Typically, lawyers work from 40 – 80 hours per week.  If they are able to bill out 2/3rds of that time, they are lucky (or organized).  But it could be better.  The difference between billed work and the rest of that time is often wasted or at least under-utilized time.  That’s because most lawyers don’t have a clear sense of what they want to achieve in a year, a month, a weak, a day.  They might know generally, but wishes don’t move mountains.  Plans do.

As a lawyer coach, I NEVER forget that time a lawyer spends working, learning, marketing or wasting time is time spent away from family, health and fitness, and rest/rejuvenation.  But all too often, my incoming clients seem to think that it’s acceptable for them to operate without goals, or a game plan, to be under-productive, and to waste a good portion of their time.

Your time is too valuable to use it poorly. If you decide you want to do something about that, start by building a plan.

Whose Responsibility Is It?

I’d love to live in a world where every law firm insisted that their lawyers write an annual personal plan.  Alas, only 30% of law firms in Canada even have a firm-wide strategic plan.  It’s doubtful that such firms would encourage personal planning.  Don’t let that limit your own development.  Take the higher road and understand that ultimately, only you can be responsible for your career.  So, if your firm isn’t going to insist that you operate with a plan, decide to do it for yourself.

What Are the Benefits?

  • Focus: A list of goals tells you what you need to accomplish this year.
  • Clarity: A plan makes it easier to know what to say yes and no to throughout the year. The item in question either supports your plan, or it doesn’t.
  • Time management: A plan requires that you plot out the actions needed to accomplish each goal. You can then schedule these in throughout the year to ensure you are easily able to manage the workload.
  • Refocus: It’s not uncommon for lawyers to be pulled way from their planned activities to deal with a trial or an urgent client matter. But with a plan, it’s easy to bring yourself back to the process afterwards and know exactly what you need to do to catch up to your plan.
  • Skills development and organisation: Good plans examine all aspects of your development needs, not just your billable targets. That includes ensuring that you are constantly improving your business skills, your marketing skills, your soft skills (like communication, delegation, client management), etc.  We’ve all met brilliant lawyers whose office looks like a pig stye, or who is an awkward communicator at best.  Plans ensure your growth is well-rounded and that one day, you won’t be “that” kind of lawyer.
  • Sense of accomplishment: Successfully completing a plan and seeing the rewards of your labours is incredibly satisfying. Many lawyers get to a point where they are too long in the profession to have people around them encouraging them.  We have to take on this role ourself.  Accomplishment of a plan gives us a chance to acknowledge our good work, and see the connection between that and our accomplishments.

What’s the Process?

The first step is to create a list of business goals to be achieved over the next year.   I encourage my clients to think of goals aligning with certain categories such as:

  • Financial goals: these might include billings targets (broken down by area of law), pricing, collections, timeliness of billing, etc. You might want to better understand those accounting reports you’ve been receiving each month, but only glance at, intimidated.


Your firm might set your billings target but don’t stop there. Many firms set targets, but bonus systems are based on billings over a particular threshold. Come up with your own targets.  Then think of other ways you can improve your financial acumen and performance.


  • Educational/experience goals: In order to progress in each area of law by another year, what education or experiences do you need in the coming 12 months? This might involve reading a textbook, participating in a class or CLE, teaching a class or writing about a subject in order to better learn it, shadowing someone on a legal matter, joining an industry group to learn more about a particular client base, etc.

Too often, I’m met lawyers who were a ten-year call but actually practiced at a more junior level than that.  It’s usually because neither they nor their firms pushed them to constantly grow as a lawyer.  Take responsibility for this yourself by plotting out how to improve every single year.

  • Marketing goals: Marketing and business development are necessary parts of a legal career, yet they aren’t taught in law school. And unfortunately, most (especially smaller) law firms don’t have an internal marketing resource, and don’t know how to teach or support marketing for the lawyers within their firm.   Do some reading, get a coach, or otherwise set some marketing goals for yourself and develop some strategies to pursue those goals.

For example, if you want to increase business in a particular area of law, think about the referral sources you’ll need to build (and how to approach them), the client base you’ll need to get in front of (and where and how to build awareness with them), etc.   This might involve advertising, writing, speaking, sponsoring, lunching, etc.

