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No plan – no future

Taking even one hour to think about what legal services you want to provide, to whom, and how each party will benefit will give you a higher probability of achieving the success you desire.

One of the first questions I ask lawyers when I start working with them on their personal business plans is, “What does success look like for you in five years?” Most of the time I receive a blank stare back. So many people are wrapped up in the pressures of daily life they just don’t come up for air.

Planning is essential. It really doesn’t matter at what stage of your career you’re in, you must always know and articulate your:

•    dreams for the future (your vision),

•    goals you want to achieve, and

•    objectives, most notably those in the next year.

Many of you use the above planning approach when you provide legal services to clients. Just apply it to yourself now!

So, what do you want to accomplish in the next five years?

If you’re an early year associate, do you even know about all of the areas of law you can work in? Do you know the big question: litigator or solicitor? Do you know the lifestyle you want to have? Do you know what types of clients you have the best relationship with and want to work with for the rest of your career? Do you really know yourself?

If you’re a partner with a significant number of years under your belt, what now? Is your area of specialty still relevant? Are clients and matters in your area still easy to find, or has the world shifted for you and you have to re-invent yourself? Has your billing been dropping and you’re moving downwards in your firm’s compensation scheme? Are you close to retirement and still need or want to work — but now what?

Change is one of the most difficult things to face, especially personal change. Planning will help you face and manage change. Planning will give you a vision and a mission. Planning will get you going, give you confidence, pat you on the back, and put you on the path for success.

Setting your vision

I didn’t really value spending time on defining a vision until I took a week-long residency course on leadership.

I was working for a national bank at the time and was only at the director level but was being groomed for bigger and brighter things. There were 120 people on the course, split into four fictitious “companies,” and the first thing we had to do was fill in what role we wanted to play in the “company.”

The facilitators left a big organization chart on the wall in each of the four rooms and 30 of us in each “company” had to sign up to be either a general worker, leader of the HR group, leader of the IT group, president, CEO, etc. In a sea of VPs, SVPs, EVPs, and other directors of the bank, I signed up to be the CEO. I look back now and realize I may have been having an identity crisis or something, but going through that course changed my life.

You have to understand at the time, having been a finance, operations, and sales person for many years (one day I’ll tell you the story of how I transitioned into marketing and communications), I was a micro-manager. Being excellent with numbers and too young and smart for my own good, I would be the first person to analyze something and dictate to others what should be done. This course was a chance to figure out how to be a great leader, a better people-person, and lead through persuasion and setting a common, achievable, believable, and exciting vision.

The only thing the CEO role was supposed to do was write a vision statement for their company and then put it in an envelope and tape it to the bottom of their chair for the whole course.

The course was designed to throw every terrible thing a company can face at the participants to teach them how to lead through anything because it’s really all about people and relationships. At the end of every day, our new “share price” was calculated based on how our leadership actions pulled people together for the good of each other and the company.

To get to the bottom line, I decided I wouldn’t dig into the details of the business case of the company but to delegate, empower, and encourage people always guided by the vision. I didn’t look at one number, make any calculations, or tell anyone what to do. I only stuck to the vision I set out in my sealed envelope — something along the lines of being the best company, with the best people, with the best services that serve the community.

That vision guided me, contextualized all of the bad situations the facilitators threw at us (like having to lay off 1/3 of our “workforce”), and got the company through the course to end up having the highest share price, winning the course, and the champagne prize!

It was my leadership epiphany — even a small bit of planning and visionary people-oriented leadership are the soft skills and actions that create the foundation for sustainable success.

Planning not only includes setting a vision, but further articulating it with goals and objectives that break the vision down into doable and measurable steps.

Well-executed planning will be the glue that holds your career and your firm together when times are great and when times change and get tough. Design your career and participate, or at least know your firm’s plan and vision. The probability is pretty high firms that implode didn’t have a vision or weren’t bothered to be guided by it anymore — they lost their way.


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