Coaching vs. Mentoring for Lawyers and Other Professionals

by Dr.ChristianKessel

When leaving law school or any other academic training the real learning only starts, mostly by practicing the learned profession (job learning), partly in more formal training sessions in the firm and partly individually through coaching, mentoring or even counselling. Each of these is a development tool of personal growth but ultimately geared to support career development.

A key feature of career development is becoming a successful business developer and even rainmaker. One thing is technique and know-how. And perhaps the overcoming of excuses and the creation of routines for successful business development are required. But there may also be underlying challenges and, in particular the necessary Business Mindset may be missing or be underdeveloped. For everything that hinders you to be as successful as you aspire there are solutions. And coaching and mentoring as well as counselling may be very much part of that solution.

What is coaching, mentoring, counselling, and consulting for?

There is much uncertainty among professionals and in particular in the legal profession about mentoring and coaching as well as counselling and even consulting. We will discuss the differences and key purposes of their application below.

While law firms for instance may set up a mentoring programme for junior attorneys by more senior colleagues or partners, these mentors can mostly only share their own wisdom and experiences but rarely fulfil the function of a coach or counsellor.

Mentoring and coaching are both valuable tools but only coaching focuses on causing the coachee to come up with his or her own solutions, take ownership of them and be highly motivated to implement them. Thus coaching will provide breakthroughs and solutions to real issues and perhaps even internal transformational shifts for lawyers and other professionals, in particular as regards their business and career development.

Basics and examples

Law school in no way prepares for the challenges and stresses of the legal profession and less so for the need to build a business case to make partner and even thereafter to succeed in the partnership role. However, only “successful partners” will in due course hold senior and influential positions in their firm.

Members of the senior management teams ( like law firm leaders or sector or practice heads ) may get some coaching and mentoring on their election or appointment (leadership coaching). But the “ordinary” associate, counsel or partner is only rarely supported by any structured coaching programmes.

As they are the firm’s real money makers at the forefront of client management and client relationships, law firm management should set up formal training on how to generate productive relationships with clients and prospective clients and customers ( targets) – in other words: how to be an effective and efficient business developer. And mentoring and coaching on a 1:1 basis or in small groups should definitely be part of it for those who are struggling to build their book of business.

So what may be good areas for mentoring and coaching?

Here are a few good examples:

  • technical and behavioural skills on any chosen challenge
  • Human Resources responsibility
  • challenging career opportunities
  • professional development
  • smoother succession planning
  • career progression
  • improving client service and improved performance
  • future possibilities

Mentoring and coaching whether as part of a structured career development programme or a more informal training programme to develop skills will help any junior team member as much as the firm’s future leaders or the firm’s senior management groups. In any event, mentoring and coaching will also increase job satisfaction, help organisations retain talented individuals and make the task of the talent management managers much easier.

Thus, there are many good reasons for law firm leaders to make sure, their lawyers have easy access to coaching and mentoring as well as counselling in certain cases.

Key differences and defining features

Almost everyone serving another person in any form of personal advisory capacity is commonly referred to as a coach. But not every personal and interactive discussion between two people is necessarily coaching.

Coaching in its broader understanding may also be referred to as mentoring or consulting and is at times even understood as counselling.

There are no fixed definitions for any of these notions but commonly they are distinguished as follows:


A mentor has a certain expertise, experience or wisdom that may be valuable for another person (the client or mentee).

This other person ( the mentee) lacks certain knowledge, information, skills, expertise or experience and looks to the mentor for guidance, learning, know-how or new skills.

A mentoring relationship offers for one person to partake in the training, experience, wisdom and life skills of another, usually somewhat older and more senior person.

The mentor will ask questions in order to find out what input is required of him or to ascertain the areas of expertise or experience from which the other person wishes to benefit. In other words, the mentor tries to ascertain or understand the other person’s problem or lack in order to then share from his experience and expertise and provide input and possibly solutions to any given issue, question or circumstance. The expertise is mainly with the mentor.


Consulting and mentoring have much in common. But with consulting the existence of a situation that needs improvement or resolution with the help of an outside expert is often even more in the focus than the person dealing with it.

The consultant asks questions to diagnose a problem and find out what needs to change. The consultant will advise on new strategies or a step plan or any other solution that may seem appropriate from his perspective and experience as an expert. Again, however, the expertise is mainly with the consultant (the expert).


