Setting goals can help you avoid burnout and shape the career that is right for you.
Remember the day that you graduated from law school? You felt proud, relieved, exhausted, and excited about what the future might hold. All of your hard work had paid off, you’d become a lawyer, and the rest would be, more or less, smooth sailing.
Of course, as we all know, these defining moments are rarely the end of the struggle. In fact, they are just the beginning of the next stage in a lifelong process of working to achieve something you’ve set your mind to.
The reason that common experiences like graduating, passing the bar, or getting your first job are so memorable and rewarding is that they represent goals. These particular goals are institutionally and socially prescribed.
The tricky thing is that once these goals have been reached, few of us take the time to set new ones. As a result, we may feel adrift. We may have a hard time focusing our energies or prioritizing tasks. We may not feel like we are making any progress in our careers even without really being able to say what progress might look like.
Goal-setting can help with this.
Goals and Values, Lawyer-style
One of the magical things about goal-setting for an independent professional is that there are no rules. Once you become a lawyer, it’s up to you what kind of person you want to be, what kind of life you want to have, and what this means for how you want to practice the law.
For this reason, the first step in setting goals is thinking about who you are and what matters to you personally. Consider the questions below.
- Is there a cause that is particularly important to you?
- What kind of people are you committed to serving?
- How many hours a week would you like to work?
- What kind of salary do you need to plan for your future?
- How much vacation do you require?
- How important is location?
The answer to this might lie in some reflection on why you decide to become a lawyer in the first place. Perhaps you are passionate about immigration rights. Perhaps you want to throw yourself into your work and be richly rewarded for your efforts. Or perhaps you want to be a fixture in your community, trusted counsel for community leaders with enough flexibility to make all of your children’s ballet recitals.
Career-planning isn’t just about what you know and can do, it’s about finding harmony between your talents and the life you intend to live. Once you’ve answered these questions, you’re ready for step two.
You may have heard of SMART goals before.
SMART stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.
You can probably intuit the difference, for example, between “I want to help people” and “I want to take on one pro-bono case dealing with labor rights violations every year beginning on January 1st, 2021.”
The first goal is extremely vague, while the second is specific, measurable, potentially attainable (depending on your circumstances), relevant to both your practice and your desire to help people, and time-bound, i.e., attached to a deadline.
The value of these types of goals are that they are motivating and organizing. Set a goal that isn’t attainable (“I want to stop climate change this year”), and you will quickly realize that it feels impossible and not worth fighting for. Set goals that aren’t measurable, and you won’t know whether you’ve succeeded or not. Likewise, if your goals are unspecific, irrelevant, or not time-bound, you will have deprived yourself of the chance to evaluate your progress toward them.
This Brings Us to (ER)
Really, goal-setting is all about allowing you to organize and evaluate the messy, confusing unstructured reality of life as a practicing lawyer. This is why we encourage lawyers to consider working with SMARTER goals.
In addition to the parameters of a smart goal, SMARTER goals contain two extra steps: Evaluate, and Recognize/Reward.
Once you have reached your goal take time to evaluate that accomplishment. How successful were you? How did it feel? Is this a goal worth repeating, modifying, or doing away with entirely?
Finally, take time to recognize your work and to reward yourself for what you’ve done. Maybe you take an evening off for a nice dinner with your family, or you plant a new tree to remind you of your achievement. Or maybe you start outsourcing your client intake or invest in some new technology for your firm.
Practicing the law is a marathon, not a sprint, and making sure that you take time to reflect on your work and celebrate your successes will help set you up for a long and fulfilling career.