Legal eagles

The stereotypical, albeit unfair, image of law firms as formal and hierarchical organisations is being shattered by the success of one Manchester solicitors firm’s use of coaching.

Cobbetts, which has more than 700 staff and is listed as one of the UK’s top 50 law firms, has embedded coaching into the organisation. “It is the glue that binds us together,” says head of training and development, Vanessa Forster (pictured between two staff she has coached to act as development co-ordinators).

In her eyes, the nature of people development within the legal world can complement, rather than detract from, one-to-one coaching.

She refers to methods for developing interns who follow an apprenticeship-style training pattern as they spend time, or ‘take seats’, in different departments throughout the firm. “They take a six-month seat in litigation or employment, learning about each different kind of law,” she explains.
Cobbetts takes 25 trainees a year who each follow a two-year scheme.

“A senior lawyer, who is their training supervisor, is a coach to them,” she says. “Their job is to coach the trainees so that in two years’ time, they are signed off as solicitors.”

Cobbetts’ approach to coaching is highly structured. “We are a fairly big organisation and take this seriously,” Forster says. “Plenty of checks are put in place to measure the scheme’s effectiveness.”

The trainees’ progress follows a prescribed route as their learning is monitored by the training supervisor. Client work must be signed off before it goes out of the building. “And before the intern moves from one supervisor to another, we monitor them on an appraisal form which checks their progress in accordance with our competencies, which in turn gel with those of the Law Society,” Forster explains. “This will build them up to the next level, which is a formally qualified solicitor.”


Supporting this structure is a programme of soft skills development. Supervisors are coached in how people learn, and team leaders (those who head the employment law team, for example) will go through 360-degree appraisals.

“Although this group already has appraisals, we are going to do 360-degree appraisals to see if they are leading the team well,” says Forster. “The most important thing is that they see their role as coaching the juniors.”

Team leaders are coached by members of the senior executive team (such as senior partner, managing partner, business development director and financial partner and equity partner) receive support and encouragement with people management and business planning issues. These efforts will be extended with the creation of  development centres this autumn  and in spring 2006.

“We have coaching for all levels,” Forster says. “As law firms get bigger, they become a business, and so have to look after their people.
“As part of the development centres, we will have assessors [usually the partners] who coach the participants. Participants will have to do presentations and group discussions. At the end of the day, they will get a personal development plan (PDP). The person who helps each of them get through the PDP is one of the people who assesses them, and we are calling them coaches.”


Some centres will be for partners who are looking for a leadership role (such as a managing partner, for example) while the others will be designed for associates who want to become partners.

Forster believes she has seen coaching grow “organically” at the firm, but admits that there is still one major barrier – time.

“Solicitors charge for their time,” she says. “If you look at an hour in terms of chargeable units, that is potentially a barrier,” pinpointing the conflict between earning money and spending time developing employees. Luckily though, she says, there is support from “management and the culture of the firm”.

She believes that the knowledge-sharing nature of the legal environment lends itself to coaching, but stresses that Cobbetts doesn’t see coaching as the sole preserve of solicitors and partners. The coaching programme has also been extended to secretaries.

Cobbetts won a national training award for using HR and training managers as coaches to train its secretaries to become development co-ordinators for their peers.

Forster’s five steps

  • Choose the right people as coaches. They need to be committed – it will take two years to build a relationship of trust and see the programme through
  • For coaching to be successful, you must be honest with your coach
  • Allow the people you are coaching to make mistakes and learn from them
  • Enlist support from senior management. Without that we couldn’t do anything
  • Create a coaching culture. We have a competency framework and one of the key factors is getting the best from others.


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