Coaching for Lawyers with Whittney Beard, Master Certified Coach at Volta Talent Strategies.
In this episode of On Record PR, Gina Rubel goes on record with Whittney Beard, Master Certified Coach at Volta Talent Strategies. Whittney brings more than 14 years of professional coaching experience to her coaching and consulting practice at Volta. She spent eight years exclusively coaching lawyers at Orrick in a broad range of areas, including leadership, team management, business development, and effective communication. At Volta, Whittney continues to coach partners and lawyers at all levels. In addition, she developed and co-leads the Volta Coach Training program, an International Coach Federation-accredited program which aims to establish and expand the culture of coaching within law firms by providing tailored coach training to lawyers and law firm staff.
Whittney had a varied legal career, including clerking in federal district court in Dallas, practicing corporate law at Milbank in Los Angeles, and working in-house at a pharmaceutical company. Prior to becoming a coach, she spent two years teaching law through a fellowship at California Western School of Law. After leaving the practice of law, Whittney got trained as a professional coach and immediately focused her practice on lawyers. Her coaching style is light and direct – she uses humor, instinct and powerful questions to support her clients to design and complete practices that support them in achieving their professional and personal development objectives.
Whittney lives in her native San Diego with her seven-year-old son. She loves cooking, traveling and spending time on the trails and mountains of California.
People always ask me if I have any regrets regarding going to law school or having practiced law? I always tell them, that’s exactly what I was meant to do and I’m where I’m supposed to be. Do you feel the same way?
I do. I remember that when I was in law school, there was a lot of talk at the time around, “You can do anything with a law degree.” So even if you go to law school and you decide you don’t want to be a practicing attorney, you could still do anything with it. I remember feeling just a few years out of law school that I felt I had been told a big lie. As my career progressed and I tried to find my way as a lawyer, I ultimately discovered coaching and then coaching lawyers. So, my calling came at about eight or nine years out of law school. It is true –you can do anything with a law degree. It’s an excellent education. The way that you think as a result of having that experience and practicing law is unlike any other profession or career. It’s brought me a lot of gifts, too. To have had that education and to have had that experience–in restrospect, I’m really glad that I did it.
What was your path to becoming a master certified coach and what does that means?
It’s actually a new credential that I earned in 2020, and it was a long time coming. I had been coaching since 2007. The credential i.d. is provided by the International Coaching Federation (ICF), which is as close to what we get to a governing body of coaches. There really is no official government body that regulates coaches, but the ICF works to ensure that we’re all living up to our ethical obligations and achieving competency within coaching. When I began coaching, I set out to earn the number of hours that I needed to get my first credential which was a professional certified or a PCC coach credential, which I think required me to have 700 hours of coaching and a certain number of hours of training to accomplish. The master certified credential is just the next level. It requires about 2,500 hours of coaching. The lawyer in me, the person who likes to be acknowledged for being good at what I do, both loved and resisted the next part, which was to submit to recorded coaching calls to the ICF to be reviewed by other coaches who then confirm or deny your application and tell you whether you are “up to snuff”. I submitted those last year and got my credential and am excited to be at that level in my profession.
What does a coach in the legal space do?
I firmly believe that anyone and everyone can benefit from having a coach. There’s so much available to you in a relationship where someone is fully committed to listening to you and to finding ways to support you, to have a life you want to have, whatever that looks like. People at the pinnacle of their game have coaches because coaches can observe you in the act of whatever you’re doing, whether that’s hitting a tennis ball or living your life or practicing law, while they reflect to you what they see, which you don’t necessarily see because you’re inside of the experience. It’s great to have another person outside of you reflecting what they see while listening carefully and really holding space for the idea that you’re fully resourceful, totally complete, and completely whole, and have the answers for your life.
Have you seen an uptick in the need for coaching services since the pandemic began in 2020?
Yes, I’ve definitely noticed it. I was just having a conversation yesterday about how there are so many ways that the pandemic is having an effect on us that we’re not even really aware of. One of them is that we all became workers from home and that’s not necessarily an easy thing to do. It can take years to actually get good at that, to be able to hold yourself accountable and find the right space and keep yourself on track. It’s not necessarily suited to everyone. Just that one little thing, and that’s really one of the smaller elements of the effects of the pandemic, has created a greater need for coaching. Add to that if you’re a parent, you got kids at home or if you’re single and you haven’t seen friends in a while and everything in between.
What does it look like for a big law firm to have a coach on staff and what kind of culture did Orrick have to be able to embrace coaching for their lawyers?
A lot of firms are starting to move in this. I’ve had the pleasure of watching the number of coaches internally at firms grow and really explode in some ways. There are dozens now, maybe even 50 firms that have some kind of role that’s devoted to coaching. Back in 2010, when I started at Orrick, I was not the first coach at Orrick. I was replacing someone else who was moving on to what was next for her and her career. I walked into an environment where coaching had already been set up as an important value of the firm. Culturally it did express something that was important to the leadership of the firm, which was, we don’t always know how to do it right. But what we know we want is to foster communication, openness and transparency so that our employees and our lawyers are successful and have what they need. A lot of firms are adding these roles to their law firms. The culture of law firms can open up and having a coach on staff is a move in that direction.
