(This article was originally published in SLAW).
When I ask lawyers what their firm’s business goals are for the year, it’s shocking how few know the answer, often because those goals don’t exist. So, it’s understandable that when I ask those same lawyers for their personal business goals are, they don’t know those either. Firms have dabbled in requesting personal or practice group business plans, but that’s a difficult ask when the firm hasn’t done its own planning. It’s enough to make any lawyer wonder: is goal setting really necessary?
Most businesses would find that question absurd. They set goals and develop plans to achieve those goals as a regular and critical component of their operations. Think of a manufacturer. Without goals, how would they know how to market, how many raw materials to bring in, and how big their production and sales forces should be? Law firms have been longer to catch on with many basic business principles (such as goal setting and planning), but we’re getting there. Whether I’m working with an executive committee on a strategic plan, a practice group on a marketing strategy, or an individual lawyer on their own personal plan, my clients start by developing a series of goals to be achieved. Without goals, we don’t know where we’re headed, which means we could be wasting time and resources. Without goals, we won’t know if or when we’ve been successful. Without goals, we don’t know when to say yes or no to “opportunities”. Without goals, actions can be pointless.
Many lawyers truly believe that if they simply go to work each day and do what they do, in ten or fifteen years they’ll be exactly where they want to be. For some, that may be true, but I’ve made a career out of helping lawyers who wake up one day and realize they don’t have the career they wanted. Life is too precious to assume that time will be productive, and will eventually lead to where you want to be. This is like swimming along with the current with no real sense of direction or purpose other than to navigate the next few feet of water.
Goals aren’t the entire fix, but they are a great starting point. Research has shown that you have an 80% higher chance of achieving your goals if you actually declare them (if you say them out loud and write them down). Personally, I find goal setting makes me far more productive and those accomplishments intensify my commitment to the process. I accomplish virtually all of my goals. I’m not afraid to set them, and I’m committed to the discipline required to achieve them. In part, this is what is what enabled me a number of years ago to become a consultant and go into semi-retirement at 52.
Half-Hearted Attempts Don’t Cut It
As referenced above, I insist that my clients begin our working process by creating a series of goals for themselves. They (sometimes begrudgingly) comply because they trust me and the process. They usually start by drafting very conservative, achievable goals…things they would be able to do whether I was coaching them through the process of not. That’s not really goal-setting, which should be more about stretching and achieving something more than you are doing now.
Sometimes my client will edit their wishes, assuming the marketplace or their firm won’t support what they really want to achieve. It becomes obvious that their heart isn’t in it…that they are underwhelmed by the future they are crafting for themselves. But what’s the point of aiming for average happiness? You may be surprised at how the universe can shift to accommodate what you truly want to do.
I was recently given copies of lawyer plans from one firm. The plans consisted of action items only. For example, “I’ll write three blog posts or “I’ll attend the following events”. There was no connection between the action item and a business objective…often because lawyers don’t think in terms of business objectives when it comes to their own career. Instead, they think about how to spend their time, which is understandable as that’s often how their work is valued.
Some lawyers are afraid to write down real goals for themselves, fearful that they might not achieve the goal and therefore be seen as a failure. It’s important to recognize that planning and goal setting are inexact sciences. In fact, the process itself is more like an abbreviated scientific method:
- Develop a hypothesis (or in this case, a goal: I want to accomplish the following);
- Create conditions to test your hypothesis (create a plan to accomplish your goal);
- Monitor results to see if you plan is working or not;
- Analyze the results and draw conclusions;
- Create a new hypothesis and repeat the process.
There are too many variables to know exactly how to achieve your goals, so you need to experiment a bit – figure out the right action items that get the right message to the right people at the right time and in the right location. In time you’ll learn from your successes and failures.
Part of this analysis involves asking yourself a series of questions as follows:
- Did you allow enough time for your marketing to bear fruit? On average, it takes six months to two years for marketing to take effect.
- Did you have enough action items to support your goal? If you want to increase your revenues in a certain area of law in a year, one or two action items aren’t going to be sufficient.
- Did you execute well? You may have attended five events this year but did you work the rooms? Did you have any follow-up meetings? It’s not enough to show up, or submit an article. Your marketing should be compelling, and thorough.
- Did you choose the right points of exposure/did you use the right message to attract your targets? Advertising with an ineffectual message won’t help you to achieve your goal. Great advertising in media that your target doesn’t use won’t connect with them.
- Did something about the marketplace change since you created your plan? More competitors? Different economic or political climate? New legislation?
- Were any of your assumptions about your target incorrect? Perhaps they have different motivators than you assumed. Maybe they look for different values in that legal offering than you had thought they would.
Take the time to learn from your planning and implementation process, whether you’re learning what you did well, or what didn’t work. Use that learning as you adjust your process and try again.
How to Keep Your Goals
I create an aggressive business and marketing plan each year, and every item on that list is accomplished. I do this primarily by following my own advice to coaching clients:
- Every year I start by critiquing my prior year. What did I want to accomplish? How was I going to do it? Did I do those things, and do them well? What was the outcome? What did I learn?
- Next, I determine what my goals are for the coming year. I ensure they are realistic, but aggressive. For example, I don’t ask to win a million dollars. I do set aggressive revenue targets for myself that I know are within the realm of reason.
- I create assertive plans for accomplishment of each of my goals. I consider the goal from a variety of perspectives: education, experience, finances, my network, my existing client base, marketing, etc. This usually results in a robust list of actions to support the accomplishment of each goal.
- I organize all of these actions into months of the year. This is to ensure I’m not overly burdened with activities in any given month, and that in every month I am doing some activities directly related to accomplishing my declared goals.
- I review my goals and my plan every month, paying particular attention to my monthly actions list. This keeps my goals top of mind, increasing the chances that if an opportunity related to one of my goals comes my way, I recognize it for what it is. It also helps me to see what I’ve accomplished so far, which re-enforces my confidence and commitment to continue working my plan.
- I maintain implementation discipline throughout the year. I may need to punt an action item from one day or week to the next, but everything on my monthly list gets done in that month, full stop. No excuses. If it’s on the list, it will get done.
As the month progresses, I add new action items to my list as opportunities arise to further my goals. By the end of the month, I may have a list of some 15 to 20 action items checked off, and another five or ten actions written onto the bottom of the list and checked off as well.
Initially, I established extrinsic motivation for myself by promising myself a reward if I accomplished my business objectives for the year. At the end of my first year of consulting, I bought myself a sapphire and diamond ring. At the end of my second year was a ruby and diamond ring. In the third year I realized I didn’t need a ring. Simply accomplishing my goals was sufficient reward; but tracking accomplishment of my activities on a monthly basis has continued to serve as an intrinsic motivator. It is shocking what I can get done in any given year, following this process.
I appreciate that going from no planning to this process can be tricky without the constant support of a coach. Start small but honestly. Create an assertive goal list, then create a robust set of action items that will lead toward accomplishment of those goals. Look at your plan every month and ensure you are doing your action items. And while the year progresses…think about what your ring will look like.
Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms and lawyers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org