Journal of Leadership and the Law

Articles in Leadership

The following passages are excerpted from “Coaching Future Lawyer-Leaders: A Case Study,” in Coaching for Leadership: Writings on Leadership from the World’s Greatest Coaches (Third Edition). Eds. Marshall Goldsmith, Laurence S. Lyons, Sarah McArthur. Pfeiffer: A Wiley Imprint, 2012. This material is reproduced with permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Elon Law Professor John AlexanderBy John Alexander
Distinguished Leadership Coach in Residence
Elon University School of Law

"I work well with others. Though I am naturally introverted and prefer taking on projects by myself, if I am required to work in a group I am easy to get along with. I try to let everyone give their input and believe in facilitating communication. Nobody has all the answers and many times multiple heads are better than one."

"I have high standards for others.  Sometimes they are too high, and I get frustrated when I feel others are not living up to their potential.  In order to work better with other people, I need to realize their self-worth and value as a group member or partner."

"Currently, I will decide on a particular course of action, and (because it was my decision) I will dig a hole and fight to save it.  I need to listen to others’ ideas and get fresh perspectives rather than wasting time and energy preserving a system that does not work."

"I often feel socially retarded.  This really means I have trouble knowing how to act in certain social situations, such as meeting people for the first time.  Because I am an introvert and private (and quite frankly feel that some of the social engagements are silly wastes of time) I have trouble striking up meaningful conversations with unfamiliar people or making small talk.  Further, and probably more importantly, because I do not have this skill, I cannot take advantage of social networking.  I simply do not know how to tactfully ask certain questions or enlist assistance in an enterprise without knowing the person well."

"I would like to own my own business. Set my own hours. I want to be in a position to help people. I’m also interested in politics, and being well-respected in the community might be a first step towards elected office."

Are these comments the musings of middle managers? Or of mid-career government workers? Or of budding entrepreneurs? Or some combination of all these? Well, not really. They are the written reflections of first-year law students at the newly-minted Elon University School of Law.  These students are embarking on a process of self-assessment culminating in a private one-on-one conversation with a faculty coach.  Yes, really, law students –the young professionals one would think least inclined to experience this kind of coaching.  Yet it is happening at Elon Law, and it is required of all first year students. . . . The law school, which opened its doors in downtown Greensboro, NC (USA), in 2006, aspires to graduate “lawyer-leaders” who will demonstrate leadership and commitment to public service during their careers. The coaching initiative, which was introduced in the school’s second year, is part of Elon Law’s wider leadership development program.

What is the actual process students undergo? The experience begins in the summer before they enroll, when each student completes the Myers Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) online.  The MBTI® introduces the importance of self-awareness as a key component of personal and leadership development. The MBTI® is debriefed during student orientation and . . . is then revisited during an intensive two-week leadership course in the school’s January winter term.  In this course, among other assignments, students divide into “firms” and participate in a number of simulations and experiential exercises that provide additional insights about their interpersonal skills, their values, ethical dilemmas that lawyers face, and the practical do’s and don’ts of the legal profession. 

It is in this context that coaching is introduced. Students are first asked to complete an Individual Development Plan (IDP) in which they identify strengths and developmental needs and examine and reaffirm their values.  Based on this self-assessment, they identify two stretch goals they want to work on – one while in law school, and another looking at least five years out into their careers.  The students then identify the action steps, time lines, and resources they will need to reach their goals.  A sample short-term goal for one student reads, “I would like to work on prioritization and not getting too overwhelmed when I don’t get everything done when I would like to.  This will alleviate stress and allow me to complete the tasks that are most important in the manner that I would like, while also completing tasks that are less important in an efficient manner.”  A longer-term goal – after law school --for another student reads, “Five years from now, my goal is to be working (or have worked) for a large firm. Within the firm, I’d be practicing environmental law and have the ability to travel internationally studying green codes throughout the world.”

Upon completion of this assignment, the student then meets with his or her coach face-to-face for up to one hour.  These confidential meetings are the heart of the experience. . . . Coaches read the IDPs in advance and discuss the student’s insights in the coaching session. Action steps that lead to accomplishment of the goals are also reviewed.

In the two examples cited above, for example, the first student might be given practical tips on setting priorities and thereby lowering stress. The second student might be encouraged to seek an internship or summer job at a large law firm, and might be linked up with an attorney or law professor familiar with environmental law.  In cases where action steps are too vague or unreachable, students are asked to refine their goals and action steps and submit a revised IDP to the coach for further review.  Coaches encourage use of the familiar SMART approach to goal setting – Specific, Measurable, Aggressive, Relevant, and Time-bound.

Elon Law School currently has a stable of ten coaches, including the school’s dean, several faculty and senior staff members, one external coach, and two practicing attorneys -- a nice mix of lawyers and non-lawyers.  A core group of six coaches, including this author, has been involved in the program since its inception in 2008.  The coaches work as a team and typically meet before and after each winter term to compare notes.  Each coach conducts between 10-15 individual sessions on average.¹

Students are encouraged to discuss their IDPs with one another, to the extent they are comfortable doing so, and are asked to share their plans with their preceptors – attorneys in the surrounding community who volunteer to serve as guides and mentors for the students in their first year.  Students are also encouraged to pair up with another student who may exhibit the behavior or skill that the student is looking to improve, or who may be a reliable source of peer feedback.  The IDPs are officially reviewed and updated a year later, during the required winter term leadership course for second-year students. This review occurs in a small team setting, not in individual coaching sessions.

