Not the same year-end pablum again!

We’re at the tail-end of the year, a busy time whether you’re celebrating with family or pushing to meet a year-end matter deadline. At year’s end, the ‘net is awash in articles about evaluating last year and prepping for the new year that are just warmed over from previous years. Ugh! Who has time? But…

Here are two articles worth making time to read this week because they’ll challenge your way of thinking:

  • Paying the Smart Phone Tax by Seth Godin. I essentially run my business from a smart phone, and I rely on it for critical news about a terminally ill family member. When I saw the title of this post, I immediately worried about a financial tax on my phone, but the post itself points out a much more significant price to pay from overusing it.
  • The Four Hardest Questions to Answer at the End of the Year  by Michael Bungay Stanier. We all reflect on the closing year as a new one approaches, and our questions tend to scratch only the surface. As Stanier argues, asking only “what did you do” and “how did it go” allows you to avoid going deeper into what’s really going on. He recommends four alternate questions:
o    What do I need to kill off?

o    Where have I stayed stuck?

o    How did I let myself down?

o    Where are you really headed?

Read the article for further explanation of these questions, and then answer them honestly to gain deep insight leading into to purposeful action. I particularly like Stanier’s suggestion that you answer the questions out loud with a trusted friend or colleague.
These two articles got me thinking in a fresh and challenging direction. I’ll be working on Stanier’s four questions next week. Will you join me?

Set ’em so you can reach ’em

When “Carl,” a 4th year associate in a large firm, contacted me about lawyer coaching, he was dreading an upcoming evaluation.  The office rumor was that associates were being asked to explain what they’d done to meet the goals they’d set in the previous year’s review, and Carl was nervous.  He explained that although he’d been working toward the targets he’d set a year ago, he wasn’t sure that his efforts would be viewed as meeting his goals, which he’d written as follows:

  • Improve skill in taking and defending depositions.
  • Improve written work product.
  • Get more experience in advising clients.

Do you see the problem that Carl recognized only in retrospect?  None of these goals can be quantified.  Had he improved his deposition skills?  Well, he could point to the depositions he’d taken and defended over the past year, but he couldn’t prove in any quantifiable way that volume equals improvement.  Same held true for his other goals.  After talking about Carl’s year, we found ways to suggest that he’d met his goals, but he vowed never to make the mistake of setting fuzzy objectives.

 

Unfortunately, lawyers at every stage of practice can set vague goals.  Have you ever said you’d like to “bring in more business” or “increase your billable hours” or “get more exposure to your target clients”?  These ambitions count as little more than wishes, because they’re not concrete and measurable.

How do effective leaders frame their intentions?  They set SMART goals, and they write down those goals.  A SMART objective is:

Specific: define what you intend to accomplish with sufficient detail to be meaningful.  Instead of planning to improve his deposition skills, Carl might have decided he wanted to get comfortable with the “funnel method” of questioning witnesses.

Measurable: a quantifiable definition of what you intend to accomplish.  (As Peter Drucker said, “What gets measured gets managed.”)  Carl might have said that he’d like to take 8 depositions over the course of the year and rate his comfort and skill in using the “funnel method” on a scale of 1 to 10.

Achievable: design a goal that’s a stretch, but a stretch within your reach.  Carl might realize that he’d be unlikely to take 8 depositions over the next year, and so he’d scale back to 4 depositions.

Realistic: create a sensible plan to attain your goal, considering your abilities and limitations.  Carl might approach the partner with whom he worked the most to share the goal he’d set and to get the partner’s buy-in, which would include agreement that the goal was realistic.

Time-based: define the time in which you’ll measure your efforts to determine whether you hit your objective. 

When you know what you want, you’re much more likely to seek out and accept opportunities to reach your goals.  Take a moment to recast your #1 objective as a SMART goal and write it down somewhere, perhaps in your calendar.  And then notice what happens over the next few days and weeks.  Chances are good that you’ll take steps toward your goal that you wouldn’t have taken without being concrete and clear and what you wanted to happen.

 

What’s the most important step you can take?

Only 34 days remain in 2007, including weekends and holidays.  Before we know it, the books will close and another year will have passed.  What’s the most important step you can take today to ensure that you’re well-positioned as you move into 2008?

