Coaching Competence

“Top singers and athletes have coaches. Should you?”

A few weeks ago, this question entered my Twitter feed through a reference to a 2011 New Yorker article titled “Personal Best”, authored by surgeon Atul Gawande. It caught my attention and sparked a thought: how might lawyers benefit from coaching?

Gawande’s article provides a compelling account of how coaches can help professionals improve performance. Among other things, Gawande discusses how a coach helped him bring down his post-surgery complication rate. He also explores the increasing use of teacher-coaching programs across the United States. Gawande writes that “coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance”. While he doesn’t discuss lawyers, many of his insights seem relevant to legal professionals.

The suggestion that lawyers might benefit from personal coaching is not novel. The Canadian Bar Association has published articles on the topic. A few years ago, the Law Society of Upper Canada launched a Career Coaching Program to provide women lawyers and paralegals access to the services of qualified professional career coaches. More recently, a report of LSUC’s Mentoring and Advisory Services Proposal Taskforce observed:

A well-focused system of advisor and coaching services, designed to support the needs of lawyers and paralegals who might otherwise not have practical guidance from experienced colleagues, may address a gap in the professional development of such legal practitioners.

In the private sector, there are a number of lawyers across Canada who offer professional coaching services – examples can be found here, here, and here. The topic has also been addressed a few times on by Allison Wolf who runs her own lawyer coaching practice in addition to being a regular Slaw columnist.

But, what if we took the concept of coaching to the next level? What if we started to think of coaching competence as a key regulatory function of Canadian law societies rather than simply the domain of private professional coaches?

To be sure, our law societies already view ensuring lawyer competence to be a core feature of their mandates. To date, however, the dominant regulatory approach to achieving this goal has been something akin to a policing model. In large part, the focus is on individual bad actors who are dealt with on a case-by-case basis. As has been pointed out by a number of commentators, including myself, this type of model may be useful to address cases of malfeasance or egregious incompetence but it doesn’t do much to prevent or address problems in any sort of a systematic fashion.

A coaching model holds promise in overcoming some of these limitations. Although, as Gawande observes, the “concept of a coach is slippery”, some general features can be identified. For his part, Gawande notes:

Coaches are not teachers, but they teach. They’re not your boss—in professional tennis, golf, and skating, the athlete hires and fires the coach—but they can be bossy. They don’t even have to be good at the sport. The famous Olympic gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi couldn’t do a split if his life depended on it. Mainly, they observe, they judge, and they guide.

An academic article titled “What is Coaching?” by Yossi Ives contains a review of the literature on coaching and identifies the following features as among those “common to the full range of coaching approaches”:

  • A systematic process designed to facilitate development (change)
  • An individualised, tailor-made approach
  • Based on the twin growth areas of awareness and responsibility
  • Reliant on the twin skills of listening and questioning
  • Involve a collaborative and egalitarian relationship, rather than one based on authority
  • Focused on the achievement of a clearly stated goal, rather than problem analysis

To the extent that modern legal professionals are characterized by their specializations, the need for life-long learning and a desire for autonomy, the coaching model would seem to be a good fit in its embrace of tailor-made, forward-looking and facilitative (as opposed to authoritative) approaches to promoting competence. Indeed, the coaching model embraces many of the same values that are at the heart of pro-active compliance-based regulatory models that are being currently discussed and, in some cases, implemented, by Canadian law societies.

The full extent of what a coaching model might add to the regulation of lawyer competence is beyond the scope of the cursory review here. Towards the end of his article, Gawande writes:

The sort of coaching that fosters effective innovation and judgment, not merely the replication of technique, may not be so easy to cultivate. Yet modern society increasingly depends on ordinary people taking responsibility for doing extraordinary things: operating inside people’s bodies, teaching eighth graders algebraic concepts that Euclid would have struggled with, building a highway through a mountain, constructing a wireless computer network across a state, running a factory, reducing a city’s crime rate. In the absence of guidance, how many people can do such complex tasks at the level we require? With a diploma, a few will achieve sustained mastery; with a good coach, many could. We treat guidance for professionals as a luxury—you can guess what gets cut first when school-district budgets are slashed. But coaching may prove essential to the success of modern society.

It is perhaps best to end this post where it began: with some questions. Will the Canadian legal profession have the humility to embrace coaching as one means of fostering future success? Do Canadian law societies have the capacity to effectively coach competence? Can coaching make a difference to the quality of legal services that Canadians receive? It would be great if these questions could be tested with some regulatory innovation – if coaching is good enough for surgeons and teachers, why not try it with lawyers?


  1. When entertainers and athletes under-perform, the coaches are fired. Query whether there would be a similar mechanism with regard to a provincial law society?

  2. Hi Lee, thanks for this great article and for the mention! Your closing questions were to temping for me to resist and I have some answers for you:

    Will the Canadian legal profession have the humility to embrace coaching as one means of fostering future success?

    Yes, the profession does have the humility to embrace coaching and this is no surprise. Generally speaking, lawyers are a hardworking group of people who are dedicated to performing at a high level. More and more lawyers are turning to coaching for support in making positive shifts in their legal practices. I work with lawyer clients across the country and I am only one of many coaches with this same focus. Coaching is providing many Canadian lawyers, of all years of call and practice areas, with confidential support on growing and developing their skills and abilities in diverse areas including practice management, leadership, stress reduction, career development, and of course – business development.

    Do Canadian law societies have the capacity to effectively coach competence?

    No, they don’t. Canadian law societies are staffed with trained lawyers. The Benchers are senior lawyers. In both cases these professionals have excellent legal qualifications but this does not equal an ability to coach effectively. Coaching is a distinct profession with its own governing body, the International Coaching Federation (ICF), Code of Ethics, certification requirements, and distinct training programs. In truth, becoming trained as a coach takes about a year, to become an effective coach can take five years or more of continuous practice. For Canadian law societies to effectively coach competence I would suggest they partner with professional lawyer coaches.

    Can coaching make a difference to the quality of legal services that Canadians receive?

    Yes it can, and it is. When coaches work with our lawyer clients on developing their practice management and client communication abilities the results can range from improved productivity, increased focus, better client communication to name just a few benefits. This improved performance on the lawyer’s part translates into an improved quality of legal service.

    I have had the opportunity to work with clients following disciplinary proceedings from the Law Society. Based on this experience I can report that there are many fine lawyers who have had to endure what they experience as professional humiliation in front of the Law Society. In all cases these lawyers were ethical, hard working, and dedicated professionals and they beat themselves up internally for the errors that bring them before the Law Society. I have worked with clients following disciplinary action and it is likely that had they chosen to work with a coach earlier the entire disciplinary process may never have come about. The confidential coaching process provides a safe place for working out practice challenges before they become the reasons for disciplinary action.

  3. Amy, meant to address the above comment to you! Thanks again for the article and for making the important connection between coaching and support for lawyers particularly those without access to mentoring and guidance from senior practitioners – so many solos are in that position.