In addition, second-year students encounter a different form of coaching in this course.  During the two weeks, student teams are given legal problems to solve on behalf of non-profit clients in the Greensboro community. Each team is assigned a process coach who observes team members and gives them feedback on how they’re working as a team. These coaches are drawn from the same coaching cohort.  Student team members also identify behavioral goals they would like to work on during the two-week course and ask for observation and feedback from their team members.²

Common themes derived from the coaching sessions are understandably dictated by the early-career stages of these law students. Their focus tends to be on developing practical strategies to do well in school, gain valuable experience in summer employment, network with attorneys in practice areas that interest them, and polish job interviewing skills.  Their inherent lack of emphasis on behavioral changes around intra- and interpersonal skills such as planning, communication, prioritization, time management, managing stress, working well with others, and giving and receiving feedback is a likely function of their lack of organizational work experience.  The intent is that by emphasizing these behavioral areas early in their law school tenure, these law students will be better prepared to interact successfully with others and eventually demonstrate leadership -- even as they assume the traditional role of interpreting and applying the law on behalf of their clients, the legal system, and a more just society.

In terms of possible differences in the perspectives of these first-year students, when compared to students from earlier decades, coaches report that they seem to be more inclined to look for meaning in their future work, and not just having a job that pays well. A number of them express interest in international service, such as helping to stop human trafficking or serving the legal needs of recent immigrant populations.  In discussing their values, these students most often emphasize the importance of family – either the families from which they have come or the families they hope to start (most are not yet married or in committed relationships) – and of achieving some semblance of work-life balance. Spirituality also figures into some of their comments. These concerns contrast with today’s older managers and professionals, who have typically waited to contemplate “what life’s all about” until they establish themselves and reach mid-career. While it’s speculative and even risky to derive generalizations from this relatively small student sample, tracking these themes over time may yield clues about the comparative values and attitudes of this generation of law students.

These observations help explain the coaching process and some of the lessons learned, but they still beg a fundamental question: Why is Elon Law School investing in leadership development for its students on such a broad scale? First, because the school’s founders view leadership as an indispensible duty of lawyers in a democratic society. Second, because a whole constellation of stakeholders -- including law firms, bar associations, corporations, public interest groups, and  clients – are calling for a different kind of lawyer, one who combines leadership qualities with technical competence. And finally, because recent studies of legal education, most notably a major report by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, have challenged law schools to complement their traditional reliance on case analysis with what the Carnegie report calls “developing the ethical and social dimensions of the profession.”³ A program of leadership development is in part Elon Law’s response to this call for pedagogical reform.  And Elon Law is not the only pioneer. Several other law schools have embarked on a similar path, though features such as required leadership courses and one-on-one coaching are rare, if not unique at this writing.

It’s not coincidental that Elon Law has adopted coaching as part of its leadership curriculum. As we know, the practice of leadership coaching has grown dramatically over the past decade. Not only has coaching reached virtually every corner of the globe, it has also touched nearly every stripe of leader and type of organization.  Why? Leaders and their teams, confronted by enormous and often unprecedented challenges, need help, and coaching is an increasingly essential component of any systemic leadership development initiative.  Now one of the last groups to embrace leadership development – lawyers and their firms – has begun to explore coaching.  Like professional consulting firms before them, traditional law firms were predicated on the ability of individual partners and senior associates to provide expert legal advice and services to their clients.  But increasingly, clients of large law firms need those services across a broad array of practice areas.  Clients also want lawyers to help them craft solutions to their business problems, not just tell them from the sidelines what they legally can and can’t do.  This shift requires lawyers to work in teams and increasingly see themselves as leaders within the firm and in managing complex client relationships.

It’s no longer enough to know the law; today’s lawyers must also know how to use their legal knowledge to influence others -- whether colleagues in the firm, clients, opposing lawyers, or judges – to create  successful outcomes in their cases.  Moreover, high attrition rates among high-potential young associates have compelled some firms to offer professional development opportunities, including leadership development, as a retention strategy. ( In many large corporations, corporate counsels and their legal departments have long participated in company-wide performance development  initiatives, including 360-degree assessment, coaching, and leadership development.)

These trends in the field have not gone unnoticed at many law schools.  To the extent that they can graduate lawyers who both know the law well and have developed the interpersonal skills needed to navigate in this new environment, they will differentiate themselves and their graduates.  But how will we know these innovations have had their intended impact?  In the case of Elon University School of Law, it will be some years before any lasting impact can be measured.  It will be verified in the testimonials and through the accomplishments of its alumni, as they evince leadership and commitment to public service in their firms, the profession, and their communities and society at large. It is a risk worth taking, for the potential rewards will be rich.

¹For background information the author is indebted to Dean George Johnson; faculty members Faith Rivers James and  Roland Smith; and coaches William Eagles, Ronnie Grabon, Chris Leupold, Bonnie McAlister, Patricia Perkins, Marty Peters, Chris Smith, and Jonathan Wall.
² In the third year, students may elect a Capstone Leadership course in which one or more students may pursue an independent project or studies in leadership.
³Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law (Jossey-Bass, 2007)