This Lawyer-Turned-Coach Helps Lawyers Find Their Career Path

Spotlight on Kate McGuinness

Kate McGuinness.

So many attorneys end up questioning their choice to be a lawyer and whether they should make a career transition. Kate McGuinness, a certified executive and life transition coach, answers questions about her work and how it can help attorneys live a better life.

Kate joined O’Melveny & Myers on graduating from law school and after seven years in the trenches became a partner. She left to become the Vice President and General Counsel of The Times Mirror Corporation,  then a Fortune 250 company.

After her stint in the C-Suite, she studied creative writing. Her legal thriller Terminal Ambition, A Maggie Mahoney Novel is set in a BigLaw firm and explores power plays sparked by one partner’s attempt to stop widespread sexual harassment. Kate’s essays about women’s issues are carried by The Guardian, The Huffington Post, Women’s Media Center, Role/Reboot, and other publications.

1. Why did you become a coach?
Women’s rights have been a long-term passion of mine. I wrote extensively about these issues over the years but decided the most effective way to help women was through one-on-one relationships. I became a certified coach to learn the psychological and neuroscientific bases of adult development, the underpinning of any successful coaching relationship. At Counselor Coaching, I bring these insights to my clients as well as the hard-won wisdom gained through my long career in the law both as an associate and partner at O’Melveny & Myers and as the Vice President and General Counsel of The Times Mirror Company, then a Fortune 500 corporation.

2. Tell readers about Counselor Coaching.  
In addition to coaching, I offer educational and consulting services which focus on the unique challenges women face in a male-dominated workplace. Through speeches and workshops, I teach women how to build confidence and executive presence as well as how to overcome common challenges such as perfectionism and juggling work/balance.

I also identify practices that can allow lawyers to thrive and escape the malaise that afflicts so many attorneys. Finally, Counselor Coaching offers consulting services to law firms seeking to retain and promote women lawyers.

3. Many people think attorneys don't need a career coach. Tell me why they do. 
A career coach can help attorneys become more skillful, successful and satisfied with their work. Short-term coaching can focus on competencies such a time management, delegation or communication.

However, clients benefit most when they pause to consider with the coach what their desired future is. Keeping that over-arching goal in mind, the coach works with the client to identify the client’s strengths and the obstacles that exist to realizing the big picture. With that information, they jointly develop a plan to overcome the obstacles and enhance the strengths. Completion of that plan will lead to achieving the macro goal. The plan will likely include a number of small steps or micro-goals that lead to behavioral changes necessary to reach the desired future state.

Also, a coach can help clients gain clarity about choices to be made such as whether to change practice areas or firms or to leave legal practice entirely.

A coach can act as a sounding board as clients explore possibilities and plan for the future.

4. How does a coach work with clients?
The heart of coaching is a respectful, appreciative partnership of equals in which the coach works with the client to clarify and advance the client’s self-initiated goals. Here’s what the coach brings to the partnership:

  • Champions the client’s potential, encouraging stretch and challenge goals consistent with personal strengths and aspirations
  • Fosters shifts in thinking that reveal fresh perspectives on the client as a “whole person,” recognizing the influences of the client’s values and roles in all aspects of her life
  • Challenges the client’s blind spots to illuminate new possibilities and support the creation of alternative scenarios.

5. I’ve decided I want to work with a coach. What can I do to make the experience more successful?
That’s a great question.

The key elements of the client’s role are:

  • Creating the coaching agenda based on personally meaningful goals
  • Envisioning personal success
  • Assuming full responsibility for personal decisions and actions
  • Utilizing the coaching process to promote self-awareness, possibility thinking, and fresh perspectives
  • Taking courageous action in alignment with personal goals and aspirations

6. What did you think you’d do when you started law school? How is what you do now the same/different?
I grew up in a blue-collar family in an industrial town. I’d never even met a lawyer when I started law school so my career plans were based on a combination of my skill set – debate and public speaking – and popular media. I thought I’d be a litigator but my experience in Big Law quickly convinced me I wanted more human interaction and less research. Instead, I became a transactional lawyer. My career as a coach is similar in many ways. I work closely with my clients to help them accomplish their goals.

7. You've also written a book, Terminal Ambition. What motivated you to write this book?
Over years of legal practice, I became aware of women who had been sexually harassed at work and also discriminated against. Of course, any instance of sexual harassment is harmful and can affect job performance, but I was inflamed by the tolerance of law firms for both repeat offenders of middling transgressions as well as those who committed more egregious acts. An offender’s power in the firm and his book of business seemed to be weighed in a firm’s response.

Sadly, so much harassment and discrimination go on inside law firms that women employees – even women lawyers – become numb to the violations and forget their legal protections. My goal in writing Terminal Ambition was to educate women about their rights in the workplace. But that purpose could not be realized unless women found the novel entertaining and compelling – the key to ensuring they would want to read it. Terminal Ambition now has 107 reviews on Amazon and 4.4 stars. A number of reviewers characterize the book as a “page turner.” Dozens more note they “couldn’t put it down,” “stayed up all night,” and use adjectives such as “compelling” and “riveting.” With more than 25,000 copies sold in paperback or distributed digitally, it seems I have come a long way toward reaching my goal.

8. What is the advice you would give to attorneys questioning their job or legal practice?
The conventional wisdom recommends a linear process based on the notion that each of us has only one true self who is fully formed by adulthood. Starting with that premise, a would-be career “changeling” should begin with lots of introspection and standardized assessments to identify the “right fit.”

This approach is rooted in the past. The self who is discovered in this way is often the “ought” self, the self who listens to the voices of family and teachers laying out career expectations.

Experimentation often proves to be a more effective method to identify a new career. Try on some of the selves that appeal before leaving your current profession. Test your reaction to the work and those who do it by:

1. Volunteering

2. Taking on a side project or temporary assignment at your existing job

3. Taking a course or enrolling in training

4. Conducting informational interviews

5. Shadowing someone in that profession

6. Trying the profession during a sabbatical

7. Moonlighting

8. Networking with people in that profession

When it comes to making the decision, the best compass is your own gut. What do you feel? Are you more satisfied? More comfortable in your “working skin?” It may seem irrational to treat emotional reactions as information but neuroscientists have demonstrated that emotions are critical to enlightened decision-making.

Transitions can be frightening but they are where real growth occurs. This short video beautifully illustrates what happens when, like trapeze artists, we are willing to let go.