And Achieving Them
The importance of setting objectives in your practice cannot be overstated. Most attorneys are so driven by urgent matters, they lose sight of the big picture. One of my clients described his situation as having a time horizon of about two days. Needless to say his frustration level was high and satisfaction with his practice was low.
If you constantly operate in a reactive mode driven by urgency, your practice will experience highly random results. I speak with many attorneys who feel their practices are
not where they would like them to be, yet they feel powerless to change the situation. Many would prefer to be practicing in a different area but feel trapped by their income requirements, fearing a change might lead to financial instability.
Attorneys too often use a passive and reactive marketing approach. This causes many of them to be victimized by what I call marketing drift. They drift into an area of law or a type of client simply because that is who walked in the door. If their first client lived in a trailer park and liked their work, they get an inordinate number of trailer park referrals. If they handled a divorce with a favorable outcome, suddenly half their business is coming from divorce.
Most attorneys are susceptible to marketing drift because of the security imperative. If they fear their earnings will not cover the bills or sustain the life-style they want, there is great pressure to take any case regardless of the size, the area of law, or the probability the client will pay their fee.
This leads to the security trap. The propensity to take smaller cases with less desirable clients is self-perpetuating, because people tend to associate with others like themselves. If you have a passive marketing approach, these less desirable clients become your only source of referrals. You are forced to continue the cycle. This is especially true of sole practitioners and small firms who operate on tight budgets. They feel compelled to keep taking these clients because they fear going under without them.
If you run your practice without defined objectives, you can expect random results. Embarking on a journey without a destination puts your fate squarely in the hands of luck. The only way out of the security trap is to stop allowing your practice to be others-directed and make it self-directed. Don’t run your practice like a taxi service, where the passenger always decides the destination. Run your practice like a bus line, where you decide where the bus is going and only passengers who want to go in that direction pay you to get on.
The Elements of Effective Goal Setting
We’ve all had experience with goal setting, yet few of us ever achieve more than a fraction of our goals. Have you ever made a New Year’s Resolution only to find you fell back into the same bad habits after only two weeks? Part of the problem is that much of our behavior is habitual and habits are hard to break. The other factor is that we don’t know how to set goals in a way that will maximize the probability of achieving them. You can change that if you change the way you formulate your goals.
The following are the six criteria for setting effective goals for your practice:
- They must be specific.
- They must be time dependent.
- They must be monitored.
- They must be believable.
- You must have strong reasons for achieving them.
- They must be broken into daily tasks.
Reality is very compelling. We tend to respond most readily to the things that are most real to us. The more specifics we have, the more real things become to us and the more likely we are to take them seriously. This is why being at a sporting event is more exciting than seeing it on television, and television is more exciting than reading about it in the newspaper. The additional specifics make it more real and thereby more exciting.
The same is true of goal setting. When you set goals, it is important that they are specific. Setting a goal like, “Next year I want to make more money,” is not specific enough to be exciting or to be taken seriously. Set goals that make it perfectly clear what is to be achieved. For instance, “Next year I will personally originate $300,000.”
There are two types of specificity: quantitative and qualitative. Quantitative specificity has a number attached like the example above. Qualitative specificity refers to setting a goal that can be visualized like moving to a certain building, hiring a new associate or chairing a bar section. Whatever the goal, make sure you know exactly what you intend to accomplish.
Our minds tend to focus most readily on things that seem most imminent to us. The sooner something is likely to happen the more we pay attention to it. If we give a project a deadline, or if a deadline is imposed on us, it gains importance as the deadline approaches.
If you create a goal without some time parameter, your mind will automatically discount it and focus on whatever project is most imminent. This is a reason so many attorneys feel like they are on a treadmill to nowhere. They are stuck in an urgency loop. They have goals they would like to accomplish, but they have no timetable for accomplishing them.
There is always a client on the phone, a brief to be filed, a closing to complete, a trial to prepare for, etc., which is urgent and requires your immediate attention. Unless you give your objectives urgency by establishing a deadline of greater importance than your daily fire-fighting routine, you will remain in the urgency loop. This reduces your chances of elevating your practice.
Establish clear deadlines for your objectives and give them the highest possible priority. If you have specific goal oriented activities such as networking calls or bar meetings, allocate defined times for these activities.
After establishing a deadline, you should also develop a timeline. A timeline creates intermediate mileposts that show progress toward your goal, which will make it possible to meet the deadline. So, if your goal is to increase revenue by $300,000 in three years, the timeline might be to increase by $100,000 each year. This way at the end of each year you can compare your progress with the pace you have set.
Give goal directed activities the priority you would give to a meeting with a client. You wouldn’t fail to keep an appointment with a client without a very good reason. Treat appointments to work on your objectives the same way. They are appointments with your future.
Monitoring Your Progress
To avoid drifting off course or stagnating, your goal must be monitored frequently. You must track your progress to verify you are moving toward your goal. During the action process you should have pre-planned periodic updates to assure you are on course. An example of this would be a monthly review of billings and cash collected versus your plan.
The process of verifying your goals helps you to set up a new comfort zone for performance. The comfort zone is a set of boundaries by which you evaluate your achievement. If you traverse the boundaries in either direction, you will begin to feel uncomfortable. This discomfort might be conscious or unconscious. Regardless of your awareness of the discomfort, it will affect your performance.
For instance, if your comfort zone is to bill about 1,200 hours per year, you will subconsciously keep your pace to just about that rate. Though you might not perceive it, you will begin to speed up when you are behind and slow down when you are ahead.
To grow your practice consistently, you must consciously and systematically reach new plateaus of comfort. The only way to achieve this is set progressive goals and monitor your progress constantly. The monitoring brings your performance to your attention and creates a new comfort zone around the new goal. Before long, performance at the level of your old comfort zone will become totally unacceptable. If you do perform at that level, you will begin to become uncomfortable.
