Coaching and mentoring for in-house lawyers Q&A

In this article we look at the part played by coaching and mentoring in career development and consider how useful they can be for in-house lawyers.


What is coaching and how is it used in organisations?

Coaching is about developing and improving performance. Its origins are in sport, where one of the early pioneers was Timothy Gallwey, author of The Inner Game of Tennis. Performance coaching is now ubiquitous in the sports world and its popularity has grown significantly in other areas – including business.

It's said that coaching focuses on future possibilities by unlocking and overcoming barriers to progression and that the essence of good coaching is building awareness and responsibility. Many organisations now use coaching as a development tool, particularly for senior or ‘fast-track’ employees. Typically, individuals work with coaches in a series of regular sessions, often for a (short) fixed period.

The purpose is to develop skills and improve performance to agreed targets and outcomes.

Typically, coaching is used at particular stages in an individual’s career or during organisational change – for example when taking on a new role with additional responsibilities or when there’s a restructure or merger.

Coaching is one of many tools used by organisations to improve performance and develop, and retain, their best people.

Is it only for senior individuals?

Not necessarily. Coaching can benefit people at all levels. However, it can be expensive so is usually reserved for senior executives and future leaders.

Having said this, performance management systems in organisations often use some of the same techniques found in structured coaching programmes. Examples include setting and reviewing performance targets, regular feedback meetings and active listening.

Can coaching be used for groups as well as individuals?

Yes. Coaching for boards and leadership teams, for example, is sometimes used in parallel with one-to-one coaching. Coaching may be relevant, for example, if a new board or senior team has been put in place or where there’s a major new strategy to implement.

What are the benefits of coaching?

The benefits apply to individuals and organisations. In his book, Coaching For Performance (4th edition), John Whitmore discusses a range of benefits, including:

  • Improved performance and productivity;
  • Improved motivation, learning and relationships;
  • Improved quality of life;
  • More time for the manager – coached staff are more independent;
  • Enhanced creativity;
  • Better use of people, skills and resources;
  • Greater flexibility and adaptability to change; and
  • Cultural change.

Coaching can also:

  • Reinforce the value of behaviours such as active listening, prompting, challenging norms and setting development goals;
  • Help with career change or transition;
  • Help organisations retain talented individuals and future leaders;
  • Support career development and succession planning;
  • Promote high standards and good practice in leadership and management; and
  • Enhance clarity, collaboration and efficiency in teams such as boards and senior management groups.


How is mentoring different to coaching?

In a work-based context, a mentor may be an internal colleague, possibly as part of an organisation-sponsored scheme, or an external person. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), mentoring is often characterised by:

  • Long-term relationships between the individual being mentored and the mentor;
  • Informality, with meetings taking place as and when the individual needs guidance or support;
  • The mentor being senior to the individual, thus passing on the benefit of their experience; and
  • A focus on career and personal development revolving around professional development. The individual often sets the learning agenda.

Naturally, there is some overlap between mentoring and coaching.

When is mentoring helpful?

While mentoring is beneficial in a general context, it can be particularly useful, according to the CIPD, as part of:

  • Induction periods;
  • On the job learning and development, career progression and transition programmes;
  • Equal opportunity programmes;
  • Redundancy and outplacement programmes;
  • Major project implementations; and
  • Change management programmes.

Is a mentor always more senior and experienced?

Not necessarily. Reverse mentoring is sometimes used in teams and organisations to promote cross-learning and knowledge transfer. For example, a junior team member may have excellent technology skills and knowledge which they can share with others in a mentoring situation. This is a great development opportunity for that team member.

Is mentoring applicable to group learning?

Although they usually work on a one-to-one basis, mentors can work with groups or teams. The technology example above could also apply where a team would benefit from mentoring. Or where a new business project is being rolled out or there’s a change management situation. In these scenarios, a team may benefit from the input of someone who is outside the team structure, yet has the necessary practical experience.

What are the advantages of a mentoring programme?

As with coaching, mentoring can benefit both the organisation and the individual.

Benefits for organisations include:

  • Improved retention among good performers;
  • Smoother succession planning and continuity;
  • Enhanced change management; and
  • Increased employee engagement and job satisfaction.

Individuals, meanwhile can look forward to:

  • Better management of their career development;
  • Improved knowledge and technical and behavioural skills;
  • Increased confidence and awareness - leading to improved contributions;
  • Wider business networks and extended influence; and
  • The opportunity (for mentors) to pass on their skills and experience.

Where does sponsorship fit in?

Sponsorship is often regarded as a branch of mentoring. It can take the form of traditional mentoring by senior colleagues for, say, graduate recruits. Sponsorship can also be used as a way to achieve greater diversity in an organisation, particularly in senior management teams and board level positions.

Who is the sponsor and what do they do?

Sponsors are distinct from mentors in that, as well as advising on the individual’s career, they also actively help to advance it. Consequently, sponsors are usually in senior and influential positions in their organisation or business area. As in a coaching relationship, the sponsor will expect commitment and specific outcomes from the sponsored individual. In return, the individual will be able to rely on the commitment and support of their sponsor – for example, in the context of succession planning and where opportunities for advancement arise.

As in coaching and mentoring, sponsorship can form part of a structured career development programme in an organisation. Sponsors need to be committed, well-connected and persistent in their determination to have their protégés advance and succeed.

Coaching and Mentoring for In-House Lawyers

How relevant is coaching and mentoring for in-house lawyers?

In-house lawyers should participate in organisational schemes and programmes as much as their colleagues in other areas. Certainly, the benefits of coaching and mentoring are every bit as tangible for lawyers.

The personal relationship a coaching or mentoring relationship offers can be helpful to lawyers given the complex nature of their roles and the high expectations many lawyers set for themselves. The demands imposed by a bespoke programme can build knowledge and self-awareness, improve performance, develop resilience and instil the confidence necessary to take on challenging career opportunities.

Lawyers and leadership

Lawyers in leadership roles and those who aspire to lead will recognise the value of coaching and mentoring for both themselves and those they manage. As well as engaging in organisation-wide schemes, they will recognise the value of a coaching culture in their team - and its impact on performance and personal development.

Many leaders have benefitted from the support of a coach or mentor (or both), whether under formal or informal arrangements, and will look for similar opportunities for other aspiring leaders.

Given the benefits of coaching and mentoring for individuals, teams and organisations, there is every reason for senior lawyers to champion their use as they look to build high performing teams with a strong, resilient, learning and development culture.

Reference materials and other reading

Coaching For Performance (4th edition) – John Whitmore

Coach Your Way Forward – Zoe Cohen, IOD

Coaching – IOD

Mentoring – CIPD factsheet

The Corporate Sponsor as Hero – advancing women into leadership roles - EY