If you were to go on a holiday, would you just jump in your car and start driving? Of course you wouldn’t. You’d determine your destination. You’d figure out the best time to go. You’d book accommodations and make travel arrangements. You’d consider the costs involved, and you’d pack according to the weather and your planned activities. And that’s just a holiday.

But when lawyers run a $500k to a million dollar practice, they do so with far less planning. In doing so they are operating with far more risk, far less control, and ultimately may be leaving money and their happiness on the table.

Admittedly, I’m the plan queen. I spend most of my time helping firms to develop strategic plans, annual business goals, operational and marketing plans, practice group plans, and client team plans. I do this because a lawyer’s time is too precious to waste. Targets require that a lawyer spend many hours working – even more if those hours are unproductive. They need to make every hour count. This is even more important when we’re talking about non-billable hours. Time spent on non-billable could be time spent billings, or time with their families. So time spent on non-billable better be as productive as possible. And efficient productivity is rare without planning.

Ready, Fire. (Aim?)

We can’t hit a target if we don’t know where it is, but we can certainly waste a lot of arrows that way.
I’ve worked with lawyers for almost thirty years and I can tell you with absolute confidence that most lawyers waste large portions of their time doing work – both billable and non-billable – that is not advantageous to their careers. So why do they do it? Because they have NO IDEA what is advantageous to their careers or not. They just keep firing arrows, believing that it must be productive.

We measure things the wrong way around. In the absence of developing goals for ourselves, we allow our firms to establish our markers by giving us financial or hourly targets. But you can hit those every year of your career and still not be “successful” by your own definition of the word. I’ve coached many a lawyer who have told me that ten years into practice, the firm is happy enough with them but they weren’t happy with their own career and they didn’t know why. The answer is that they weren’t meeting their unvoiced personal objectives – objectives they might not even realize they have for themselves. In this way, success doesn’t necessarily mean you’re successful.

What Are Your Goals?

Start by taking a moment to think about what the perfect practice would look like (for either an individual or a team) five years out, then write it out. That vision forms your long-term targets. Now consider how far you can get toward that vision within the next year. Those items become your business goals for the year.  Based on your one-year business objectives, determine all of the actions required to accomplish those goals. These become your action plan.

You may have goals that are dictated by your firm (hourly or financial targets, client team leadership, mentoring training or delegation objectives, firm leadership or community activities, etc.) Ensure you include those on your business goals list. But also consider those items that will take you a year closer to your own personal goals. These could involve increase credibility and reputation. They might involve external leadership experience. They could include personal wish list items such as writing or presenting, creating an educational or charitable program to give back to the community or the practice of law, positing yourself for a Q.C. or eventual judgeship. Ensure your business objectives for the year, and by extension your action plan, help you move forward somehow on all of these goals.

Now make sure you follow through. Divide the action items required into their appropriate month. Arbitrarily assign tasks that don’t’ have a prescribed due date to ensure you are undertaking activities fairly evenly throughout the year. At the beginning of each month, look at what must be accomplished and schedule it in. Then…just do it!

What are the Values of a Plan?

For Individuals:
• It forces you to think about and declare your goals – even if it’s just to yourself.
• It gives you focus for the year. In the absence of this focus, you may do all sorts of activities (that might or might not contribute to accomplishment of your goals), or you may do none.
• It helps to determine where gaps are in education, support, marketing, etc. so that these can be addressed.
• It guides creation of your budget, which becomes simply an extension of your plan.
• It makes it easy to assess incoming opportunities to determine if they should or shouldn’t be done. In this way, it works as a filter to ensure everything you do is considered, and has value to your end goals.
For Teams:
• Plans ensure that everyone knows the purpose of the group, where it is now, where it’s going, and how it is going to get there.
• Plans divide action items amongst team members so no one person is carrying the load.
• Plans help team members to talk about and implement cross-selling, and cross-marketing.
• Plans inspire regular communication amongst team members in order to keep on top of goals.

Even teams with strong individual lawyers – especially those types of teams – need a plan. Imagine a rowing team without the coxswain. The boat may be filled with very strong athletes capable of remarkable individual performances…but that won’t necessarily take the boat to the right destination in the shortest, more efficient way. And rowing without a coxswain – with all the mistakes, confusion and power battles that will probably take place before everyone does start rowing in the same direction – will exhaust those athletes.

Teams Without a Plan?

A plan serves as the galvanizing, motivating steering mechanism. And when used in concert with strong performers, it’s difficult to beat. But what happens when a team doesn’t have a plan? It’s the same thing that happens in a playground where there are no strong positive leaders. Generally, the bullies take the field. Lawyers might not behave as actual bullies; but they can be rather dictatorial. Plans won’t eliminate that behaviour, but they do help to place a spotlight on it. And the planning process starts to engage more opinions, requires actions and report from all members in the group, and otherwise helps to mitigate the challenge of an overly powerful leader.

In summary, life is too short, and your career is too important, to live it without managing it. A boat without a motor will drift with the waves. A motor boat without a driver will turn around in circles. You may think you are in more control than you are. What are the three high level business goals you had last year? What do you absolutely want to accomplish in the next five years? If you don’t have an immediate and decisive answer to those two questions (or action items to back them up), you may be drifting.

The typical lawyer spends more time each year waiting in a coffee lineup than they are prepared to spend planning for their futures. Surely a successful career is at least as important to you as a shot of caffeine each morning : )

(First published in SLAW)