm’s coaching conversations allow coaching to become a part of the cycle of ongoing learning, development and emergent strategy.

5. Embedded in HR and Performance Management Processes

Coaching needs to be aligned with, and integrated into a law firm’s HR and performance management processes. Developing coaching capabilities and enabling the growth and success of others become critical KPIs.

6. Dominant Style of Management

Coaching is now recognized as an essential element of any management or leadership role. Indeed, developing the capacity to work with and through others is a core competency. Coaching helps focus learning on the day-to-day challenges of legal practice, in the context of law firm imperatives and the capabilities needed for success.

7. How We Do Business with All Our Stakeholders

Finally, law firms need to adopt a coaching approach to the way they do business with their various stakeholders, including clients, business partners, suppliers and the communities in which they operate. Differentiators will include how they relate to, engage with, and address stakeholder’s current and future needs. This requires an approach that works from “outside in” and “future back.” In a law firm context, this requires us to:


Well-being and the Coaching Ripple Effect

Law firms have traditionally been skeptical of interventions to support well-being, not least because of its perceived focus on happiness at the expense of performance and productivity. However, given the significant correlations between individual well-being and business outcomes, the pursuit of well-being should not be seen as a zero-sum game.

An increasing body of research links coaching to improvements in well-being, irrespective of the primary focus of the coaching. The underlying mechanisms supporting these improvements stem from a variety of sources, not least the nature of the coaching relationship, which either explicitly or implicitly uses a number of theories from the field of Positive Psychology – the science of well-being, flourishing and optimal performance itself.

A recent study by Dr. Sean O’Connor and Dr. Michael Cavanagh at the University of Sydney examined the systemic impact of one-on-on leadership coaching on the broader organization. They found that coaching has a positive impact on the wellbeing of organizational members, beyond those coached directly, though the “coaching ripple effect”.


Coaching is both a mindset and a set of behaviors that inspire and challenge others to grow and develop. Co-creating a robust and evolving coaching strategy has the potential to drive entire law firms towards peak performance. A sustainable coaching culture, supported by high quality coaching, is critical to law firm agility, innovation and transformation. There is little doubt that the legal service industry is experiencing, and will continue to experience, unprecedented, radical and fundamental change. Coaching, and its commitment to continuous learning and development, holds the inherent opportunity for the legal profession to reinvent itself, and to shape an emerging future – a future in which lawyers, law firms, and the clients and communities they serve, have the capacity to not only survive, but to thrive.

About the Author

Angela Wright is an attorney and is the founder and CEO of Beyond Black Letter, a specialist advisory firm providing strategic consulting, coaching and professional development to the legal profession.

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