Law Firm's Coaching Program Helps Improve Associate Engagement, Retention

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By Caryn Freeman

Sept. 8 — Looking for ever more creative ways to keep its younger employees engaged, employer-side law firm Seyfarth Shaw has found success with a coaching program for its associates, William Schurgin, a partner in the firm's Chicago office, told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 4.

The law firm had found that many associates were staying at the firm for only a few years. They were looking to either pay back student loans or gain experience, and would then move on to other legally oriented jobs in corporations, nonprofits or the government.

According to Schurgin, who was instrumental in piloting the program and serves as a coach, the program has not only improved engagement and retention, but also has helped associates more clearly define their career paths. Currently the program is focused on millennials because they tend to make up most of the firm's associates, he said.

“When you think about what coaching is, it's really an interactive process to help unlock potential performance and improve the ability to set goals, accomplish tasks and use natural strengths,” Schurgin said. “I think it helps retention, and I think it helps partners understand how different generations approach problems differently.”

Seyfarth Shaw began its coaching program in its Chicago office in 2012 by hiring a consulting firm to train 10 partners to become coaches, Schurgin explained. The law firm had about 25 associates participate in the first year and has since expanded the program to its San Francisco, Houston and New York offices, he said.

Requires Accountability, Commitment

Schurgin said it's important that the program is voluntary because the associates have to want to be coached. “We tell them off the bat that this is a commitment,” he said. “It's structured, there's accountability, and our associates have really embraced it.”

Schurgin said he encourages associates in the program to pick no more than three goals. Then, in his role as coach, he says, “OK, let's figure out what your end-goal is.” Schurgin encourages associates “to talk to someone who is performing in the role they want to be in.” After that, the associate will come up with his or her own plan, he added.

“We don't set goals six months off; we break it into pieces and talk about what we are going to do in the next month,” Schurgin noted. “I do think that millennials respond very well to realistic, short-term goals.”

Those goals can be anything from improving time management to developing a network to getting additional credentials, he said.

Coaches Also Coached Regularly

Throughout the process, trainers continue to guide coaches, Schurgin said. “That's an ongoing process,” he said. Coaches also meet regularly with each other to discuss what is and isn't working, he added.

“We're all about feedback and measurement,” Schurgin said. “We found that when trainers send out surveys, often they don't get them back, so we made the data gathering process much more verbal. It was easier to just call someone and talk about how things are going. After the first pilot program, we had a big debrief with trainers and coaches.”

Associates Choose Coach

Associates are sent a list of coaches and can give their preference of whom they'd like to work with, Schurgin said. “When you assign people to a coach, that's not coaching in my view,” Schurgin said. “That's more of a mentoring/coaching crossover. I think an important part of our coaching culture is allowing the associate to pick the coach.”

“A professional coach will tell you that one of the fundamental principles of coaching is confidentiality, but the other one is the ‘coachee' picks the coach,” he said.

Schurgin said that keeping the coaching program separate from performance management has helped associates open up about their goals.

Also encouraging frank discussion, conversations between coach and associate are kept confidential, Schurgin said. That confidentially allows for an associate to be comfortable stating, for example, that he is afraid to do public speaking, without fear that the admission will hurt his standing at the firm, Schurgin said.

Better Understanding Millennials

Coaching has made the associates feel much more a part of the firm, Schurgin said. “That gets into your retention of talent—them being able to look ahead and see what their path is within the firm,” he said.

Schurgin said one thing he came to appreciate as a baby boomer working with millennials is how associates approach their work and solve problems. “People can accomplish a goal in a way I never would think of and that reinforced to me that my way, the way I might accomplish a goal, is not necessarily they way that works for everyone,” he said. “And that has really opened my eyes to how this generation does things differently.”

“We can set the same goal, but they go about [accomplishing] it entirely differently than I would and they're equally as successful,” he said. “I think that's a great lesson that I've taken out of this, and that's because I let them set their path and then I can watch them succeed.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Caryn Freeman in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Simon Nadel at