Mentoring vs. Coaching: What’s the Difference, Anyway?

Posted: 06/04/2018

Mentoring vs. CoachingPeople often use the terms “mentoring” and “coaching” interchangeably. This is certainly understandable, because both are aimed at achieving personal growth and learning with the help of someone else. However, from CAN’s perspective, mentoring and coaching are different and complementary. Mentorship has a long and storied tradition in the legal profession and there are many organizations with established mentoring programs (e.g. OTLA, CLA, OBA, SABA, FACL, CABL and others). CAN recommends those organizations to anyone seeking mentorship, but CAN also offers Coaching and Advising to ensure that lawyers and paralegals can get the kind of help they need, when they need it. So what is the difference between mentoring and coaching?

A Mentor is typically senior to a Mentee, dispensing advice and guidance to the Mentee based on his or her personal experience and wisdom. The process tends to be informal and unstructured, where the mentor shows and tells the mentee through the example of their own work and life. Mentors are often leaders or experts in the same field as their Mentees. Mentoring is focused on the relationship between Mentor and Mentee and it is usually longer term.

Coaching, on the other hand, is occupied with tasks and performance. It is a short-term process where the Coachee (or, using CAN terminology, the Participant) works to achieve specific goals that they themselves have defined. The Coach serves as a sounding board and guide through the process, keeping the Participant focused on identifying and completing the tasks required for achieving the goal. CAN Coaches use the G-R-O-W model in the process, where they help the Participant define a Goal, reflect on current Reality, come up with Options, and, finally, chart a Way Forward.

In a coaching engagement, a Coach serves as the process expert, by keeping the Participant on track and asking timely and probative questions; they do not necessarily need to be a subject matter expert. Consider the transferability of issues across practice areas or inter-disciplinary approaches to problem solving, and you can see that a Coach does not need to have the same background as a Participant to be effective. In fact, often times it may be preferable, as this allows the Coach to see things clearly without a host of preconceived notions. The risk is that such notions can define the outcomes by limiting the generation of new and innovative approaches to an issue.

With coaching, the Participant builds their own personal solution with the collaboration of the Coach, who keeps the Participant accountable to his or her goals. While a Mentor shows or models possible solutions to a Mentee, a Coach guides and empowers the Participant, encouraging the Participant to “own” his or her solution. A self-made solution has a better chance of succeeding, as it is tailor-made to suit the Participant and the Participant is personally invested.

To see how mentorship and coaching can be complementary, consider this hypothetical example: Alfonzo is a 2016 call practising criminal law as a sole practitioner in a mid-sized Ontario city. He would like a more seasoned lawyer to show him the ropes, e.g. provide knowledge about the local Bar and courts, how to comport oneself in court, and how to act and serve in the community. For this sort of learning, Alfonzo should seek out a Mentor among more senior colleagues in the local Bar or through a law association. He needs to develop a relationship with a senior lawyer who will serve as a role model and guide. At the same time, Alfonzo would also like to improve on the financial management of his practice. This is a discrete, short-term project that would be well-suited for coaching. With the assistance of a Coach, Alfonzo could refine his broad goal of improving his financial management systems. With support, Alfonzo may be able to identify the particular aspect of his practice finances that needs improvement; for example, it may relate to billing practices or it may be about establishing routines around documenting his monthly reconciliation. With increased clarity about the problem, Alfonzo can then develop and execute on an action plan tailored to his needs, with the assistance of a Coach who will serve as a sounding board and help keep him on track to achieve his stated goal.

Snapshot: Mentoring v. Coaching




Longer term (> 6 months) Shorter term (<3 months)


Subject matter Process

Nature of Relationship

Seniorà Junior Peer to Peer


Open-ended Specific goal


Mentor’s personal experience Coaching model


Informal Formal – adherence to step-by-step process


Demonstrated/modeled by Mentor Collaborative generation with active engagement of Participant

What would you like to achieve in the next three months? Could a CAN Coach help?