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"know thyself" is the cure, the answer, the process, the goal, the result


Whisper Sweet Somethings: An Interview with Neil Olson, Lawyers’ Coach

I have harped incessantly on the need for lawyers to step up their strategic game. Most of the advice I have given centers on external observations: What is the market doing? where are the next great opportunities? How can I revolutionize my practice to create synergies within my practice group, my firm, my client base?

Ratchet it up . . .

But to really bring the game up to world-class, a lawyer needs to think who s/he can bring on to the team. A vital part of that team is a professional coach, and one that intimately knows the challenges and opportunities presented by the practice of law. There is a fairly new and growing cadre of lawyers-turned-coaches.

Saving you five hours’ worth of research . . .

I thought I would save you the research time in finding out what this coaching thing is all about. I asked the premier lawyers’ coach in my hometown of San Francisco to submit to questions I thought you might ask, and ask them as bluntly as I possibly could.

Below is a quick question-and-answer session with world-class lawyers’ coach, Neil Olson. Neil is a lawyer, a former law firm partner and a trained counselor and professional coach. (Scroll down to see more of Neil’s credentials.)

Neil, what are the three most important reasons that (first) a rising associate (and second) a partner needs a lawyer coach?

“The education, training and skills that lawyers have in common create a particular way of approaching, analyzing and solving problems. When groups of lawyers get together in business they tend to be highly competitive, highly independent and fiercely analytical not simply in their approach to solving their client’s problems but in their approach to solving their own. Modern law firms, however, are large organizations engaged in the business of law – not simply the practice of it.

“For both associates and partners, the value of a lawyer-coach – one who has ‘been there, done that’ – is having a mentor that is not competing with them for business, money or advancement. Having an experienced and committed confidant to sort through issues such as business development, management, leadership, and career satisfaction is the heart of why most lawyers who turn to coaching will want their coach to have practiced law.”

Okay, what's the point of having a coach who claims an expertise in coaching lawyer's problems? For that matter, are their really problems particular to lawyers that other business professionals don't have?

“The general problems lawyers face such as advancement, career fulfillment, in-office interpersonal relationships, effective management and leadership and life/work balance are challenges faced by a great many professionals today.

“The specific nature and the solutions to those problems often lie at the heart of the special education and training that lawyers share as well as the business model used by most law firms – the exchange of services valued by an hourly rate or fee.

“Lawyers are also challenged by the high ethical obligations they have to their clients, to the bar, to the courts and to the public. If a coach does not ‘get’ that, it will be especially challenging for him or her to provide effective coaching.”

Alright, what is this coaching thing all about anyway? Lawyers are so socially conservative as a group (I don't mean politically, of course)--and they get only more so with "age" in the industry.

Thus, if I talk with you as a coach, are we going to be doing funky guided meditations? Group hugs? Or is this something that a hard-boiled professional can get his/her arms around? We are NOT going to be talking about our childhoods, right?

“No ‘kumbaya’ – I promise.

“I come from the point of view that the lawyer-as-professional is typically highly functioning. Less common is the well functioning lawyer-as-business professional and less common still is the satisfied lawyer. It is the creation of a sense of balance between the professional services a lawyer provides and the business the lawyer is in – in the context of what the individual lawyer wants out of his or her life – that creates the biggest impact on the lawyer and the lawyers firm.

“So here is what we do – we take stock of where the lawyer is, we evaluate what needs to be done, we set metrics to determine how we will know if things are moving in the right direction, we create an action plan and we get to work! The coach provides support, inspiration, honest feedback, accountability and, in my case because I have been a practicing lawyer I provide insight on whether the actions are likely to yield the results desired in the context of the real life demands of the business of law.”

In that vein, what do you see as the major challenges facing first, partners, and second, associates, in living up to their potential as practitioners/rainmakers?

“In my experience the challenge is the same for both the associate and the partner – it is the desire to generate business purely by the quality of their services. It is, of course, absolutely critical that the lawyer produce excellent work product – and if he or she is in a narrow and highly specialized practice area that alone might indeed bring in sufficient business.
But that is the rare exception.

“For the most part professional service providers get business because of the relationships they have with the people who can give them business. For the new associate this means treating the partners in the firm as a highly valued client. As the associate rises through the ranks he or she must also then add the current clients of the firm to their list of highly values clients – and as he or she approaches partnership consideration he or she must have developed strong relationships with people in the industry he or she wishes to practice. It is the regular, consistent, and disciplined attention to relationships that, over time, brings in business.

“And you still need to produce high quality work product.”

So why should I have my candidates contact you? What makes someone a great coach?

“First: Why contact me? If you are looking to make your career more satisfying, call me. I work with successful lawyers who have become a bit un-tethered from the satisfaction and (dare I say) fun of practicing law. I use a business-centered approach in that the work I do focuses first on the business of the lawyer, then on the profession of the lawyer and then on the life of the lawyer. And I say this emphasizing that it is the same for the lawyer working in a law firm, as part of a general counsel’s staff, in government or practicing as a solo.

