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Peer to Peer Coaching: A Model

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When a judge is newly appointed or elected to the bench, there is no consistent method for acculturation into the role. Many jurisdictions will directly provide or engage training for new judges (mostly focused on legal process), formally or informally offer mentoring, and create bench books and guides as resources. After the initial training and support, many jurisdictions do little to provide ongoing support and development.  Judges are left to their own devices. The system relies on the slow process of judicial elections or referral to judicial performance commissions to deal with substandard judicial performance. There are intermediate options, and this paper presents innovative and successful mentor coaching programs providing focused, intentional and consistent support to judges throughout their career. These models are peer-to-peer (judge to judge) mentor coach programs that have been adopted in the Massachusetts Trial Courts and the District of Columbia Superior Court.

In 2004, Judge Mike Town (Hawaii) wrote about compassion fatigue in judges. In his blog, “Is compassion fatigue an issue for judges?” Town notes that many judges hear a variety of cases that are often emotional, sad, and at times, profoundly tragic. Consistently hearing cases involving child custody, divorce, child abuse, mental illness, homicide, and domestic violence affects judges in different ways. Some will do just fine, many will not.

Town identifies compassion fatigue in judges as the result of vicariously becoming worn down and emotionally weary from hearing about and dealing with highly- charged situations where people have been physically and emotionally injured, hospitalized, and all too often killed. Add to this the demands of dealing with a complex organization and governance structure, and a culture that may or may not align with a judge’s personal and professional values, assumptions, and motivations.

In 2006, Isaiah M. Zimmerman wrote an article for Judicature titled “Helping Judges in Distress.”  In it, he discusses the physical and emotional stresses that often get ignored in judicial initiation. Zimmerman and Town suggest that intentional wellness initiatives help overcome the unique and (often-silent) stressors that affect judges. Absent these initiatives, judges will soldier on, often to individual and organizational detriment.

In 2007, executive coach Marshall Goldsmith wrote the book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.  The title itself is apropos to many professionals who spend their career convincing themselves that they have everything they need.  How else could judges take on the heavy lifting of judging and leading? Goldsmith’s book postulates that our previous success often prevents us from achieving more success.4 He further implies that successful people only have two problems dealing with negative feedback. However, they are big problems: (a) they don’t want to hear it from us and (b) we don’t want to give it to them. This implication alone is supportive of how influential a well-constructed and sustained peer-to-peer coaching program is for individuals and organizations.

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