What Do Lawyers and Top Athletes Have in Common?
Competitiveness, dedication, pressure – all of these and much more can be attributed to world-class professionals in both sports and law. But only one of these professions has wholeheartedly accepted performance coaching as part of its culture.
Performance coach Charlène Gisèle Bourliout delves into why this aversion to coaching exists in the legal sector, and the benefits lawyers stand to gain by overcoming it.
You have suggested in the past that several parallels exist between the legal sector and sports science. Why do you say this?
One reason for this is that both sectors are performance-based. To be successful in the legal sector, one must provide efficient and effective legal services. This is also true for athletes. Therefore, in order to win and sustain a successful career, they must be able to perform at their best.
Another parallel between the two sectors is that they are both adversarial and competitive environments. The legal sector is competitive because there are limited opportunities for lawyers to work at major firms or organisations and to serve the most sought-after clients. Athletes are competitive because there can only be one winner in each event.
Both sectors share a common goal: winning. Lawyers want to win cases or complete a transaction successfully while athletes want to win medals, championships or events. Winning is important in both sectors because it allows individuals and organisations to achieve their goals and objectives.
Competition and performance demands place pressure on athletes’ bodies, and when combined with the external forces of sports, it increases the risk of injury and psychological burnout. The legal sector places a considerable demand on the mental performance of lawyers, and when combined with external forces such as billable hours, client deadlines, vicarious trauma and socio-economic environment, increases the pressure on the mental health of lawyers.
Another parallel between the two sectors is that they both rely on data. For example, in the legal sector, lawyers use data to research cases and find precedents and metrics such as billable hours. In sports science, athletes and coaches use data to track performance and identify areas for improvement.
Both sectors share a common goal: winning.
Over the last decade, many sporting teams have transformed their performance through tracking data. The same can be done in the legal sector when focusing on lawyer and team performance and wellbeing. I believe the legal sector can learn a lot from sports science, and many parallels for performance optimisation can be brought across to the legal sector.
Going off our previous conversation, you mentioned the idea of “emotional fitness” as important to both athletes and lawyers. How would you define this quality?
The ability to maintain focus, intensity and composure in the face of stress is a critical ingredient for success in lawyers and athletes since both operate in high-pressure environments.
Maintaining emotional fitness is not just about mastering negative emotions like stress and anxiety. It is also about cultivating positive emotions like happiness, joy and excitement. I use the term “emotional fitness” because it is more empowering than “emotional intelligence”. Intelligence can be limiting, whereas fitness is something we can build, improve and master.
Emotional fitness is in being able to identify the event triggers, preconditions and perceptions that influence your emotions and then choosing a constructive response to your situation. When you are emotionally fit, you understand your own emotions and how they affect your and others’ performance.
Being better able to manage emotions effectively allows you to stay in control under pressure. This helps you achieve excellence both on and off the playing field or courtroom.
Emotional fitness is our ability to understand and manage our own emotions and the emotions of others around us. It directly affects how we behave, make decisions and form relationships. Emotional fitness is the single most significant predictor of performance in the workplace and the most vital driver of leadership and personal excellence.
How can emotional fitness be identified and courage in legal professionals?
Maintaining excellence in the legal field requires emotional fitness. Like an athlete who needs to win, lawyers need to understand and manage their emotions to achieve excellence and confidence in their work.
I believe the legal sector can learn a lot from sports science, and many parallels for performance optimisation can be brought across to the legal sector.
Some emotions are helpful in achieving our goals, such as confidence and enthusiasm. Other emotions can hold us back, such as fear, guilt and self-doubt. The key is to learn how to manage our emotions so they work for us, not against us.
Emotional fitness also covers those tasks that are not “hard skills”, such as systematic and software-assisted work. These are the skills that cannot be replaced by software. With a lot of work in law moving towards more AI and software assistance, the competitive advantage for lawyers and firms is not going to reside in who has the best software but in how emotionally fit their lawyers are.
Software cannot replace empathy, creativity and authenticity. Software cannot replace the leadership, vision setting and motivation of a team. Emotional fitness is what is going to guide lawyers through uncertain times and allow them to manage stress and build resilience effectively.
Emotional fitness might not be the new, bright and shiny piece of software that will revolutionise profitability, but learning to optimise our emotions is essential for asymmetrical upside in performance and wellbeing.
Building upon that idea of “soft skills”, how can firms encourage creativity and tactical thinking in top-performing lawyers?
Creativity and tactical thinking are skills that can be trained. Through repetition of their work, most lawyers become experts in logical thinking, which is no wonder since it is the foundation of law. In neuroscience, this would be convergent dominant thinking. Lawyers rarely spend much time using their creativity, which is their divergent mode of thinking. To expect a lawyer to go from a lifetime of logical thinking to creative thinking at a switch of a button is unrealistic. This type of cognitive demand can put excessive mental pressure on lawyers.
Going back to a sports analogy, if creative thinking is desired, deliberate practice is needed. For example, an athlete who wants to optimise a specific skill may choose to alter their training schedule to practise a particular skill. They may dedicate a small or large portion of their training time to focus on that one skill and then measure and track how it improves over time.
Lawyers can do this for creative and tactical thinking. Prioritise time to practise thinking creatively. There are simple and powerful exercises that can be done that only take one to five minutes. They work by getting you to mentally and physically engage your creative thinking. The more practice they put in, the more fluid lawyers will become in creative thinking and start to recognise the ease at which original thoughts come to them.
Emotional fitness is the single most significant predictor of performance in the workplace and the most vital driver of leadership and personal excellence.
What changes have you seen in law firms’ attitudes towards coaching since you began working in the sector?
From my experience, law firms in the United States have been more open to coaching and viewed it as a competitive advantage; however, due to the cultural differences in London, I found it harder to get buy-in initially. Over the last few years, attitudes towards coaching have changed, and it is now seen as a way to look after the wellbeing and performance of lawyers authentically.
The stigma that used to be attached to coaching has disappeared. Now, law firms realise the benefits of using coaching to improve their lawyer and firm performance. Over the last few years, there has been a dramatic shift in the perception of mental health and wellbeing, which has helped improve attitudes towards coaching.
A shift in attitude towards coaching is also happening as firms begin to align business decisions with ESG metrics. Coaching is a powerful way to maximise human capital management because it looks to increase performance and profitability sustainably. The only way to do this is to balance and optimise performance and wellbeing. To do so, law firms are now increasingly turning to coaches for assistance.
What can legal professionals do to further combat the perceived stigma surrounding coaching?
In law, as in many other professions, there is a perception that coaching is a performance enhancer reserved for those at the top of their field. This perception creates a stigma around coaching that can be difficult to remove. However, legal professionals can take steps to overcome this stigma and improve their performance and wellbeing through coaching.
There was no stigma around seeking counsel or mentorship from other lawyers when building up my legal expertise – so why should there be a stigma around someone seeking coaching for their professional wellness and performance?
All great athletes work with coaches, and many thank their coaches for their success and make it known how pivotal a coach was to their success. A coach can help you achieve excellence in your performance, give you the winning edge, and build your confidence. A coach can help you develop positive relationships with clients and colleagues. They can provide powerful tools and techniques to manage emotions, build mental resilience and provide an emotional fitness programme. These are the skills which are not taught in law school or as part of a lawyer’s professional development training.
My mission is for performance coaching to become the legal industry norm, not the exception – where coaching is seen as a badge of honour as it is in sports. Coaching is the solution lawyers need to sustain a long and successful career in law while maintaining optimised mental, emotional and physical wellbeing.
Charlène Gisèle Bourliout is a health coach, wellness consultant and burnout prevention adviser dubbed the “Soulicitor” by her clients. A former London lawyer, Charlène coaches her clients on personal and professional life optimisation through a combination of high-performance coaching, burnout prevention and mindset optimisation.