When you decided to become a lawyer, you took the time and energy to plot out a pathway.  You took the right courses and got the grades needed to get into law school.   You participated in extracurricular activities that would look good on your resume to secure summer positions and later, a good articling position.  You worked hard to become an associate.  And then, your planning probably stopped.  After all, you’d made it.  You’re a lawyer, in a good firm, and feeling pretty secure.

Or perhaps, not so much. In larger firms, typically only one in seven associates make it to Partner, although it’s a bit easier in smaller firms.  On average, it takes lawyers in Canada between 6 – 9 years to become a partner.  During this time period, lawyers will have been required to meet annual revenue targets, obtain new clients/files and effectively delegate work to others, have developed a reputation and credibility in their legal area at least equivalent to their year of call, and have demonstrated leadership capabilities within and outside of the firm.  All of this must have been obtained while competing for work, recognition and other opportunities with other associates in the firm.  It’s no wonder so few survive to partnership.  Incidentally, this means that many lawyers achieve partnership by moving firms.  Given that the average cost of investment in an associate for the first five years is around $300k, this business model has more leaks than a sieve.

Yet most associates coast, believing that the firm has a long-term plan for them that will come to fruition is they show up for the job.  They take the work they are handed, do what the firm requires in terms of education, admin and marketing, but do little else to truly captain their career.  They feel that doing the best work they can, and occasionally taking a client for lunch, is all that is required.  Based on the statistics noted above, that’s a dangerous assumption.  The firm is not managing your career: they are surviving year by year and hoping that in the future, you’ll be of value to the firm.  But they’ aren’t grooming you in the active sense.

It makes far more sense – for firms and for individual lawyers – for each lawyer to take charge of their own career by having a personal career/business plan.  This document forces the lawyer to think about their career as a whole, as well as what they can do in the coming year to be as productive as possible while continually moving their skills and experience closer to their career goals.  Here’s how it works:

  1. Plan your career path. It’s pretty hard to plan your career for the next thirty years…and who would want to?!  But think about the next five years.  Where do you want to be, what to you want to be doing, how much money do you want to be making?  Have a clear vision of where you’re headed (what Stephen Covey called beginning with the end in mind).  Then when you start to plot out your pathway from here to there, you’ll know you’re heading in the right direction, and you’ll have a better understanding of how hard you’ll need to work each year in order to end up at your destination.  The alternative is wandering in the desert.  You might or might not end up where you want to go…probably not.  Having a clear vision of your mid-term goals might be less spontaneous, but it’s far less risky.
  2. Create annual goals and a corresponding plan that will get you one year closer to your five-year career marker. Thinking about everything you have to do in the next five years to reach your goals is overwhelming. By focussing on goals and actions a year at a time, the pathway becomes more realistic and less overwhelming.  This also makes it easier to activate your annual plan.  You don’t have to second-guess items as they come up on your plan, because you know you’ve chosen goals and activities that align with the longer-term vision of your career.
  3. Review your plan regularly. It’s easy for a lawyer to start this process with the best of intentions to keep it up, and then get distracted by legal work.  By the time we’ve lifted our head, it’s three months later and we’re so hopelessly behind in our action items that we feel we’ll never catch up, so we drop the whole thing.  Your career is too important to relinquish its management. Too many lawyers simply do the work in front of them.  The feel like they’re on the right boat and that the motor is going so all is well. But if no one is steering, you may be going around in circles, or worse, headed for the rocks.   Monitor your plan weekly. Ensure you stay on top of action items. If work takes over for a period of time, that’s fine.  But as soon as possible, get caught up with your plans action items again.  Get back on course.
  4. Conduct formal annual assessments of your plans and actions to ensure you still have the same long-term goals in mind, and that your actions are slowly getting you there. Be brutally honest with yourself.  What are your strengths, what are your weaknesses?  Where are you falling down in your goals?  What can you do to improve in those areas?  Annual assessments are critical because your ability to accomplish items isn’t just based on your dedication to doing so.  Other factors come into play.  There might not be the opportunity to take on a certain kind of file or skill that year.  Another associate might be competing for some of the same work.  The marketplace might have shifted.  An annual assessment helps you to do a reality check: am I still on the right path? Do I need to change my strategy in the upcoming year?

If all lawyers approached their legal career with the same energy and discipline they had leading up to becoming an associate, we’d have far less churn of associates in law firms.  But the numbers are working against you.  Don’t assume the firm has a master plan for you and don’t rely on others to guide your career.  They will never have the same stake in it that you do.

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