Coaching has two major components:

Solving problems yourself

A coaching relationship is built on the principle that people can solve their own problems.

They are capable of thinking and processing information for themselves and on that basis they will make purposeful and strategic decisions for their business or their own lives.

All of that will move them toward fulfilling or realising their potential.

A coach provides a facilitative communication structure and a process of asking exploratory questions which cause the other person (the client or coachee) to

  • discover for themselves new perspectives, insights, understanding or,
  • receive or learn new frameworks for attending to opportunities or dealing with challenges.

The clients or coachees learn at a deeper level because they are forced to think more deeply, more broadly, are challenged to “think out of the box” or to be creative in finding additional options they had not thought about before.

Ultimately, they will come up with decisions and actions that they take ownership for and which result in personal development to their full potential, personal growth goals realised or a commitment to defined actions or initiatives.

Coaching incorporates active listening, a real interest in the other person and curiosity, asking powerful questions meant to facilitate discovering options, solutions, alternatives, constructively framing observations, feedback and creating a vision of what can be achieved in contrast to focusing on current problems.

At the end of a coaching session, normally action points which the client should take and implement are agreed. They are determined by the coachees based on the solutions worked out by themselves on the prompts of the coach. That makes coaching very practical.

And at a deeper level coaching may also help to transform negative mindsets, limiting beliefs systems and lack of (professional) identity; see in detail on these topics my Article Business Mindset on this webpage.


Another key aspect of a coaching relationship is the follow-up by the coach on the action points agreed in the last coaching session and to hear from the coachee whether and how their implementation has worked out (or not). Thus, part of any coaching relationship is the agreement that the client shall be accountable to the coach as to the action points and the general implementation of the solutions discovered and resolved by the client.


Ultimately the difference between mentoring and consulting on the one hand and coaching on the other hand may be summarised as follows: the former two coach the problem, the latter coaches the person. The former two may provide for “quick fix solutions” built on the experience and expertise of the mentor or consultant but coaching will equip the client/coachee with the ability to find or develop own solutions.


The expertise of a counsellor comprises dealing with emotional or behavioural symptoms or patterns, areas of pain, hurt or injury and/or dysfunction in the personal or professional life of the client or, more generally, fixing something in life that is not working at all or well.

The counsellor will ask questions to identify causes and diagnose problems which have been caused in the past but have an effect in the present and which require mending, coping skills, healing or wholeness for the future.

Conclusion: No Shame

So, the orientation of counselling is really past/ present whereas coaching and mentoring are clearly present/future-oriented and consulting may have a past/present/future orientation.

All are valuable and whatever you need to move forward in your life, your profession or career, please go for it and seek the help that you need and, more importantly, deserve.

There is no shame in enlisting the help of a professional and the rewards are huge. What can be better than overcoming life’s challenges and building a better life for yourself and your family?

Let’s realize your full potential!


Stay in Touch

More Articles

Interview by David Schwab: Entrepreneurship and Business Development

Transcript of the interview by David Schwab from Clients&Candidates with Dr Christian Kessel in October 2023. Distributed via LinkedIn and the Clients&Candidates YouTube channel.

Marketing and Business Development in Law Firms is a Must

Transcript of Claudia Böhnert’s interview with Dr Christian Kessel from October 2023. Distributed originally via LinkedIn and the YouTube channel of Courage Marketing PR.
Conversations Training for Professionals

Conversations Training for Professionals 

How to have powerful conversations that bring in the business? How do I turn the conversation? Read more about conversations training …
develop a successful business

Developing a Successful Business – Solutions for a further 10 Common Mistakes 

The common mistakes discussed in this Article are the most common reasons why professionals have not succeeded as business developers and have not been able to build a super profitable business
Solutions of Successful Business Developers

Solutions of Successful Business Developers To 10 Common Mistakes 

In my 32 years as an associate and partner in two big international law firms and always keen on business development I have found many reasons why certain business development activities work – and others do not work.
Business Mindset - mindset shift

Business Mindset – the Role of Mindsets, Belief Systems and Identity

The most unknown and least discussed reasons why you are not (and are even unlikely to become) the successful business developer you aspire to be


Stay in Touch