The real reasons why in-house lawyers seek a professional coach

This will provide you with insight into the most common reasons why in-house Lawyers appoint a professional coach.

Donna McGrath on 05/10/21

It also digs into the “real deep seated” challenges faced by in-house lawyers. You may not at first sight agree. However, these are here to help you to think a little deeper about why you might be experiencing specific challenges individually or as a team.

This viewpoint also reinforces, that you do not have to go through these challenges alone.

Why Listen to Me?

Having worked as a former solicitor for circa 14 years (10 as an in-house solicitor, across various FTSE 100 – 250 companies), I too experienced the daily challenges that come with working in and leading in-house teams. 

I struggled for a while on my own, learning by trial and error.  After a while I decided it was too much on my own, I needed some support. So, I appointed a separate coach and mentor to help me understand why I was having these experiences and to build a plan to overcome my challenges. This is when my career excelled and my personal life took an amazing turn. 

I transformed from a stressed, unhappy, unfulfilled in-house lawyer to taking back control, raising my impact, re-energising me and with a happy family life.  The coach I had didn’t completely understand my pains, so I didn’t feel understood.  This made the transition more painful. So, I decided I would give that safe space to in-house lawyers that safe place with someone who understands them and help them achieve the same results.   I went off studied, at the same time as working, and achieved my qualifications as a certified coach and mentor with IIC&M & certified DiSC ofiler.

In 2019 I set up, The Lawyers’ Coach for In-House Lawyers, to work with General Counsels’, Heads of Legal, Legal Directors and individual team members to help them raise their impact, take back control without the burnout and pains that come along with that. This is delivered through leadership development, coaching and mentoring.  (leadership development focused on developing the underlying skills which manifest leadership (self awareness, emotional resilience, people awareness and environmental awareness).

Why In-House Lawyers’ Seek Out Coaching?

Almost all in-house lawyers, on the surface, come to me for various reasons, which I set out below.  When we dig down past these initial challenges, I have noticed a few common threads that feature when coaching in-house lawyers (in comparison to coaching a private practice or consultant lawyers), which I set out a little later. 

The following are the 14 most common reasons in-house lawyers seek out coaching:

They want to: 

1. Increase the productivity and impact of their team so that the business will view them as business partners and assets to the business. 
2. Place themselves in the strongest position for promotion or change in role.
3. Develop their leadership skills for enhanced career advancement.
4. Overcome the frustrations of not being taken seriously or listened to by stakeholders, the Board, the Executive (or boss / team).
5. Remove the frustration that business does not take legal or compliance risk serious enough.
6. Overcome feeling undervalued, unhappy and disconnected with work.
7. Overcome overwhelm with the incessant volume of work, so they do not have the freedom of thought or time to fix it.  
8. Remove worry that it’s impacting others’ perception of them (i.e. they are “not coping”) and therefore anxious about their job.  
9. Do not have the time they want for their family, fun or fitness. When with family they do not have the presence of mind to fully enjoy the experience. 
10. Overcome the constant worry about their position in work (due to a relationship issue or too much work).
11. Are afraid to push back or raise a concern in case they are not seen as committed or not coping.  Therefore, fearing for their job and livelihood in being able to provide for their family if they push back.
12. Feeling, stuck, bored, or disconnected.
13. Overcome a workplace (or private) relationship issue that is impacting their performance and happiness at work.
14. Feel isolated and do not know how to overcome this.

These are all valid and common issues, but the real issues are much deeper.

What is really going on?

As you may already be aware, “qualified” coaches do not give you the answer and tell you what to do.  Why? 

  • The “presenting challenge” for a client “is never the real challenge”.  So, coaches use “pure coaching skills” to elicit the fundamental challenges that lie underneath.  This usually boils down to an unhelpful belief system (or the way an individual processes information and/or their position in their environment).
  • The solution for everyone will be different and the “best” answer is inside you.  Coaching is all about getting clarity on the challenge and empowering you to do what is right for you. 

It is here where I am seeing the common underlying factors arising for in-house lawyers. This is a list of the top 5 most common factors at play, which is giving rise to in-house lawyers not feeling satisfied or happy in their work (and manifesting in the issues listed above). 

1. Predominately treat stakeholders and board as clients. This sets the dynamics of the relationship from day one, as that of a service-based relationship.  This creates a power shift and gets in the way of having a mutual relationship. 

2. Allow their role, position to be dictated by Executive, Board, stakeholders - If I have heard it once I have heard it a million times, different Heads of Legal and General Counsels have said, they don’t value us, they don’t get us involved early enough or it is just the way it is.  These are so common and probably the most problematic of all for in-house lawyers and teams.  

3. Allow their Duty of Care to get in the way of Self-Care.  In-house lawyers’ regulatory duty to act in the best interests of the business, seems to be a leading factor in how they interact with the business.  

To the lawyers’ and legal teams' detriment, how much time do you spend correcting documents produced by other teams or work late because another team “dropped the ball”.  How often does this push back the work you need to get completed?  Does this then keep you working longer hours, feeling tired, overwhelmed?  Sound familiar?  The impact of this is, it is expected going forward, so your computer time increases and then you start to reach a place of burn out.    

The second big impact is – when you say “I do not mind – they need me” you place all your sense of value in doing work for others, feeling the need to please.  If you try to pull back – that becomes a problem for you as you are overdelivering.  

The third impact is that this muddies the waters as to where responsibilities and accountability lie between legal and business.  This dutiful need to help and “do it for them” covers up the business inefficiencies, people performance and productivity issues.  Which, ironically, is not in the best interest of the business or the well-being of the solicitor or the in-house legal team. 

4. Place their value in others. One of the most common things I hear is “they do not value me”, “they do not involve me early enough”, “they do not listen”, “they do not take on-board my advice”.  Clients get really stuck here which manifests in feeling disempowered. 

5. Everything must be perfect and detailed. Yes, get the law right. The tension that arises in my coaching clients is due to them focusing very hard on the belief "the business does not take legal risk seriously”, “they do not listen” or “they brush over risks”, is quite high.  Leading tension and conflict between legal and business. Yes, we need healthy tension.  However, where this tension is causing an impact on productivity, not being commercial and causing internal conflict, a change is required.

There are other underlying common themes that arise when coaching in-house lawyers.  These are the top 5 I am currently seeing.  

One of the things that coaching will give, is the clarity to see your own part in what you are doing (or not doing), which is causing or contributing toward these experiences. Which in turn, gives the “power” to take control and turn it around, so that you and the team can overcome your “now” and future challenges. 

If you are experiencing any of these issues and struggling to overcome them, perhaps a coach can help you, like they helped me. If you would like a no commitment initial discussion, please reach out directly or via the in-house coaching clinic with CLL. 

Donna McGrath
The Lawyers Coach
T: 07414438077

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