Below is my latest article for The Complete Lawyer titled Boost International Success with Coaching and Mentoring.
Why do international lawyers hire coaches or seek mentors? Often, it’s to help them exceed their prior performance. Perhaps they want to develop more clients globally, make partner, get promoted, or become leaders within their law firms or field. Sometimes international lawyers work with coaches or mentors to help them with a career change or redirection, within or outside the law. This is especially true now during the global recession; lawyers are increasingly seeking career coaching when they lose, or anticipate losing, their jobs.
Professionally trained coaches use their skills to help lawyers figure outand attain the career (and life) that the lawyers want. Coaches may be hired by an individual lawyer or the lawyer’s employer. Usually there are contractual confidentiality restrictions in place governing what information (if any) the coach can disclose.
As an executive coach who specializes in working with international lawyers, I have seen the unique challenges that international lawyers face. These include trying to develop practice areas and clients in far flung locations, grappling with legal issues under unfamiliar legal systems, working outside the lawyer’s comfort zone, making career choices across the globe, and even struggling to break into the international field or move within the international profession. Because working across time zones and cultures only heightens the difficulty of these issues, many international lawyers turn to coaches as they progress in their careers.
Like lawyer coaches, mentors serve as trusted counselors or teachers. However, unless the lawyer’s employer has a formal mentoring program in place, the coaching relationship is often an informal one created between the two parties. Ideally, the mentee and mentor discuss the parameters and expectations of their relationship, and agree to confidentiality and other structural issues.
Coaches Become Truth Speakers
Many lawyers want their coaches or mentors to be unbiased sounding boards. As explained in What an Executive Coach Can Do for You (Harvard Business School), professionals want their executive coaches to be “truth speakers” (a term coined by Harvard Professor Thomas DeLong). As the article notes, many professionals seek coaching, especially in times of great change or stress, to get one-on-one focused attention from an impartial guide. Often, the professional cannot get such unbiased feedback from family, friends or colleagues.
One of my clients in an international boutique was having trouble developing clients in Latin America; he was too abrasive. As his coach, I had to be a “truth speaker” and tell him so. We worked together to help him identify his ideal clients, and then build meaningful relationships with them.
Sometimes being a “truth speaker” requires coaches to deliver difficult news. For example, I recently coached an aspiring international practitioner about his career; although initially disappointed, he appreciated getting feedback that he needed more international experience to compete effectively in the market. This truth set him free from his frustrating job search. We then created strategies for him to enhance his international credentials and improve his marketability.
The ability to speak the truth is just as vital to effective mentoring. Lawyers should seek mentors who will give completely honest feedback. Some lawyers arrange for a group of mentors, each of whom will provide a fresh, unique perspective.
If the mentor works in the same firm, the mentoring relationship may even enhance the mentee’s career. Pippa Blakemore, Strategic Business Partner in the London-based PEP Partnership LLP, notes that mentoring enables the mentor to introduce the individual to his/her international contacts, immediately bestowing creditability. It also facilitates the mentee building contacts with his/her peers at the international level so strengthening the firm throughout the world. A mentor’s knowledge of countries, jurisdictions, clients, colleagues, customs and cultures will be of great benefit to the mentee. It will prevent him/her making gaffes which leads to insulting people and even, in the extreme, losing clients.
Of course, in today’s economy, a mentor can also guide a mentee towards work with viable clients and help the mentee to develop marketable practice skills.
Choose The Right Executive Coach Or Mentor
When selecting a coach or mentor, make sure that the fit is right. Choose someone who is perceptive and experienced enough to be helpful. As the coachee or mentee, you have to be receptive enough to accept any proffered feedback. For this reason, it is wise to interview executive coaches in advance; this way, you can make sure that you communicate well before solidifying the relationship.
Many lawyers turn to coaches who have professional experience in their field. (That’s why, as an international lawyer turned coach, I have so many lawyer clients who work, or want to work, internationally.)
Similarly, a mentor should have either the professional experience or perspective that will benefit the mentee. The mentor must also be available and devote time to the relationship. Mentors should participate willingly, not because their employers have coerced them into the relationship.
If a firm or organization creates a structured mentoring program, it needs to be well thought out. As Ms. Blakemore explains, “Mentors need to be committed and enthusiastic. This means that they (with guidance from other mentors and HR) will create a relevant programme; be accessible in times of need and follow-through the process to an agreed conclusion . . . if ever. Mentors are often still in touch with mentees after they have retired or left the organisation.”
If done well, a mentoring program will have the added benefit of strengthening firm morale. Ms. Blakemore notes, “Mentoring is a unique opportunity to combine the experience of the more mature members of the firm with the creativity and enthusiasm of youth. This will maintain the feeling of involvement of the more senior members and help to increase the motivation of the junior members. Many junior lawyers feel overlooked, neglected and ignored until they do not meet billable targets, when they become the centre of attention. Effective mentoring can counter many of the feelings of disillusion.”
Even talented international lawyers are suffering in this global recession. Getting the support of a trusted advisor, like a lawyer coach or mentor, can bring much needed guidance and support during these tough times.