What’s Legal Coaching?

Legal coaching is a new concept in family law. The best definition for family law self-reps I’ve seen is:

“Legal coaching is a type of unbundled legal service, where a lawyer-coach offers behind-the-scenes guidance on both the hard and soft skills of lawyering, in order to provide a (primarily) self-represented litigant with the strategies and tools needed to present their case as effectively as possible in the absence of counsel.” (NOTE 1)

Essentially Legal Coaching for family law self-reps is providing the information, assistance, strategic advice, and practical tips needed to present their case in the best and most persuasive way. It’s about how to maximise effectiveness in family court.

What does Legal Coaching do?

Legal Coaching is about giving a person the space to look realistically and objectively at the situation in which they find themselves, and assisting them to examine what they have been doing, and can do, considering their intensions and objectives.

It helps:

  • raise awareness of the “big” picture,
  • clarify goals,
  • unlock potential to improve performance, and
  • identify and select the best available options.
Legal Coaching for family law self-reps is something inspired by, but not the same as, executive coaching, which has been around for a long time. (NOTE 2) It draws upon much of the experience and lessons of executive training, but has a different objective.

Executive coaching helps a person be better at their job.

Legal Coaching helps a person perform a specific job better.

The International Coach Federation (ICF) defines coaching “as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” It goes on to say:

“Professional coaching focuses on setting goals, creating outcomes and managing personal change.”

The IDF sees coaching as an ongoing professional relationship that helps people produce extraordinary results in their lives, careers, businesses or organisations.

One of the chief objectives of executive coaching, which certainly applies to Legal Coaching for family law self-reps, is that it helps clients improve their performance in general and at their job.. Legal Coaching is also goal oriented. But it’s a short-term exercise aimed at improving performance to achieve a specific outcome.

A person gets executive coaching to help them stay in their job and do it better. No one wants to stay in a family court matter  as a long term activity. They don’t want to be a better family court litigant. They want Legal Coaching to help them be better at their specific case..

Coaching concentrates on where clients are now in their family court matter, and helps them do what they can to get the best possible outcome for that matter.

In the recent report of the Family Legal Services Review, December 31, 2016, conducted for the Ontario Attorney General, (NOTE 3) Madam Justice Bonkalo made a series of recommendations. Her first 3 dealt with encouraging lawyers to offer unbundled services, encouraging an expanded use of unbundled services, and supporting the development of legal coaching.

She wrote:

“Legal coaching is a new area of practice the profession should also support. Legal coaching may overlap with some unbundled tasks, but is uniquely characterized by the lawyer equipping the client to move his or her own matter forward (by reviewing documents, preparing them for an appearance, etc.) rather than personally doing the work for the client. Legal coaching can be provided on a fee-for-service or flat-rate model, and may involve the provision of substantive legal advice, procedural coaching, hearings coaching and/or negotiation and settlement coaching. Depending on the client’s needs, capabilities and financial circumstances, coaching and unbundled services can be provided hand-in-hand.

Legal Coaching will involve different things depending upon each matter. It may include some or all of:

  • Legal advice
  • Reviewing and commenting on documents filed in court
  • Assistance in revising or drafting documents for court
  • Suggestions about how to organize written or spoken presentations
  • Strategic guidance about dealing with the strengths and weaknesses of your case and the case you have to meet
  • Support in handling yourself in court
  • Guidance through the family court system
Legal Coaching has many benefits.

Increased self-awareness

One of the difficulties affecting many, perhaps most, people going through a family court proceeding is in realizing that it’s not all about them. There are many players in a family law case. There’s the client, the other party, possibly the children and a social service agency, perhaps a lawyer for the other party, friends a family giving “advice”, and, of course, the judge. It’s critical for each client to understand how they fit into the overall scenario, how what they say and do, and how they present the issues and facts, affects the way their case is seen.

Without the client being aware of how everyone else in the matter sees them, they’ll make critical mistakes in the presentation of their case.

Just because the client feels this or that is fair or reasonable, and just because the client thinks the judge should know this or that, doesn’t make it so, or mean they’re right . Helping the client to understand where they fit into the facts available, and to understand how what the others are saying is impacting the matter, will help them become more clear about their situation and more effective in advancing it.

Better goal-setting

Often the gulf between what a client wants out of the process and what is realistically available is large. The client sees matters through their own perspective and may be unaware of how the judge will see the same facts.

