Successful coaching for lawyers is a process

by Alexa Drago on July 10, 2014

By Guest Blogger, Janet Ellen Raasch

More than ever before, lawyers are expected to develop new business for themselves and their law firms. Some lawyers are naturals at business development. Many others, however, have no idea how to start. Business development was not part of the traditional law-school curriculum. As a result, law firm marketers increasingly are being asked to coach their lawyers in business development skills.

“Business development coaches need to know two things,” said Merrilyn Astin Tarlton. “They need to know how to coach and they need to know which lawyers will most benefit from coaching.

“Before you can coach a lawyer, or anyone else for that matter, you need to build a relationship with that person,” said Tarlton. “We’ve all had the experience of being ‘told what to do’ by someone we do not know or someone we dislike. It’s excruciating.

“Coaching is based on trust,” said Tarlton, “and trust is created in a relationship. Good coaches will encourage the lawyers they are coaching to do most of the talking. Ask questions. Listen carefully to the answers and use this information to continue the conversation and dig deeper.

“Many lawyers come to the business development coaching process looking for a quick fix,” said Tarlton. “’Just tell me what to do and let me get about my business.’ But that is not how coaching works. There is no ‘one size fits all’ formula. It is a careful process, not a quick prescription. Plus, each lawyer is unique. You cannot know what will or will not work with that lawyer without creating a relationship.”

Tarlton discussed business development coaching in law firms at the monthly program of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Legal Marketing Association, held June 17 at Guard & Grace in LoDo, Denver.

As a founding member of Astin Tarlton, Tarlton consults with lawyers on their roles as leaders and business people. She was a founder and early president of the Legal Marketing Association. In 2007, she was inducted in the LMA Hall of Fame. In addition, she has held senior positions with the ABA Law Practice Management Section. She launched Attorney at Work in collaboration with Feldcomm.

The second step in the business development coaching process is to carefully assess the lawyer’s position within his or her career – in terms of both age and accomplishment. “All of these steps involve asking useful questions and carefully listening to the answers,” said Tarlton.

Why did you go to law school? Why did you choose to focus on environmental rather than personal injury law? Why did you choose this particular firm? Where do you see your career in five or ten years? Which are your favorite and least-favorite clients –and why? Where did your best clients come from? Which business development tactics have you tried that worked — or did not work? How do you feel about using these tactics?

“A good coach’s questions and answers will be based on a lawyer’s seniority and experience,” said Tarlton. “A young lawyer fresh out of law school needs a different approach to business development than a senior lawyer with a long list of clients and contacts. So does a lateral transitioning from an in-house position. Once again, there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach.”

The third step of the coaching process is to skillfully challenge the way that lawyers are trained to think. “In law school and in legal practice, lawyers are rewarded for knowing everything about a matter or a case – and never being wrong,” said Tarlton. “It goes against lawyers’ nature to admit that they might need help. If lawyers state, ‘I’ll never be good at business development,’ follow up by asking them why they think this is true. Try to get at the root of their resistance to business development.”

In the fourth step of the business development coaching process, a good coach will help the lawyer come up with useful ideas and resources.   “Never say ‘this is what you need to do’,” said Tarlton. “There is no magic pill.

“Do some research and contribute this knowledge and these resources to the lawyer,” said Tarlton. “Provide examples of tactics used successfully by similar lawyers. Ask the lawyer to name colleagues who are successful at business development – and to analyze these lawyers’ approaches. Encourage the lawyer to generate individualized business development ideas based on these resources.

“Lawyers are naturally curious and process-driven,” said Tarlton. “Get them interested intellectually in business development and they will likely buy into the process.”

The fifth step of the process involves supporting and encouraging the lawyers as they attempt to implement their business development ideas. Behaviors that are rewarded tend to be repeated.

“This support can be individual,” said Tarlton. “A coach can drop by the lawyer’s office on a regular basis to assess and provide positive feedback, and to ask and answer additional questions. Support and encouragement also can be firm-wide, such as a method for public recognition of lawyers’ business development accomplishments – perhaps in meetings or firm-wide emails or on the firm’s intranet site.”

Step six entails creation of a method to track and measure success, using specific deadlines. How does the lawyer being coached define success? Is it three new clients in a particular industry? Is it five additional matters for an existing client? Is it strengthening his or her reputation in an area by writing three articles for a well-read industry publication?   Lawyers carefully track progress on their matters and cases; tracking business development activities will feel natural to them and can help drive results.

Finally, a good business development coach will help a lawyer to focus on the pipeline that will delivery work to his or her desk in the future – not just today. What are the emerging issues that will threaten your clients? Create lists of clients and potential clients who will be affected, and begin a communication process that puts you in front of these clients well in advance of the pack.

“Not all lawyers can be successfully coached,” said Tarlton. “Before starting this process ask a few select questions to screen the good candidates from those who will only waste your time and talent. Work only with lawyers who take personal responsibility for their own success.   Reject any lawyer who is not willing to partake in the process outlined above.”

Questions to screen potential coaching candidates include:

  • Will you commit to a certain amount of time to spend on this effort? (Most lawyers spend long hours at work and already feel that they are shortchanging their families. Nonetheless, a good candidate will be willing to set aside a specific amount of time each week.)
  • Are you willing to acknowledge that, although you know a lot about your area of the law, you do not know everything about business development? Are you open to new ideas?
  • Can you be counted on to keep all of your scheduled appointments with your coach – no matter how busy you are?
  • Will you commit to “walking the talk” – doing what you say you will do? If you agree to make three phone calls to existing client by the next meeting, will you do so?
  • Are you willing to try something if you are not 100-percent sure it will work for you?
  • Are you willing to take full responsibility for your own business development?

If business development staff can master the steps of the process, and if lawyers can commit, business development coaching can greatly benefit the careers of coaches and lawyers alike.


Janet Ellen Raasch is a writer, ghostwriter, copyeditor and blogger at Constant Content Blog who works closely with professional services providers – especially lawyers, law firms, legal consultants and legal organizations – to help them achieve name recognition and new business through publication of newsworthy and keyword-rich content for the web and social media sites as well as articles and books for print. She can be reached at (303) 399-5041 or



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