Coaching in the corporate world is now well established and here is an article printed in the The Law Society Gazette.

Coaching is becoming hugely popular with city corporates firms in particular as a means of motivating partners and staff. Grania Langdon-Down finds out whether it is worth the money.

A few years ago, the idea of having a personal coach would have raised eyebrows among lawyers hardwired to be sceptical. Today, it has moved out of the shadows, with the top 100 law firms spending an estimated £4.5 million on coaching annually.

“In the old days, people thought that if you had a coach you clearly were remedial and you didn’t tell anybody. Nowadays, you probably look a bit deficient if you haven’t got one,’ says Guy Beringer, senior partner of magic circle firm Allen & Overy, summing up coaching’s transition from oddball to a key element in law firms’ training programmes

‘About five years ago, I would have been sceptical of the value of coaching. Now I am extremely enthusiastic, and I can think of virtually no areas of activity where people cannot at the very least be improved by it and a number where their performance can be transformed”.

Allen & Overy now offers coaching through the whole career life cycle of its lawyers. While some coaching is done in a group, other programmes are targeted at individual needs – including a new pre and post-maternity programme, with 12 already signed up. And its attraction is not limited to the UK: 19 of last year’s batch of 33 new partners, spread across its global network, have signed up for coaching

But, with coaching now so much in vogue, how do you ensure that, if you take on external coaches in an unregulated market, you are getting value for money?

Robin Johnson, of OvationXL, which offers law firms business performance coaching, stresses the importance of checking qualifications and references. ‘Life coaching has got a bad name because people are taking advantage of the interest in it to set up without qualifications.’

For Herbert Smith, the development of coaching is the first time it has bought in external expertise, with coaching now accounting for about 8-10% of the top-ten City firm’s non-legal training budget.

John Lucy, head of human resources, says choosing the right coaches is ‘absolutely critical. We spend a lot of time and energy selecting the coaches we think will be a cultural fit to our organisation’.

The firm offers a range of different coaching opportunities. Partners undergo a 360-degree appraisal every three years, which includes their input and that of their superiors, peers and subordinates. External coaches give them the results and will work through any issues. Coaches help senior partners work through new responsibilities, as well as helping those on the partner track, while the firm is also piloting pre and post-sabbatical and maternity coaching programmes.

So, what does coaching involve? ‘It is a time to sit back and reflect,’ says Mr Lucy. ‘To use legal language, coaching should be non-judgmental and non-prejudicial.’

One model is based on neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), which works on the premise that people are programmed from birth by language. Solicitor Caroline Newman, chairwoman of the Law Society’s equality and diversity committee, did part of her NLP training in Florida. ‘If you have always been called stupid or clumsy, you are likely to have low self-esteem as an adult. NLP allows you to go back and re-programme yourself.

Ms Newman trained at a top City firm before setting up her own practice as a business affairs lawyer. She now runs Divine Coaching and Divine Training, styling herself a ‘success coach because life coach sounds too touchy-feely’. She is passionate about the need for firms to do more to retain their minority and women lawyers after her experience of spending her first six months as a trainee ‘scared as hell’ affected her whole legal career – and she points out that many clients now expect to see firms’ diversity profiles.

Criminal law solicitor Antonia Okwu is nearing completion of her training as a life coach, inspired by her own experience of turning to a coach three years ago. Feeling depressed, she wished for a ‘guardian angel. I knew there were things I wanted to do but I couldn’t see where I was going’.

Her coach motivated her to get her higher rights of audience, something she had talked about for years. ‘It is as though I had a second lease of life. I’m hitting my targets and being a lot more effective. I love being a lawyer and want to do more Crown Court advocacy. But I also want to combine it with life coaching other lawyers because I think the two complement each other.’

Certainly her boss Greg Powell, managing partner of London firm Powell Spencer & Partners, has noticed the difference. ‘She has become far more focused on managing her work-life balance, managing her big cases and being a better delegator, having learnt to lift up her eyes from the minutiae.’
When it comes to the cost of coaching, the amount can vary ‘astronomically’, according to Mr Johnson. For an individual, it can be anything from £1,000 to £20,000 depending on how much the coach charges per hour and the amount of sessions, he says. He commissioned the survey of heads of training and development at the top law firms, which found that 70% failed to measure whether they received any financial return on their investment. Mr Johnson says: ‘Unmeasured coaching can create a “Bermuda Triangle” of misunderstandings between the sponsor, the candidate and the coach, with the result of the coaching vanishing without trace.’

He argues that it is too subjective just to measure ‘fluffy’ benefits such as better communication, and that outcomes should be focused on interactions among a team or impact on the firm, such as repeat or increased business.

Mr Lucy says Herbert Smith relies on an element of self-policing. ‘Partners are discerning. If they felt they weren’t getting value for money, they would say “Enough”. We look at whether there has been behavioural change. If the person is happier, more motivated and making better decisions, that provides value for money.’

Julian Tutty, head of performance, learning and development at Allen & Overy, says: ‘We are trying to build a triangular relationship around coaching. In the past, an individual would contract with a coach and they would go off in a huddle. We are now trying to bring in their lead and sponsoring partner, so that we can define more clearly the objectives of the programme, although what is discussed clearly remains confidential.’

Meena Heath, who trained as a solicitor at City firm Slaughter and May, set up her business development consultancy Genesis Coordination in 1998, training as a life coach three years ago.

‘People tend to come to me with a sense that things are not right, that they are not in control of their life. I help them figure out what they want to do – coaching is not about giving advice.’

But is coaching worth the money? ‘How expensive is expensive?’ she responds. ‘It is not expensive when compared with hourly rates charged by lawyers.’ She charges about £500 for an hour-and-a-half session and has never had to take a client beyond three sessions.
‘These are highly intelligent, capable people who get it very quickly. Firms have no hesitation in spending £20,000 to review their business development strategy, so they are not going to worry about £1,500 for individual help. Over the past ten years, firms have recognised that their staff are their greatest asset and that they need to keep them happy and productive.’

As one Herbert Smith partner puts it: ‘I see no reason why I won’t use a coach for the rest of my career.’