Once you begin to accept that the new level of performance is the norm, you will tend to stay at that level of performance. A goal that might have seemed farfetched five years ago, is now routine. Project this idea forward and seek to establish higher levels of performance that will seem routine in the future. This can only happen if you monitor your progress and reset your expectations.
How likely would you be to pursue the following goal: “Next year I am going to personally bill 10,000 hours.” Naturally, there is no possibility of billing that many hours personally (there are only 8,760 total hours in the entire year). This goal is absurd and you wouldn’t bother pursuing it.
Any objective you set for yourself should be believable. When I say believable, I mean believable by you! Our beliefs are governed by two major factors: personal experience and second-hand experience. Personal experience is anything about which we have first-hand knowledge. Second-hand experience is knowledge we get from sources other than ourselves such as friends, newspapers, books, parents, professors, etc. Of the two, personal experience is far more believable. Generally, first-hand experience must be repudiated by three to five trusted second-hand sources before we suspect it might not be accurate.
The more we repeat an experience, the more firmly entrenched it becomes and the greater our conviction about the underlying belief. If we set a goal that has no basis in past experience, despite our enthusiasm for it, we will doubt our ability to reach it. This is one reason we often fail to achieve our goals. We set goals we want to achieve, but we have no experience that tells us we can achieve it. Subconsciously, we don’t believe the goal can be attained so we never really act on it.
When formulating your goals remember that each step along your timeline must be built on the shoulders of the success of the previous step. The first step should be to set a goal that is challenging but believable based on your personal experience. If your best revenue year was $300,000, setting a goal of $1,000,000 would probably not be believable to you. However, setting a goal of $350,000 would be. Then if you hit the $350,000, a goal of $425,000 would be believable the next year, etc.
When setting goals it is important to examine what makes them attainable. Recall previous experiences that are related to the goal. Set a goal that you believe is achievable yet aggressive. You should push yourself to the limits of believability but not beyond. This will make the goal seem like a challenge without seeming impossible.
Reasons for Achieving the Goal
No matter how believable your objective, if you have no reason to achieve it, you will not take action. Human motivation is a complicated matter, but when distilled down to its essential elements, it is about making choices between pleasure and pain. If you feel (consciously or subconsciously) that achieving your objective will give you more pain than pleasure, you will not act on it.
We often set goals that we believe are achievable and desirable, yet we never get around to doing anything about them. This is usually because we don’t have sufficiently strong reasons to follow through. Often we have approach-avoidance conflict. The goal is pleasurable, but the process will be painful or the fear of failure is great. Under these circumstances we are likely to avoid the pain despite the potential payoff. The only way to overcome this inertia is to have compelling reasons to act.
It’s important to understand that pain is a far more effective motivator than pleasure. The purpose of pain is self-preservation. Pain is there to protect us from repeating actions that can be harmful to us. If you put your hand on a hot kettle, you will get a powerful and unpleasant sensation that will get your undivided attention. It will also impress you with the fact that you don’t want to repeat the experience.
We will forsake a great deal of pleasure to avoid a little pain. This is the reason we procrastinate. Usually something about the process gives us pain. You busy yourself with other things until the day before the trial and then you stay up all night trying to prepare. When you finally do swing into action, it is because the pain of going to court unprepared is greater than the pain of preparing for the case.
When setting your goals, you should use the Push-Pull method of motivation. This is a method of maximizing your motivation by giving yourself compelling reasons to act.
List all the positive repercussions of succeeding at your goal. What are the reasons you must succeed at the goal? What kind of pleasure will you get when you achieve it? What positive effects will it have on your life? These things will pull you toward achievement.
Next, list all the negative repercussions of failing at your goal. What will you lose by not succeeding? What kind of pain will you have to endure by staying where you are? What kind of negative or confining effects will failure have on your life? The answers to these questions will tend to push you away from your current circumstances and toward success.
Whenever you have the urge to procrastinate or work on something less important, immediately review your Push-Pull reasons to succeed. This will usually result in a strong desire to act on your goal.
Many times when we create long term goals, we do so without outlining the short term steps necessary to achieve the goal. If we don’t take consistent action on our goals, we will reduce the likelihood of reaching them. Most great successes result from systematic and persistent progress through a series of small actions.
If you create goals for yourself that require activities that you can’t possibly fit into your schedule, no amount of hoping will make them happen. Not only do your goals have to be believable, the steps to the goal must be practical. You must be able to insert them into your routine.
Goethe, the great German playwright and philosopher once said, “It is not enough to take steps which may someday lead to a goal; each step must be itself a goal and a step likewise.” By consistently achieving these small daily goals, you will inevitably arrive at your overall objective.
When creating your objectives, outline goal oriented activities that you can make a part of your daily and weekly routine. Act on these tasks consistently, and progress to your objective will be sure and steady. Before long, these activities will become habitual. Since they lead you to success, success will also become a habit. The success habit will help you achieve your goals with much less effort. It is one habit you will never want to break!
Copyright © Art Italo, 2018 All Rights Reserved
Other Articles by Art Italo:
Starting a Small Firm or Solo Practice
How to Set Your Retainers and Fees
Marketing for the Small Firm and Solo Practitioner
Art Italo is a consultant working exclusively with attorneys in the areas of legal marketing, strategic planning, law practice management and success coaching since 1992.
He has developed and refined the concept of Leveraged Networking after over 15,000 hours of individual consultations with attorneys. He has personally consulted with over 500 attorneys in Atlanta and across the U.S. with practices ranging from solo practitioners to partners with major firms. Art has more than 35 years of marketing and management experience and holds an A.B. from Brown University and an M.B.A. from Pace University.
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