Taking the Lead: Coaching for Solo and Small Firm Leaders

In Taking the Lead, Law Practice Editorial Board member Karen MacKay together with guest authors, tackle the ins and outs of running a law firm, providing expert guidance that every managing partner can use.

Leading a small law firm can be a very lonely job. Similarly, striving to grow a solo practice into a small firm can be quite daunting. Leaders of some of the world’s most -sophisticated large firms work with coaches to hone their practice management, business development and leadership skills—and to get external unbiased insights into personal and professional styles. It might be a good strategy for smaller firms, too.


So what are the principles of effective coaching? And what should you expect from the relationship?

Karen MacKay

by Karen MacKay, MBA, CHIC

  • It’s a process of change and action. Coaching goes far beyond just having a nice conversation on a regular basis. The right coach can help you develop your potential and provide an informed sounding board so you can discuss your fears, challenges and ideas confidentially. Coaching involves skilled questioning and creating the space for you to articulate clearly what you want to achieve and for you to map out the steps to get there. If you aren’t prepared to change, don’t waste the coach’s time, your time or your money.

  • Working together with a coach is a partnership of equals. You have the resources to map out what you need to change, and your coach should have the expertise to help you get there. Provided that your coach has the proper skill, intuition and insights into the legal industry, you can combine both perspectives into a powerful plan of action. Unlike other forms of professional development or training, however, you set the agenda and the pace. You will be tempted to want your coach to tell you what to do, but the process won’t work unless you make the decisions and take the needed actions.

    The coach’s role is to help develop your resourcefulness and your independence so that you have the skills, knowledge and tools to adjust as you move forward on your own. According to Sandra Dawe, managing partner of Shibley Righton LLP, “There is no shortage of people in a law firm who want to talk about issues—especially contentious issues. But each one of them will have a particular bias and position. A good coach, however, is only interested in exploring all of the options and getting the managing partner to the decision that best fits the firm.”

  • Be prepared for heavy lifting. Take advantage of the opportunity to raise your self-awareness—to better understand your personality, your management behaviors in both good times and under pressure, and your values as a professional and a leader. To get the most from the coaching relationship, show up for each meeting prepared. Complete the activities, readings or exercises that the coach suggests. If your coach suggests that you try some new techniques with members of your team—do those, too. After each of the activities, take notes of what worked, what didn’t and what you would do differently next time.

  • Finding the right coach. You will want a coach who understands your business, so find one who has experience in the legal profession. You are looking for someone with insights and credibility as well as someone who understands the pressures, challenges and dynamics of a law practice. There are well-respected accreditation programs that can make recommendations based on industry expertise, professional background and geographic location. Seek out former managing partners or firm leaders and check bios on their Web sites and via social networking sites. But most important, get personal recommendations.

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Meet your prospective coach face-to-face before you make a final decision on hiring. Take the time to get to know each other. Many coaches rely heavily on the telephone, and no question that phone calls will be convenient for both of you. However, if the coach won't take the time for a good in-person initial meeting to get to know you, find someone else.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2011 edition of Law Practice magazine, a publication of the American Bar Association. Copyright © Phoenix Legal