  • Business development: Perhaps you could set aside a couple of hours to evaluate your business development plan for 2007 and to lay out your strategy for next year.  Or you could make some appointments to take important contacts to lunch, for coffee, or whatever is appropriate.  If you’ve noticed that there’s something in your way concerning client development, invest some time now determining what you need to do to be more productive.  At a minimum, set aside a few minutes every day to take some marketing action.
  • Time management: How are your hours?  If they’re low, what do you need to do to get appropriate work?  (Perhaps see the business development ideas!)  Are you billing for the time you’re actually working, and are you using that time well?  Do you need to update your methods for filing, time tracking, or scheduling?  Perhaps it’s time to check in with your assistant and see what ideas he or she has for using time more effectively.
  • Professional development:  This is often a great time of year to pick up CLE.  Or check out some of the new publications in your area of practice or on practice management.  But first, check your progress on the development plans you set for this year.  What can you do to close out this year with a success?
  • Career:  If you’ve been considering a move, this is a good time to put out feelers and position yourself.  You may not have an opportunity to interview until the new year, but putting yourself “on the market” now will be beneficial.  If you’re mid-search, you may find this a busy period as employers try to wrap up hiring decisions before the close of the year.If you’re planning to stay in your current position, what can you do to improve your performance?  How successful have you been this year, and what changes would be helpful as you move forward?  The holiday season is also an opportunity to show your gratitude to support staff and colleagues who have made your professional life work well and perhaps brightened your days: don’t miss your chance.
  • Work/life integration: Are you happy with the amount of time and energy you’re putting into your personal life?  Do you need to rearrange your schedule, get some help on the home front, or turn off your BlackBerry while you talk with your spouse/partner/child?  Are you putting in time on the activities that will increase your energy, such as exercise and getting sufficient sleep?
  • Other:  If there’s an area that needs attention, you know what it is.  Spend some time putting it right, whatever that may mean.

Taking these steps will help you to realize or exceed the goals you’ve set for 2007 and carry you forward into 2008 with momentum.  Choose the most important action in the most important area and do it this week.

Expecting a bad evaluation? What to do today.

Evaluation season is coming up soon.  I recently received a question that might be paraphrased as follows, with identifying information removed:  “I’ve had a difficult couple of years for reasons that are partly out of my control (a serious, but now resolved, health issue and a slowdown in the work available) and partly within my control (some mistakes that don’t reflect well on me even though none of them were tragic).  What can I do to manage this situation?”  Since this isn’t an uncommon question, I thought I’d share my answer here.

1.  My first suggestion is to perform a realistic self-evaluation and to be clear with yourself about what has and hasn’t gone well this year, and why.  Understanding what has happened is a step toward correcting any issues.  It also gets you back in touch with the particulars of the year.  That’s especially important during a difficult year so you’re prepared to respond to whatever comments the evaluator may make.  If you’re expecting a negative evaluation, you probably know what the issues are, but this post may help you round out your own review of the year.

2.  Ideally, you’ve already begun whatever corrective action is necessary and you have some track record to show improvement or reversal of a negative pattern.  If not, identify the necessary changes and make them immediately.  If you need input from someone to be sure the changes you’ve identified are the appropriate steps, seek it before your evaluation.  Not only will you get back onto the right path sooner, you will show initiative and ownership of both the problem and the solution.  Implementing your plan may be the make-or-break phase of this approach, and that’s why it’s so critical to start immediately.  The longer you have to turn things around, the better the opportunity to succeed at doing so.

3.  Next, prepare for the evaluation meeting.  Each situation requires unique handling, so it isn’t possible to recommend a particular course of action without going much more into the details of the expected negative feedback and the corrective action underway.  However, by setting your intentions for the meeting (do you want to acknowledge the issue and its solution? do you want to present evidence that you’ve turned things around? other intentions?) you’ll have taken the first defining step toward setting your plan.  (And, of course, implicit in that step is deciding what you want out of the meeting.  Your plan will be quite different if you intend to demonstrate that you’ve corrected a problem as opposed to if you’ve concluded that the problem is insurmountable and have decided to move on.)

And if you feel that the problem may be insurmountable, I urge you to seek guidance from a mentor or other knowledgeable outsider.  Especially when a situation is emotionally charged, it’s sometimes difficult to get a good view as to whether circumstances can be satisfactorily resolved.

4.  Decide whether you want to take charge of the conversation and if so, how.  Again, your intentions will control execution of this step.  If you do want to take charge, you might practice how you will start the conversation and how you will react if the others in the room try to take charge as well.

5.  Decide how you would like the meeting to end.  Of course, this is not 100% within your control, but knowing what you would like to happen  may guide your presentation and your responses through the meeting.

If you’re expecting a negative evaluation, these steps will help to minimize the challenges you’ll confront.  I strongly advise not waiting until the formal evaluation, though, to deal with the situation.  It’s much better to get started as soon as you sense a problem.

 

Peak or valley? Performing a realistic and meaningful self-evaluation

Just about every firm has some formal mechanism for evaluating associates.  The format varies, but the general idea is always the same: to collect feedback on how well each associate is performing and to pass that on to the associate, preferably with some comments about how the associate might improve.  Fair enough, except that the method of communicating the results of that exercise to the associate often undercuts the effectiveness and benefit that an evaluation is supposed to convey.  Toward the end of the year (traditional evaluation time), I’ll discuss this topic in more depth.

For now, let’s consider self-evaluation.  A number of large firms are using the self-evaluation model to help associates determine their career path.  Again, the format varies, but generally the associate is asked to fill out a form that asks for the associate’s self-evaluation in certain areas and sets plans for the future.  If taken seriously, these programs can be very useful in helping to guide associates’ professional development.

