Shifting the advisor mindset

I have had the pleasure to work with thousands of talented partners, counsel and associates who deliver exceptional client service.

One area of my focus has been to encourage, develop and support these talented professionals to become talented leaders who are motivated and able to grow their firms and their people.

The shift from lawyering to leading however is not an easy one. For high achieving experts, practising the law is immensely rewarding. Having honed their craft and developed their expertise over many years, their clients’ problems are solved, damaging litigation avoided, companies successfully disposed of, risks averted, money saved. All highly challenging. But the sense of achievement is measurable and tangible. Feedback is instant – clients are happy, fees are paid and closing dinners are celebrated. Chargeable hours and fee targets are realised and rewarded.

Leading cannot compare. No one can claim to be an expert in how to lead, what worked in one context or with one person fails in another. People are complex, inconsistent and difficult. The future is unknown and ambiguous. Change is constant. There are no precedents, rule books, laws or guidelines to follow and apply consistently. Leading is intangible, conceptual, difficult to measure and rarely rewarded. Change and achievement is long term. Feedback is rare.

No wonder then that the old maxim “many lawyers don’t want to be leaders and most lawyers don’t want to be led” rang true for many years and for many firms.

Wanting to lead

But I have noticed that this is no longer the case. The next generations of emerging leaders, high potential and partner track candidates, senior associates and counsel – DO want to make a difference, they want to have a say in how their firms and practices are managed, they want more influence – they want to lead.

But moving from lawyer to leader requires some fundamental shifts in mindset and skills and a process of continuous learning and unlearning.

One of the most difficult shifts is to move away from a lifetime of giving advice and solving other’s problems to allowing others to think things through for themselves, come up with their own solutions and take responsibility for implementing them. We call this a shift to a coaching mindset. Letting go is hard.  One senior partner in a Big 4 Firm expressed his view with incredulity  “do you honestly mean to tell me that if I allow them the opportunity my people would be able to work this out for themselves?’

If your world view is that the only way to add value is to solve a problem, recognising the benefit of a coaching mindset does not come easily. Moving from giving advice, talking and transmitting to listening, reflecting and supporting is a real challenge.

In multiple meetings and conversations observed over 30 years, I know that the average time it takes for a “typical” partner to move from asking questions to giving an answer is 30 seconds to 3 minutes. Very bright people hoover up the data and fact patterns and spit out a solution almost without realising it. But have they understood what the real problem is and what people really want?  Have they identified where the blockages are, where the shift needs to take place to identify the most effective way forward. In 30 seconds to 3 minutes – probably not.

So what is the way through this lawyer to leader dilemma? One approach that has proved very successful is to encourage lawyers to develop and flex towards a coaching style of leading. This is not to turn everyone into a “coach” but to encourage expert advisors to hold a different type of conversation, with more skill, which will build stronger relationships and develop both confidence and capability.

Daniel Goleman in his Leadership that Gets Results article for Harvard Business Reviews puts it this way: this style of leading has been identified as having a positive effect on all aspects of an organisation’s climate. Exceptional leaders differentiate themselves from satisfactory leaders by entering into coaching conversations (take a look at Google’s Project Oxygen for more on this). And today – the needs of hybrid workers can be met by adopting coaching as one of a number of power skills (Josh Bersin, HR Predictions and the Employee Experience).

Team members crave meaningful relationships, yet leaders often deliver transactional ones.  Coaching conversations are precious “me” time. They can foster open, honest discussions about opportunities and challenges, hopes and fears. They lead to development, growth and mastery. They support delegation, maximise leverage and enable succession. And in the “great attrition” when it is easy to leave a laptop, coaching relationships and conversations can lead to greater levels of engagement and create more “sticky” employees. They demonstrate you care and are investing in each individual; they foster loyalty.

A welcome perspective

Clients too appreciate the chance to focus on something that is worrying them, to which there is no immediate or obvious answer. They value the time and space to talk things out. They welcome different perspectives, insight, careful observation, support and challenge and the opportunity to find a way their way through intractable issues and seemingly insurmountable problems. A coaching style and coaching conversation will deliver all these benefit and more.

The professionals who have developed a coaching style and shifted their expert mindset are surprised that it works for them and for others. They are relieved of the pressure to solve everyone else’s problems. They value the time and space to reflect, focus, speak out, untangle and “see” their own thoughts, assumptions, beliefs and motives. They welcome the opportunity to share how they feel and to explore all the options and choices they have available to them. And yes, Senior Partner, they are able to find the way through for themselves!


PSFI has developed a new course to make these essential skills available to a wider audience.  The new programme – Leading Clients, Leading People – consists of six virtual three-hour taught modules running from February to May. Joanna is co-leading the course with Charles Brock, the founder of TPC Leadership, a consultancy and leadership development company. This highly practical programme will introduce participants to a different style of leadership and provide them with a range of methodologies, tools and techniques which will help them increase their personal effectiveness; build stronger client relationships; deliver higher levels of engagement; leverage diversity and harness the performance and potential of their people and their practice. A course overview and more information is available here.

Joanna Corr
Joanna is a Partner at PSFI. She specialises in the development of professionals as leaders with their clients and with their teams. She also focuses on the implementation of talent management and client relationship strategies.
View Joanna Corr's profile

PSFI announces new coaching course

We have joined forces with TPC Leadership to bring you this programme which has been designed specifically for lawyers to help you develop your own leadership style, enabling you to lead both clients and people effectively. Leading Clients,...

14th July, 2022

Henry Marsden

Leading your way out of the crisis: Why investing in partners as leaders gives firms a competitive advantage

Byline article by: Rob Lees and Henry Marsden Leaders of professional services firms have managed the unprecedented Covid crisis well, but the time for “managing” is over as...

25th January, 2021
Joanna Corr

Moving the Masses: James Wilson from Baker McKenzie on helping more women move into and stay in leadership positions

In today’s podcast we sit down with James Wilson, senior tax partner at Baker McKenzie, to discuss the challenges facing women in leadership. PSFI partner Joanna Corr chatted with James about what needs to change in professional services firms to ...

20th December, 2021