  • Skills goals: a great lawyer isn’t just good at the legal stuff; they also run their operations well. Think about the areas where you excel, and where you have challenges.  Work on those challenge areas.  This might include delegation, file management, client management, work flow, general communication, drafting, time management, etc.  Be ruthless with yourself.  If you pretend that a weakness isn’t one, you’ll never address it.


  • Leadership goals: If you aspire to become a Partner, you are aspiring to be a leader. The pathway to Partnership is often through layers of leadership such as committee work, special projects, etc.  You need to demonstrate your leadership skills.  Then as a Partner, you need to be a leader by setting an example, running practice groups, mentoring younger lawyers, etc.  Leaders are seldom born – they are trained over time through experience.  Whatever your level as a lawyer, I bet there is an opportunity for you to start taking on small leadership opportunities so you can begin to flex these muscles.  Don’t wait until you are a year away from Partnership – that’s too late.  Start as an Associate.

Once you’ve established all of your goals, then create detailed action plans to describe everything you’ll do to achieve those goals.  It’s seldom one action item.

I’ll give you an example from a non-business perspective. Here’s something everyone has thought about one time or another…If I wanted to lose weight, then saying “eat less” on my action list would result in zero progress by the end of the year.  But what if I said…

  • My target weight, to be reached in 12 months, is x.
  • I will weigh myself every day, understanding that I will probably go through plateaus at times.
  • Learn how to count calories and limit my intake to x calories per day.
  • Ensure I do cardio exercise for an hour at least twice per week.
  • Do stretching every day.
  • Go for monthly massages.
  • Do one larger activity (i.e., a 5 km hike, squash game) with friends once a month.
  • Cut back my alcohol consumption to x per week.
  • Get and explore the (weigh reduction-focuses) menu plans from the following books…

You get the picture.

Next, create a schedule for any actions that must occur over time.  Ensure that you’ve spaced everything out so that you aren’t doing all action items in the same month of the year.

How Do I Keep Myself Accountable?

Creating a plan increase your chances of getting those things done by over 80%.  But how do we ensure that we don’t just kind of do it, that we in fact religiously complete the plans action items?  Create an accountability process for yourself.

  1. Ensure your plan is written (not in your head) and sufficiently detailed.
  2. Place action items in your calendar so you have to visually bump into them as your go through your week.
  3. End each week with either a blue x (everything completed) or a red x (not everything completed) so you can visually see how you are doing. Remind yourself that these are actions and goals that you have declared are important for you to accomplish, and that no one else is gong to spur you on to do these things.  You have to develop the personal motivation needed to see them through.
  4. Review your full plan quarterly and give yourself a mark (A-F) for how you’ve done. Prep yourself for the actions due in the next quarter.
  5. Before the end of the year, conduct an audit of your plan/actions. What have you learned (about yourself and the market)?  What are the next steps? What are your goals for next year.
  6. Repeat the planning and implementation process.

When I started my own business, I wrote a fairly aggressive business plan but I told myself if I achieved my goals, I would buy myself a sapphire and diamond ring to celebrate.  At the end of the year, I got my ring.  The next year it was a ruby and diamond ring.  By the third year, I realized that I didn’t need rings anymore.  I had moved from extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation.  Achievement my goals was satisfaction enough.

Planning and implementing as described in this article are usually a matter of changing personal behaviours and they can be difficult to change.  Some people find it easier with a coach; and I’m always happy to help but I don’t believe that’s always necessary.  Lawyers are hard-working, intelligent people.

I don’t just teach this stuff; I live it myself. As a result, I’m shocked by what I’m able to accomplish each year.  Imagine if you could improve your productivity and job satisfaction by 20% each year…would it be worth it to swallow your stubbornness and hold yourself to a new way of doing things?  A 20% annual improvement over ten years adds up quickly.  If you started out by billing $300K per year, you’d end by billing $1.5M per year.  Now imagine your skills improving 20% per year, or your effectiveness, or your job satisfaction.  Is it worth it now?

This post first appeared in SLAW.  Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms and lawyers.  She can be reached at heather@heathergraygrant.com