The challenge arises, however, when the associate may begin to feel his or her path diverging from the firm.  Because the truth is that the self-evaluation and professional planning programs may benefit the firm just as much as they do the associate.  I encourage lawyers who are completing these self-evaluations to go through the process twice: once, without censoring anything, and a second time with an eye to how the firm might perceive her comments.  For instance, an associate might be unhappy about work/life balance, but it’s wise to pay careful attention to how that issue is raised.  Commenting that she’d like to focus on becoming even more effective in her use of time is palatable; commenting that she’d like to reduce her in-office hours is not.  But it’s possible to develop a lot of useful information in responding to the self-evaluation and planning forms that the firm provides.

If your firm doesn’t engage in this process, or if you sense that your professional desires may be leading you away from the firm fold, you may want to consider these questions.

1.  How satisfied are you with your practice setting?  Are you aware of any reason why a different practice setting (larger or smaller firm, sole practice, in-house, government, or public service) might be preferable for you?

2.  How well are you perceived in your firm?  Do you need to make an effort to raise your visibility?

3.  Are you taking advantage of what your firm offers in terms of training, professional networking opportunities, social/cultural opportunities, etc?  Are you cross-selling to your clients, and are other lawyers cross-selling your services to their clients?

4.  How well are you working with support staff?  Are any changes necessary?  Are you communicating clearly with the staff?  Are these any tasks you can effectively delegate?  Any procedures you could institute to make things run more smoothly?

5.  How are you doing in terms of skills development?  Is there any kind of training you need?  If so, what’s your plan for getting that training?

6.  Are you satisfied with the quality and quantity of assignments you’re receiving?  Is your level of responsibility increasing appropriately?  If the answer to either question is anything other than an unqualified yes, what have you done to rectify the situation?  If you’re not receiving an adequate quantity of work, is that because business is down generally, or is there a chance that it’s a reflection on your work or on how you’re perceived within the firm?  What do you need to do differently?

7.  Are you satisfied with your level of client contact?  What can you do to provide better service to your clients?  Do you have a client development plan, and are you working it on a regular basis?

8.  How is your relationship with the lawyers who supervise your work?  What can you do to make it stronger?  How do they perceive you?  What changes would you like to make?

9.  What are your career goals for the next three years, both in terms of substantive/skills development and in terms of your position with the firm?  What’s your strategy for reaching these goals?

10.  Are you satisfied with your work/life balance?  Are any changes desirable or necessary?

These are, of course, just a sample of the range of questions you might ask.  The most critical part of your self-evaluation is to take a realistic look at where you stand professionally now, to reflect thoughtfully on where you want to be professionally in at least the next one to three years, and to think strategically about what adjustments you need to make so you can reach those goals.  You may find it particularly valuable to perform this kind of self-evaluation with the assistance of a mentor or a coach, either of whom can help with each of these three steps.

Retreating for professional reflection

As soon as I finish typing this post, I am going on retreat for the weekend.  I’ve checked into a hotel that has a nice view, a good desk, 24-hour room service, and oodles of peace and quiet.  The high-speed ‘net connection is working here — unlike at my office — and I am preparing to retreat to do some evaluation and business planning.

One of the problems lawyers have with their practices is that we rarely take time to reflect on our goals and our progress toward them.  Instead, we tend to be in fast forward motion, moving forward all the time, but not pausing to ask whether our motion is getting us toward what we desire.  Michael Gerber, author of E-Myth Mastery and related books, argues that entrepreneurs must work on their businesses as well as in them.  It’s the same for lawyers, because even those lawyers who are working at mega-firms are, in a sense, leading their own businesses.  We too must stop and reflect on how our business, our practice, is running.

A retreat is the ideal way to do this evaluation.  Not the typical law firm retreat, replete with meetings and cocktails and chatter, but a private retreat.  A retreat can be enormously useful in as little as 3 hours, though a longer retreat is restorative as well as better suited for deep reflection.  Depending on what you need, both personally and professionally, you might consider retreating at home, at the office, or to a hotel/retreat center.  Consider what you need, both in terms of what creature comforts will facilitate your turning inward and also in terms of what support you need.

What questions should you ask yourself on retreat?  The list is truly endless, but here are some good ones:

1.  How well am I functioning in the office?  What changes do I need to make either in the office environment or in how I prepare myself for my workdays?

2.  What is my business vision?  What kind of practice do I want, and how well am I developing that practice?

3.  Who are my clients?  How is client development working for me, and what changes do I need to make?  What new activities do I need to undertake?

4.  How satisfied are my current clients?  How can I better serve them?

5.  Am I an active member of the legal community?  Am I meeting my own expectations for pro bono work?

6.  Am I maximizing my energy through good self-care?

7.  How is my work/life balance?

8.  What one change can I make in my life or my practice that will create greater satisfaction for me?

As we move into fall and the end of the year, it’s an ideal time for review and revision.  Give yourself — and your practice — the gift of a retreat.  Please contact me if you’d like support in designing a retreat or in helping with strategizing to help you reach your goals.