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Success starts when you have a goal?

Not necessarily.

Success is likely only when firms make the choices that are right for them.

There are many ways to set goals and implement goal achievement. Deciding how to introduce, implement, and administer strategic, business planning and performance related goals depends on the purpose of the goal setting process, in the context of the existing culture, economics and leadership of the firm. Every firm is unique.

Most law firms, regardless of size or degree of formality, have goals. Individual lawyers do, too. The goals may be unwritten, even unspoken, yet most lawyers have a general idea of what they are there for and what they think the firm wants to achieve.

At some point though, growing firms usually decide to do more with goals. The catalyst for taking a more structured approach to goal setting is usually a recognition that there have been lost opportunities or an acknowledgement that there are problems. So how do they get the results they want and need to?

If lawyers want goals to simply "fix" problems that they have ignored or been unable to address well in the past, they may make decisions about how to implement the goals reacting disproportionately to past frustrations and disappointments.

If lawyers feel a sense of urgency about responding to opportunities or fixing problems, they may try to hurry things up, in which case their expectations about what they can achieve with a goal-setting process may not be particularly realistic or well thought out.

What most partners do know is that most successful law firms in every major legal market use some type of goal setting to manage certain aspects of individual performance, even at the partner level. So they assume goals are a good thing to do. How hard can it be?

What they may not realize is that the choices they make about proceeding with goals, will make or break their firm’s ability to use goals constructively to improve performance motivation and results. And that if they do it poorly, they can decrease productivity, morale and overall performance quite dramatically.

There are six common choices that we often observe law firm leaders making, that undermine the results they are trying to achieve. Sometimes, partners make these choices because they are consciously trying to take short cuts, a “quick fix” to a nagging problem. They may feel quite justified in their approach, given the circumstances as they perceive them. More often than not, they just don’t think about the choices they are making and the damning consequences these choices may eventually have.

If you see yourself in any of these, you may want to ask:

  • Why are we doing this?
  • What are the potential consequences?
  • How could we do it differently to increase the likelihood of success?

Partners sometimes choose to:

1. Impose goals from the top without:

A. Communicating a meaningful link to overall strategic priorities, the “what” without the “why”;

B. Adequate consultation with individual lawyers and with insufficient “reality testing”;

C. Providing needed individual development, resources and mentoring throughout the year.

Nobody likes to be told what to do without the opportunity to ask questions and evaluate the feasibility of performance expectations. In addition, goal achievement may be predicated on certain assumptions that the lawyer may want to test or clarify.

Sometimes financial targets are set, particularly for more junior lawyers. Even then, there is ample opportunity to consult on the why’s and how’s of the performance expectation. Helping younger lawyers understand how law firms make money, what the economic pressures are in the firm, and how these goals will help with their professional development and career progression, will make it much more likely lawyers will feel motivated and will have the information, skills, and opportunities to succeed.

If goals are perceived to be unrealistic and achievement is based on factors that lawyers perceive they can’t control, then setting the goal will actually be de-motivating and will create less commitment to results than if the goals were never set in the first place.

Goals without meaningful, as opposed to coerced, consultation may get short-term compliance, but rarely true commitment from the lawyers or the partners.

An ongoing annual process that is both consultative and supportive ensures that every lawyer has the best chance for success. This cannot be accomplished without committed partner involvement.

2. Treat goals as fixed and intractable without expecting to modify them during the year in response to factors such as new opportunities, reassignment of priorities, changes in personal circumstances, new sources of information about clients, the competition, the market, and the finances of the firm.

Particularly in the first year or so of goal implementation, lawyers need some flexibility to see if their financial assumptions based on historical data are useful. Through some “trial and error” lawyers learn how to write well-constructed goals that have sustainable action plans and clearly articulated measurements for both quantitative and qualitative achievements.

If priorities change during the year, playing “gotcha” at year end with artificial numbers only creates bad feelings. As important, it conditions lawyers to have tunnel vision. If goals cannot be adapted to changing circumstances and evolving opportunities or unresolved problems, why should lawyers even bother to think about these things? They learn it’s better to focus only on the set goal, at the expense of anything else.

When firms rigidly administer narrow targets of performance they invite lawyers to play the numbers, take ethical shortcuts, and behave selfishly at the expense of their teams and the firm.