Good coaching can help a client better understand the situation they’re in and the reasonable outcomes they can expect. This helps a client set meaningful and realizable goals.

Better goal-setting allows for a more effective presentation because facts and arguments that are irrelevant or pointless won’t get in the way of those that help a judge make the decision. Like barnacles on a ship’s hull, the wrong arguments and trying to establish irrelevant facts, interferes with the smooth sailing towards the client’s objective.

The more realistic and practical we are at setting our goals, especially in family court, the more likely we are to achieve them.

Enhanced communications skills

Good family law lawyers are good communicators. We need to communicate with our clients, the other party, other lawyers, witnesses, experts, and judges. Sometimes different skills are required for communicating with different people. We make a living by communicating persuasively.

But this isn’t a skill set required for all jobs and for all people. Even the smartest and most successful people may not be good communicators. That’s why major companies and government agencies have a “spokesperson” to communicate to the public. That’s why a great manufacturer hires an advertising agency – to communicate with the public.

But most self-reps in family court haven’t developed or even had to use this sort of skill. They know their case and all the facts, but they have trouble organizing them or telling the story in a logical or persuasive way. Or they may be embarrassed to speak in public or get so tongue-tied that they forget to say what’s most important.

But coaching from an experienced lawyer, who understands the situation the client is facing and can help the person acting for themselves communicate in a meaningful and effective way. Coaching doesn’t turn a person into a great orator, but it helps remove the roadblocks and enhance whatever ability the person has to be better able to tell their story.

Increased confidence

All of the above leads towards greater self-confidence. The client naturally becomes more confident once they better understand their goals and have their material and arguments better organized. When they can see what pieces of their case advance their interest and how to counter what doesn’t, and when they understand when each party speaks and how to deal with the judge, they tend to relax.

Rosabeth Moss Kantor, a professor of business at the Harvard Business School, summarized this by saying: “Confidence isn’t optimism or pessimism., and it’s not a character attribute. It’s the expectation of a positive outcome.” A good coach can help the client define and move toward their “positive outcome”.

Lower stress levels

Lastly, but far from least, a good coach helps reduce the stress level of the client. The client’s stress and fear about the outcome is reduced once they have a realistic sense of self awareness, realizable goals, improved communication skills, and confidence in being able to present their case as effectively as they’re able,

It’s not therapy

Therapy focusses on the past. It deals with removing or resolving difficulties affecting the person that interfere with, or harm, their emotional functioning in the present. It helps them deal with the present in a more functional and healthy way.

Legal Coaching, however, is focussed on the future and the achievement of a specific outcome. It may involve creating positive feelings and healthy emotions, but its primary focus is on developing actionable strategies for achieving specific goals.

It’s not consulting

Consultants are people with specific expertise paid to come up with solutions. Typically it involves hiring a person with specific knowledge to diagnose a problem and suggest answers. It’s finished once that’s done, and usually the consultant leaves the implementation to the person paying for the consultation.

Legal Coaching clearly involves a lawyer using his or her knowledge to help diagnose a problem and offer legal advice for a solution. But, and more important, it involves a participation in enhancing the individual’s performance in implementing the solution.

It’s not training

Training usually involves a program set by an instructor or trainer with defined objectives. It generally sees the process as a linear activity with guidance provided by the trainer working from a predesigned curriculum. It’s designed to build and maintain certain skills so that performance can be maintained. It focusses on behaviours that are being executed poorly or incorrectly.

Legal Coaching, however, is much more single minded. It’s only intended to enhance skills for a particular purpose, designed to accomplish a specific objective, without needing the client to maintain those skills beyond the matter at hand. It’s not teaching an athlete to pitch or hit better – it’s to help a non-athlete play a bit of baseball for the office summer picnic.

Legal Coaching is designed for people handling their own matter in family court without a lawyer. It’s for anyone who:

  • is uncomfortable speaking in a formal setting or speaking in court
  • is willing to better understand what part of their case is or isn’t as important to a judge as they might think
  • can be easily sidetracked by interruptions
  • can use an objective and knowledgeable help to help identify and emphasize their key, realizable, objectives
  • gets tongue-tied when nervous
  • knows their facts and arguments, but wants to understand which are the most persuasive and which are irrelevant
  • wants to anticipate the arguments the other party might raise and know how to counter them
  • is the sort of person who thinks about what they should have said after the opportunity to say it has passed
  • doesn’t want to feel that they could have done better if they had some assistance in presenting their case
  • wants to know a judge might see their position

It used to be that almost all family law lawyers went to court. Some were better at it than others, but nearly every family law lawyer had court experience.