Is coaching for lawyers an in-house HR function? Is it a marketing and business development function? Where does that fall?
Mostly I’ve found that coaches and firms are in groups of what we call lawyer development or professional development or talent – I certainly was at Orrick. It’s interesting that you said business development and marketing, because I do also think with the explosion of coaching and the number of coaches are a lot of people who are in the different support roles and firms who bring coaching with them. There are probably plenty of business development managers, marketing managers, and directors at firms who have coaching in their skillset and use it in their jobs.
Gina Rubel: I do not consider myself a coach, but oftentimes even from the marketing and business development perspective, we’re asked to work with a lawyer on a pitch or work with the lawyer on media training to make sure they’re ready for that media interview. I do see media training very differently than coaching; it’s more of a training element, professional development element. I also hear from people in business development roles all the time that lawyers come to them with the responsibilities within their roles.
What issues do lawyers come to you with that you help them work through or challenges?
There’s so much value in giving lawyers the tools that they don’t necessarily have. We don’t learn this in law school. Coaching tells you how to talk to people, how to be interested in people, how to make sure that you’re calling your network and maintaining all the aspects that you train lawyers in when you’re helping them just think about that one area of business development. Coaches then help people stay accountable.
People come to me for all kinds of things, but ultimately what we’re working in is the space of being clear about what you want to be taking on and why. So, there’s a big question around “What’s the point of all the work that you want to do with your coach?” We ask about goals, dreams and vision. Then there’s all the motivators to get you moving in that direction, along with accountability and clarity.
What’s predictable is at some point you’re going to come across something that stops you. It’s going to be an emergency at work or an uncomfortable conversation that needs to be had. The nature of life is we find places that stop us or that become hurdles. That’s also where there’s a need for coaching.
What size law firms do you typically work with?
In my coaching practice, I mostly work with AmLaw 100 firms and at Orrick, it was an AmLaw 50. I work the most with larger law firms.
What are the benefits of coaching lawyers to the law firm?
Law firms, by nature, are a little bit more hierarchical. I don’t think you’d get a whole lot of pushback. What you end up with when you have hierarchy is you have power and information flowing from the top down. And then the work gets done down at those lower levels or throughout that kind of pyramid. And what you necessarily lose is information flowing up freely. Information certainly does flow up to the top, but there’s a level of freedom that you don’t really have in a hierarchical culture because people don’t want to get in trouble. They don’t want to mess up the hierarchy. They don’t want to speak out of turn. One of the benefits of a coaching culture is creating an environment where communication and listening are more geared towards innovation and team play and less geared towards “saying the right thing” and “not messing up.”
It’s healthy to be in an environment where you can make a mistake and it’s acknowledged as an opportunity. People can actually talk about it as opposed to feeling shut down. What happens when you engage with people from this coaching perspective, where you’re listening from curiosity, and you’re listening from this notion that you have a perspective and that other people don’t necessarily share yours? What becomes possible is a level of inclusion and belonging for people that might not look like your typical lawyer-client relationship. This becomes apparent in the way you talk to your clients, the way you approach their needs and how to make sure their needs are being met.
Do you see a higher rate of retention of attorneys at different levels in firms that offer coaching internally?
One of the big sticking points with coaching, especially as it has become this explosive thing, is what is the return on investment (ROI). I certainly had a fair number of conversations with people who felt like it was time to move on — their current law firm was no longer the right fit. As a coach, it’s not my job to have an agenda. My job as a coach is to get curious, to have a conversation and to identify and address the person’s needs.
When you create a space for conversations like that, you can ask, “What do you want in your career? What might it look like if you stay for a few years? What other aspirations do you have?” I don’t know if you can necessarily point to retention, like actually point to hard numbers. I do know anecdotally having coached for 14 years that it creates more space and less urgency to change. I think that probably results in longer retention.
What gets in the way of lawyers having great and full lives?
Sometimes lawyers aren’t really clear why they are doing what it is that they’re doing. They’re not necessarily sure what is the end goal. I don’t know that a ton of lawyers are present to what is sustaining and fulfilling for them. That can get in the way. Lawyers often start to make little sacrifices around boundaries in service of success, but then those sacrifices become the way you conduct yourself. And as life adds more like spouses and children outside of work, it can start to feel like they have to choose between success at work and boundaries that they’ve never really created.
Do you have any book recommendations you’d like to share?
I just read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. It’s about the resistance that shows up to practicing your art, how resistance looks and how it stops you from taking the actions that you really need to take in order to write your book or paint your painting. It applies to anyone in any profession doing anything that they care about because it helps you really see where you put up roadblocks in a humorous way.
Another one that I really enjoyed Is Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell. The book is all about how the way that we think we understand what people mean when they say things or when they look a certain way. From the coaching perspective, what I love about it is it helped me see that you can bring grace to when you’re communicating with someone and you think you know what they’re saying, or in particular what their unstated communication is. But, in truth, you don’t necessarily know. It’s always important to check in and actually have the vocabulary between you as opposed to making assumptions, which again, takes us back to the idea of having a more inclusive, diverse and equitable workspace. There’s just so much assuming going on that gets in the way of people being seen and people being heard.
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