Professional performance is more than goals. And if goals are completely intractable, they quickly become obsolete and ineffective.

3. Use goals to send a “message” to under-performing lawyers, including partners.

When under-performance is an issue, particularly at the partner level, it didn’t happen overnight. With younger lawyers, under-performance is most often caused by the environment in which they are working, not because they have bad intentions and are bad people.

While goals can contribute a lot to creating a motivating work environment, they are quite often, sadly – although perhaps not intentionally – used to try to scare lawyers into "acting right." They may even be used to try to induce a partner or lawyer to leave the firm. Guilt, fear and humiliation are not effective professional motivators long term.

When lawyers feel that they are set up to fail or that the system unfairly creates “winners” and “losers,” the response to goal setting is understandably negative. The results, also understandably, backfire.

This doesn’t mean that goals can’t be used to set standards and evaluate performance. However, goals, in and of themselves, do not guarantee positive outcomes -- particularly if problems of under-performance are not addressed in other ways, too.

4. Fixate solely on financial goals at the expense of other types of performance that bring equal or even greater value to the firm’s reputation, professional standards, and capacity to grow – in part, because you don’t know how to do it comfortably.

Do partners really want lawyers to become so consumed by financial targets, for example, that they minimize the importance of other professional behaviors, roles, and responsibilities they have, both inside and outside the firm?

Some firms have very successfully used goal categories to focus all lawyers on key areas of priority for the year. For example, in addition to financial targets, every lawyer or practice group may have individual or group goals designed to further achievements on a firm wide or practice level basis in areas such as client service, improvements in quality and risk management, knowledge management, even cultural integration.

More qualitative goals in areas like teamwork and leadership are actually quite easily measured when defined in terms of observable behaviors. Lawyers may identify and discuss examples of professional behaviors that contribute to goal achievement. Documenting these behaviors, developing skills, and using feedback to build awareness and measure progress have achieved outstanding results.

5. Neglect to provide feedback and to continuously improve the ways that goal progress is reported and measured.

What measurements will provide the most accurate and reliable indicators of progress toward specific, observable business results? Failing to measure progress along the way leaves lawyers and law firms vulnerable in two areas:

(1) They can miss early warnings of impending problems that could wreck their best efforts; and

(2) They will never know for sure when and why they succeeded.

Having good measurements is not enough. The firm’s leaders and managers, as well as individual lawyers, should be alert to significant, unexpected variations in the measurements, perhaps even more so than just observing the numbers the measurements produce. This can provide insights into causes of unsatisfactory performance that might be embedded deep in the firm’s operations. It can also support a well-informed ongoing discussion about whether the goals remain likely to produce the results that the firm desires. 

6. Neglect to incorporate rewards and recognition into the goal setting process that highlight both individual and group achievements throughout the year, particularly with younger, developing lawyers.

By its nature, the practice of law requires professional excellence in each member of a law firm, perhaps more than in other enterprises. However, like other business organizations, law firms that work in teams consistently are more financially successful, by any measurement, than a firm that is nothing more than a collection of silo practices. This is why objectives that focus only on individual performance usually fail to deliver their full potential to the firm today and into the future.

Developing lawyers often need shorter-term recognition and rewards than more senior partners who have greater control over their own practices. Socially, younger lawyers are accustomed to more instant gratification through social media, cell phones, even video games. Timely feedback is extremely helpful in letting them know if they are using the right methods of critical thinking, making the right judgment calls, prioritizing their time well, liked by clients, perceived as successful by partners, even fitting into the culture of the firm.

Needing this recognition does not mean that they are immature or lack resolve. They need what any professional does: indications from peers, mentors, and clients that their contributions are valued and their expertise is being used. They also want to see evidence that their commitment to clients, to improving and developing professionally, and to goal achievement will be recognized and rewarded today and into the future.

Writing down financial goals for the year is excellent documentation for business planning. It is not, however, by itself, a goal-setting process.

Done well, a goal-setting process can achieve great things. It is very likely to achieve a higher gross value of fee earner time, higher fee revenue per lawyer, lower operating costs, improved reputation for quality, increased lawyer and staff morale, and lower lawyer and staff turnover. These results can be observed in all types of partner compensation systems, ranging from lockstep to purely performance-based.

Done poorly, it can have the opposite effect.


Lisa M. Walker Johnson