Lawyers practicing at the nation’s top law firms and biggest companies are viewed by many as the elite athletes of the legal profession. If you think about it, these lawyers and professional athletes largely play on fields where the stakes are high and their success is increasingly determined by the smallest of margins under extreme pressure. Both lawyers and athletes spend hours upon hours honing their technical abilities so they can perform at their best or at the next level.
Yet where the athletic world and the legal profession diverge is their view on how their respective professionals can constantly up their game. As surgeon and public health professor Atul Gawande highlights in his Ted Talk (making the case for why doctors should have coaches), the approach promoted by traditional professionals has been that they are largely capable of managing their own development and improvement, whereas in sports, everyone, even (and some would argue especially) the greatest players, need a coach because they are never done developing.
Along these lines, back in the 1970s, then-tennis instructor Tim Gallwey recognized his players could optimize their performance by tapping into more of their potential and reducing the interference of negative or distracted thinking. He generated the simple formula – “Performance = Potential - Interference” – and the concept of helping players develop their “inner game.” These concepts became widely applied to sports coaching through the advent of mental conditioning coaches who help athletes develop their capacity to manage the mental aspects of the game. These mental aspects include building self-awareness, focus, and motivation, setting goals, managing stress, and visualizing optimal performance. Working on one’s inner game involves removing major internal obstacles to performance, such as perfectionism, fear of uncertainty or failure, or lack of confidence. Not surprisingly, Gallwey’s work has also largely been credited as a foundation for the field of executive or corporate coaching.
What separates a good athlete from a great one isn’t just their athletic or technical ability, but rather their ability to master the mental game. Lawyers who want to play their best game, whether it’s in the courtroom or the boardroom, recognize that this is the key to differentiating themselves as well. Having a coach helps them do that. Through coaching, a lawyer can develop awareness of how their inner outlook (or collection of beliefs, thoughts, assumptions, and feelings) affects their outward performance and the achievement of their goals. Using that awareness, a coach can facilitate a shift in the lawyer’s mindset to one that aligns with the results they want to achieve, and help them develop and stay accountable to an action plan from there. These results include anything from evaluating career options, advancing to the next level, cultivating a new skill or personal brand, maximizing team performance or leadership acumen, managing time and stress, generating client business, enhancing presence or productivity, or building constructive relationships with colleagues and clients. As with elite athletes, lawyers aspiring to continually level up their performance and effectiveness in these areas should seek out the services of an executive or corporate coach.