It's hard to miss the headlines"Associate Morale at Its Lowest," "Mid-Level Associates Feeling 'Significant Anxiety,'" "Promotion of Women to Partnership Stalled in 2011," and somewhat more optimistically, "Is Associate Morale on the Mend?" The 2010 American Lawyer Associates Survey reported that mid-level associates' overall satisfaction fell to the lowest level in six years. It seems everyone, from industry insiders to casual blog followers, acknowledges that low associate morale is the current norm in BigLaw.
Associates' priorities seem to be an ever-moving target. In recent years it has shifted between compensation (during the economic boom), job security (during the recession), hours, and work/life balance. However, a high level of pay does not necessarily mean a high level of satisfaction. The most recent information available makes it evident that both the average number of hours worked and the average number of billable hours worked per year have declined since 2007. These factors all contribute to the low morale that is so widely reported. As we know, unhappy associates make for less productive associates.
With summer programs shrinking and lateral hiring still below pre-2008 recession levels, firms are relying more on professional development to help retain their top legal talent. A fairly recent addition, in many large firms, has been the expansion of professional development initiatives to include career coaching, which concentrates on individualized career development needs. Coaching is an action-oriented partnership that, unlike psychotherapy, which delves into patterns of the past, concentrates on where one is currently, in order to move forward and reach goals.
There is a moment in many associates' careers when they feel like they have "made it"but upon further examination realize that they are not quite sure what "it" is. Career development coaching encourages associates to take responsibility for their own careers. The first role of a career development coach is to help associates start with their own set of personal values to identify and set goals. Most lawyers have only a vague idea of what their values really are, what really energizes them, or what really fulfills them. By clearly articulating individual values, they infuse their ultimate plan of action with a greater power and likelihood of success.
After helping lawyers identify what it is they are passionate about, the coach assists them in determining areas of competence, interest, and expertise; identifies what they need to learn and master to excel in their chosen areas of concentration; and develops a specific action plan to achieve those stated goals. An effective coach will guide people to investigate themselves, their circumstances, and their options to develop acceptable strategies to improve all of the above. The coach then lends support and accountability while the associate implements his or her strategy.
Professional development coaches can play many different roles in an associate's career. In addition to the one-on-one career development described above, a coach can help associates with issues such as work/life balance, transitions from one level to the next, business development, getting the work they want, their firm's review processes, mentoring, and general troubleshooting.
Lawyers deal with other people's problems all day, often while ignoring their own. They may know that something is not right, but do not know what it is or how to fix it. Often they do not have anyone to talk to because they do not want to talk to anyone at the firm about how they are feeling. They may seek coaching on a number of different issues. For example, an associate at a large firm was very hardworking and was billing well above the mandatory minimum required of associates at her firm. She thought she was well on track for partnership when she had her annual review. At the review, she was told that at this stage of her career, she was expected to focus on business development. Although this associate was successful in so many other aspects of her career, the thought of business development terrified her. She met with the career development coach at her firm, and using her coach as a sounding board, she devised a plan. The key for this associate was realizing that she did not have to do it all. She analyzed what she already knew she was really good at in business development, and by focusing on her strengths, rather than on her perceived weaknesses, she was able to formulate a plan that she was comfortable with, and thus was able to implement successfully. Two years later, she made partner, one year ahead of schedule.
A key aspect of coaching is the confidential nature of the communications between lawyer and coach. Many associates value having someone as a sounding board, while knowing that their conversation is not going to be divulged. Some associates approach their coach wanting a solution, but it is important they understand that the coach's role is not to intervene on their behalf. The coach cannot fix the problem for them, but can help them by talking about alternatives, practicing through role-playing, and helping them to see what the real problem is. For example, an associate may visit his or her coach because of a problem with a colleague or partner. In that instance, the first job of the coach is to listen and really hear the associate. The coach should not get caught up in the fray, but should eventually bring the issue back to the associate's responsibility at an individual level. The coach may give him or her tips on communication skills or reading interpersonal signals. Often, the associate will leave the coach's office within 30 minutes feeling empowered and ready to redesign the troubled relationship.
An associate may not be happy with the kind of work he or she is doing and would like help to figure out how to explore other kinds of work available in or outside the firm. In these circumstances, the coach's assistance could be making the associate aware of firm resources, training programs, or organizations within or outside the firm. An associate at one firm had four children and was feeling the pressure of balancing work with her home life and responsibilities. After a long talk with her coach, she realized that, although she liked working for a big firm, particularly the one she was at, perhaps her chosen area of labor and employment was not the right practice area for her. She had taken several tax classes as an undergrad, and utilizing her knowledge of both was eventually able to transition her practice to employee benefits, which allowed her to balance her work and home life more effectively.
It is difficult to quantify the success of career coaches, and sometimes, what the firm views as a success may not be the same as the associate's view of a desirable outcome. Sometimes coaching involves helping associates realize that their firm is not the right place for them to be. In that instance, a coach can provide support, in varying degrees depending on the firm, in pursuing external options. Firms are aware that not all associates are destined to become partners, but understand the value in keeping associates happy. A happy associate may become a happy alumnus, or better still, eventually a happy client.
The benefits of career coaching to a firm, while not always quantifiable, can be immense. Associates feel cared for when being coached. It calms them to know someone is listening and they are not alone with whatever issue they may be facing. It reassures them that the firm is investing in them in a personal way. As one associate at a large firm said, "It matters to me that my firm cares enough to invest in resources and meet me halfway in my development." Although the results cannot necessarily be tracked in numbers, they may be found in retention, increased productivity, stronger collaboration and congeniality, and personal and professional satisfaction. This, in turn, leads to increased client satisfaction as associates remain with the firm and relationships strengthen.
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