“And, Second: What makes a great coach? Personally, I think great coaches are mature, experienced, grounded, self aware and have the capacity to consistently see the best in their clients. Most of all, like any processional service, the judgment of the quality of the coaching lies in the experience of the client. Like a dentist or a doctor or a lawyer for that matter, it is how the clients feels about the coaching that makes the coaching worthwhile or the coach ‘great’.

“And by the way, if your Coach does not have a Coach --- that should tell you something about his or her commitment to coaching as a professional service.”

As a practical matter, is a telephone relationship with a coach really effective? I know that many people in the business world are used to this model, but I don't think my candidates get it yet--convince them.

“I hold that once the relationship with the client is established, phone coaching can work. I discourage it as a regular habit though simply because so much more is communicated face-to-face. I meet with my clients twice a month for 90 minutes and I much prefer it face to face. I can meet at my office in the Financial District or I can go to their office. One caveat is the need to be generally undistracted by phone calls, email and the like for the 90 minutes.

“Of course, lawyers are busy professionals and sometimes their schedules are unpredictable and effected by the actions of others (like Judges, clients, opposing counsel and so forth). I find that using the phone for occasional meetings works just fine and is often the easiest way to reschedule appointments.”

What if I as a potential coach candidate really do have some problems (performance issues, personality deficit (wink), maybe some other inappropriate behaviors)? Can you handle this?

“I am not a psychologist or mental health professional. I do not provide mental or emotional therapy. I work with healthy and successful attorneys. I would refer those issues to a licensed professional.

“As for behavioral issues – I have been hired to help lawyers become more organized, to manage their time better, to develop more positive relationships with other lawyers and/or staff. Those issues can manifest themselves as short tempers in the office or a lack of interest in practicing law or even the spending of too much time at the office—often without an increase in work product or billable hours. I still hold that the first focus of my coaching is on the business of the lawyer and in that context an assessment of what the behavior is costing him or her and his or her law firm.

“I would also add here that every lawyer I know has an important reason of why they chose to practice law. Some aspect of the practice was interesting, or compelling or fun. That reason can become lost or obscured by the sheer demands of the profession or as a result of the business realities of being in a law firm – but the original reason is still there. Reconnecting the individual to that source of satisfaction is my passion and forms my greatest successes.”

To sum up, what is your operating philosophy towards success and professional development in the legal market? How do I know you and I would have a similar idea about what constitutes a "healthy", "successful" career?

And a corollary question: if you don't really have a fixed opinion about the same, what's the point of coaching? Is this really going to consist only of open-ended questions, sage nodding and warm handshakes?

“Perhaps I responded to this already --- my operating philosophy is that every lawyer I know has worked very, very hard to become an attorney. For each there was a core reason for doing so. I work to help uncover that reason and to place it in the context of the lawyers business, their profession and in their lives.

“As for the warm handshake – my coaching is “time-bounded”. I offer four separate modules. (“The Lawyer in Business”, “The Lawyer as Manager”, “The Lawyer as Rainmaker”, “The Lawyer as Leader”) Each module is six months long. Each module is stand alone and when you are done you are done. You’ll get a binder of information, an action plan, a certificate and you’re off. Before a client begins any module they must first complete a Personal and Professional Accounting and Assessment process which usually takes one month to complete. That includes a full day meeting with me.

“I also have two additional programs which are a bit more advanced and go a bit deeper – the first is “The Lawyer as Satisfied Professional”. It is a year long program and takes a broader look at the lawyer’s entire life. The second is a program for groups or teams of lawyers focusing on communications, team/group dynamics. It is designed for small firms or practice groups. It is designed to be completed over the course of a year but can be completed in a retreat setting over a three or four day weekend.

“And the warm handshakes are free.”

Thanks, Neil!

Short bio for Neil:

Neil Olson is a certified coach and licensed attorney who specializes in helping lawyers reach their fullest potential. Prior to launching his coaching practice seven years ago, Neil practiced law for over 10 years as an associate and partner in a large San Francisco law firm. Neil also founded his own boutique firm and practiced there for nearly 10 years. Neil has trained, coached and consulted with attorneys in AmLaw 50 International Law Firms, Bay Area regional and boutique law firms, in-house counsel for major corporations, as well as sole practitioners. Neil is on the 2007-2008 Executive Committee of the State Bar of California Law Practice Management & Technology Section. Neil is also the National Board President of the Professional Coaches and Mentors Association, and a founding member of the Renaissance Lawyer Society. Neil is dedicated to coaching lawyers in the San Francisco bay area, where he lives with his wife and two children.

Neil Olson -
The Lawyer Whisperer
e: neil@neilolsoncoaching.com
w: www.neilolsoncoaching.com

Captioned artwork: Whisper to Tree, by Gregory Gallo.

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