Lawyers who go to court take years to become polished courtroom advocates. Some are natural at it and others aren’t. But most lawyers don’t ever go into court. They know they’d be no good at it and they look to experienced litigation lawyers to present their cases to a judge.

For many years now, fewer and fewer family law lawyers are going to court. And even fewer of them having any actual trial experience. Some are limiting themselves to alternate dispute resolution practices – doing only mediation or collaborative law, for example – or only acting for a client up to the point of going to court.

So, the fact that a person acting for themselves in a family court matter doesn’t have the skills and ability to represent themselves as strongly as possible isn’t a surprise. Unfortunately, however, the court system treats all people presenting a case the same. It holds everyone to the same rules. Lawyers know those rules and how to be effective in court. Self-reps don’t.

That’s why a bit of Legal Coaching will likely help every family law self-rep.

People differ on this, but it’s the view of The Family Law Coach that for Legal Coaching to be of value it needs to be given by an experienced family law lawyer. Not just a lawyer who knows the law, but one who has sufficient courtroom experience to know the way the system works and what judges are looking for from litigants in court.

On the one hand, I’d say a lawyer needs at least 5 years of a full traditional practice, including court attendances at motions, conferences, and trials, as well as experience in drafting documents and agreements, and negotiating settlements, to understand the real world that a family law litigant experiences.

On the other hand, a person is legally able to provide legal services as soon as they have received their certification to practice law. So if a person can give legal advice and represent clients in court the day after they get their call as a lawyer, why can’t they act as a coach?

The answer, of course, is that you should be very cautious about getting advice and assistance from someone who is still developing their skills

It’s like being a cook. Just because you can recite  or copy a recipe doesn’t mean you’re a 5 Star chef.

On balance, it’s The Family Law Coach position that only an experienced family law lawyer should be doing Legal Coaching. The problem is that with Legal Coaching only becoming a service, and with so few lawyers offering it, you need to check out the qualifications and experience of the lawyer offering it, and match that to the cost, to be sure to get the best assistance you can.

The Family Law Coach offers nothing but unbundled services for family law self-reps So that a self-rep will be able to keep control of the cost, it’s offered in units of one hour. No open-ended representation with an unknown cost at the end. No lawyer dictating how much time will be spent. The Family Law Coach recognizes that self-reps may have limited resources and need to get the best value for the cost. The Family Law Coach also respects family court self-reps and leaves it to them to decide how much they can afford and if what they’re spending is worth it. (See our 30 Day, No Hassel, Money Back Guarantee.)

We have two Legal Coaching packages. Each is offered exclusively through telephone and email. You choose how to deal with the lawyer, and when. No need to take time off work, or get child care, or make travel arrangements to come to the lawyer’s office. You get your coaching at the place and time of your convenience, and you keep control of the cost. (Each package can be extended in units of one hour at a time for ongoing involvement with your coach.)

Learn More about our Legal Coaching Service
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  1. This definition is from Nikki Gershbain, National Director of Pro Bono Students Canada, as part of a legal coaching research project funded by the Law Foundation of Ontario that she’s leading.
  2. The thoughts expressed above have been influenced by material found at the sources set out below. Principles and concepts found in various of these sources have been paraphrased or adapted from what others have said, to fit them to the family law Legal Coaching experience. I’ve use material in the sources cited as a springboard to comments of my own. In some cases, I’ve copied words or phrases directly without credit because I may be using them in a context different from what the author intended.
    Each of these sources is commenting about coaching from the perspective of the corporate world. I’ve used several of their ideas and concepts but changed them to fit the situation of an experienced family law lawyer offering coaching to a family law self-rep. providing coaching. None of these sources or their authors are responsible for anything set out above. I admire and respect the lessons and I’ve learned from them, but only I am responsible for how that’s been used in the discussion about family law Legal Coaching.
The sources I reviewed and borrowed from are:
The international Coach Federation:
The Stellar Leadership company:
 “The Grow Model is Dead” by Richard Winfield (A report available from BREFI Group website at
Coaching ModelFUEL and GROW, by Srinath Ramakrishnan:
The Harvard Business Review, January 2009 issue:
The Value Proposition For Executive Coaching, by William B. Reeves (
  1. Family Legal Services Review, December 31, 2016: