When does it make sense to work with a coach?

Coaching is a broad area of practice.  There are life coaches – who help people with personal challenges and goals, career coaches – who help people with career change, and executive coaches – who help people facing issues and challenges in their professional lives.  There are also numerous consultants who use coaching approaches towards their work but who have never received any professional training in the practice.

With this in mind, when is it best to work with a trained executive coach? 

The answer can be found in the three levels of learning that coaching touches upon: single loop, double loop, and triple loop learning. 

Single loop learning is used to describe the learning that facilitates people getting things done and improving upon current skills.  Coaching in this way is an “accountability partnership”, with the coach helping the client to set goals, take action, and then “staying on” the client to ensure follow-through.  Coaching for single loop learning can be implemented by lawyers mentoring their associates, by legal marketers working with lawyers and staff, and by most any other professional.  Consultants without any professional training in executive coaching generally work with their clients on single loop learning. 

A couple of examples of this kind of coaching are: 

  • A single coaching conversation with an lawyer helping her to establish some goals and actions to take in the following six months.
  • A sales trainer providing coaching to lawyers who are keen on improving their rainmaking skills.

When learning needs move up one level to double loop it is time start thinking of working with a trained executive coach. 

Double loop learning involves teaching people to do entirely new things, reframing a person’s perspective so that they are able to see new possibilities and are empowered to re-think and re-design their actions. 

Pamela Weiss, a Master Certified Coach (MCC) has a great article on the web about the levels of coaching.  In the article she describes working with double loop learning:

At this level, we help our clients learn something new. We work with the person so that they can not only accomplish a goal or task one time, but also learn to continuously do it on their own.  We help open new possibilities, so the client is able to take new action. Our aim here is to teach them how to do something, rather then just telling them what to do. This requires more skill on our part, and it takes more time, more patience, and a deeper relationship with the client (p.6).

An example of double loop learning would be working with a lawyer who is averse to the idea of selling legal services but who is facing the challenge of expanding his client base. 

Triple loop is in my view entirely the realm of qualified executive coaches.  Triple loop learning is most valuable when a person is blocked.  When the approaches and strategies they adopted successfully in the past are now holding them back. 

Triple loop learning is based on the principle that the human personality is fluid.  Learning at this level fundamentally transforms a person by altering their personal definition of self.  Coaching at this level supports a person in adopting new characteristics and personal qualities and supports the individual in implementing entirely new strategies. 

If you want to think outside of your box, triple loop learning will get you there.

An example of a situation requiring triple loop learning is a leader who has learned to use the winning strategy of micro-managing to succeed.  Now, as Managing Partner, this strategy is breaking down.  The leader is bogged down in details, caught up in the day to day issues, and loosing sight of the firm’s overall strategy, and goals.  Triple loop learning will be required to help the leader see and acknowledge the limitations of the current strategy and empower the leader to adopt a new approach. 

There has been a lot of writing on these levels of learning and coaching.  If you are interested in reading more on the subject I particularly recommend Robert Hargrove’s book Masterful Coaching and Pamela Weiss’ article mentioned above.  In my description of single loop learning I borrowed the term “accountability partnership” from Weiss’ work.

About the author

Allison Wolf

I am the founder of AWAL and one of the most senior coaches for lawyers in North America. I have helped countless clients over the past fifteen years, develop thriving legal practices and before that served as director of marketing for award-winning law firms. My specialty is uncovering the thinking traps and gaps holding clients back and helping them acquire the mindsets, skills, and habits for growing successful and rewarding legal careers. After a career in legal marketing and business development with law firms in Beijing, New York, and Vancouver, I was trained as a coach in 2004 at Royal Roads University and now coach clients from across North America. You can reach me at or learn more about my coaching practice from the coaching section of the Attorney With A Life Website.