January 5, 2012 Coaching

“Times change, not men, and me, least of all.”  Jacques Mesrine, French Gangster

I loved the film “Chariots of Fire,” about two British Olympic sprinters and their desire for gold medals, but one part grated my modern sensibility. Back in the 1920s, it was considered ungentlemanly and against amateur rules for an athlete to hire a professional coach. The star of the film bucked the system and hired one, surreptitiously, and followed his advice to victory. While he was running the Olympic 100 meter final, his coach sat in a hotel room listening on the radio because he couldn’t even attend the event. Today it would be unimaginable for a high-level athlete not to have a coach.

Tiger Woods has always had a golf coach, and when his skills declined, it may have been as a result of firing his long-time coach. Professional tennis players all have private coaches. Singers, musicians, even teachers, have professional coaches. Singers say that they need a third ear to hear their voice since they can’t accurately assess it on their own. The same phenomena occurs with violinists and other musicians who can’t “hear” their work and need an outside ear to judge their performance. It is a challenge to listen and observe yourself while performing.

The key to accepting coaching with athletes is that no matter how well trained in their formative years, the capacity for self-perfection has just begun. Trial lawyering requires that far more than athletic training. We don’t learn how to try cases in law school. It is a life-long learning experience, mostly on-the-job training. Far too much of it is done on our own. How much better would it be to have a great trial advocacy teacher evaluating our skills and helping us to develop them?

I think that experienced trial lawyers also need coaching. This is a radical idea which may not be accepted for several reasons. Coaching is like surgery. It’s painful, it has side effects, and it might lead to a bad reaction. First you may be afraid a coach not only won’t help but may give bad advice. Next, if the client realizes you have a coach he might think why does he need you. Or worse, the coach and his notes might be subpoenaed for a post-conviction hearing — it might be a little awkward explaining away that one. But the real impediment is not that but our egos. Why expose yourself to scrutiny and criticism? It is not fun and can be painful. Nobody likes being corrected; it is an artifact from our childhood pain. The overbearing mother syndrome. Some of you will hate to be observed and judged.

Coaching requires that the trial lawyer be able to acknowledge weaknesses, mistakes or inadequacies, and it will require him to work outside of his comfort zone to change techniques and strategies that are not working. The right coach will challenge the lawyer in a way that makes the process optimally uncomfortable and effective while being able to assess opportunities, skills, strengths and weaknesses.

No one starts out as a trial lawyer. It takes many years of working in courtrooms. In each of those years you improve as you learn the profession. For several years you get steady, measurable results through your development, that is by learning and practicing basic techniques. But after a while doing more of what you do well yields only small incremental improvement and you reach a plateau. Your skill development flattens out. You need a new type of stimulus to break through to the next level. Coaching can provide that.

And don’t for a moment think you can rely on the feedback of judges, jurors, colleagues, friends, parents, spouses, etc. They will all lie to you and tell you what they think you want to hear.

But think of the possibilities. How much better you could become? Like the singers and musicians, we can’t watch ourselves. We don’t know how we are coming off to others in the courtroom. And there is a much safer alternative to have someone in the cheap seats taking notes. Video. It would be like football coaches going over game tape with the team. I bet they don’t like it either, but does anyone doubt it makes them better. We can tape any state court proceeding and analyze it. True, our brethren in the federal courts won’t allow it, but work with what you can.

It would be difficult to find someone for an entire trial but certainly the opening and closing arguments is doable. And it has benefits for the coach. I recently helped a friend with designing and delivering a speech. This caused me to go over the basic principles so I could distill them for him. It was a useful exercise for me as well. It forced me to listen closely and give an honest appraisal. It helps your own thinking and skills. I have been doing this for many years with students at the law school who learn trial techniques and the rules of evidence through mock trials.

The question to ask yourself is “How coachable am I?” Years ago, at the famous Bolshoi Ballet, auditions for the troupe were conducted for 8-year-old girls. They start that young because it takes ten years to become a great ballerina. How did the auditions work? The teachers weren’t looking for the best dancers. They were looking for the dancers who took coaching the best. They knew the rest would come with time.

The world of trial advocacy changes rapidly. We need to continually evolve or be left behind. My best teacher, Phil Hubbart, used to say “you either get better or get worse, no one in this profession stays the same.” I think being coachable is a personal choice each one of has to make, and not everyone is open to it. Some lawyers are resistant to new ideas and hold on tight for dear life to the same old beliefs that got them where they are. Ironically their success limits them. We need to be open to new ways of doing things. I am grateful for all the teachers that have worked with me along the road of my life. Some were aware of it, but many were not.