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Career Counseling for Lawyers: It’s Never Too Early
By Naomi Beard & Jessica Hedrick –
As part of the outplacement process, law firms have long invested in specialized career coaching services for departing associates to ensure thoughtfully executed and ultimately successful career transitions. Any attorney who has worked with a career coach through such a transition can point to numerous advantages afforded them by this expert guidance and support. These benefits typically include, for example:
- The opportunity to candidly assess individual strengths and areas needing growth;
- The acquisition of insights into legal market trends and the needs of prospective employers; and
- The growth of critical professional networking, presentation and business development abilities.
The dividend on this investment is well-placed alumni who continue to be valued resources to the organization they left, both as powerful ambassadors for their former law firm employer and as potential sources of new business.
Career Counseling as a Tool for Retention
Many talent development professionals are now recognizing that access to this kind of specialized career coaching can yield rewards not just for lawyers in transition, but also for attorney talent at all levels within the firm. Particularly as law firms continue to draw on the bold lessons of the “sharing economy” and reimagine traditional evaluation mechanisms (e.g., annual reviews; two-tiered career tracks; internal competencies and benchmarks; and individual professional development plans), career coaching that trains associates to develop and leverage professional development skills early and internally holds clear and critical value, including:
- The ability to evaluate and identify strengths and areas for growth, and to learn how to employ those strengths and mitigate any weaknesses;
- The habitual practice of “self-evaluation,” the capacity to apply law firm schematics for self-analysis and goal-setting, including tools such as benchmarks, competencies and individual professional development plans; and
- Early development and application of networking and business development techniques, not just outside the firm, but importantly, within the firm with fellow colleagues, more senior attorneys and existing clients.
Forward-thinking firm leaders are rolling out a range of innovative programs designed to reach attorneys at all stages of their careers, often in partnership with external career coaches. Many of these initiatives are defined by their explicit use of career counseling techniques, creating proactive career support systems that borrow from, complement and even mitigate the need for outplacement services.
One might ask: “Why should law firms dedicate limited resources that may facilitate their top talent’s premature exit, possibly to competing firms?” Indeed, finding appropriate resources and viable structures to integrate career coaching into professional development programming is not easy, and the risk is real. However, the results we have seen with firms that have done so successfully demonstrate that career counseling does not exacerbate flight risk, and may actually mitigate it.
Some migration of top talent is an inevitable economic factor, but our experience shows that firms can enhance retention and morale by providing career counseling tools early in their attorneys’ tenure with the firm. By investing in resources that help attorneys to develop communication, self-awareness and leadership skills, firms can save time and money, and decrease the number of difficult conversations down the road. In fact, a greater risk may exist in not delivering effective platforms for career planning and development. By supporting their attorneys in taking charge of their own careers from the start, law firms create an expectation of continuous professional growth, and associates gain meaningful traction early, contributing to the firm’s ongoing success.
The Role of External Career Coaches
Recognizing this, ambitious law firms have cultivated a range of professional development agendas that embrace career counseling as a foundational service from the outset. Alignment with core competencies, benchmarks and individual career planning are often signature components of these programs, which can be tailored for junior, mid-level and senior associates.
Creating and implementing these platforms is often helped with the guidance of private career advisors. Their experience can be drawn upon to build efficiencies and shape tailored programming that complements specific firm goals and resources. Retaining private career advisors has the added advantage of saving time while building trust among associates.
Professional development leaders are challenged to create and disseminate engaging and results-driven programs across global offices, ensuring consistency and quality. The highly individualized and time-consuming nature of effective career counseling can be an obstacle to these big-picture demands. Private coaches can relieve this burden and provide this service while working closely with law firm PD leadership to ensure alignment and messaging.
While professional development staff are highly sensitive and well trained in managing confidential personal information, associates may be reluctant to entrust their most vulnerable selves to representatives of the firm in which they seek to advance themselves. This reluctance may be exacerbated if associates sense that a representative’s time is spread thin. Outside counselors can prioritize the one-on-one relationship they develop with each associate, while working closely with firm leaders, sharing the process of an associate’s work but keeping the particulars confidential. This arrangement empowers associates to thoroughly investigate the marketplace, and to honestly discern how to best leverage their strengths to serve the firm.
However structured and implemented, career counseling services are resources that professional development leaders are well served by sharing with associates early and throughout their careers at a firm.
Naomi Beard is the President and CEO of Naomi Beard & Associates. For more than 10 years as a professional coach to attorneys and law firm executives, Naomi has drawn on her decade of experience as a practicing attorney to incorporate a deep understanding of law firm life in her work with clients.
Combining her first-hand perspective on the unique challenges of a career in law with an instinct for tapping into a client’s strengths and needs, Naomi is able to help professionals at all levels map a satisfying path to career success.
Jessica Hedrick has been counseling attorneys and law students since 2008. Prior to joining NB&A, she served as Associate Director of Career Planning at New York Law School. She specializes in identifying each clients’ unique strengths, and developing expert marketing and interviewing skills that build strategically upon them. Jessica is actively involved in current issues in attorney career development, coordinating networking events with the New York County Lawyers’ Association and serving as a panelist at the New York City Bar. She began her coaching career at a small legal outplacement firm, counseling associates in transition to determine their goals, identify resources, and create strategic plans for individual success.
Jessica’s background includes a parallel career writing for stage and screen. Her contributions to independent film and theater have been recognized at Sundance, Cannes, and the New York International Fringe Festival. She holds a BA from Earlham College and completed a two-year acting training program at Meisner Studios in New York City.