Growing up SMART

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Published on 12/8/08

Many of those who enter law school know at a relatively early age, and most generally by high school or the start of college, that they want to become lawyers.

Far fewer are those who are determined to become antitrust or family law or securities attorneys, at least at the start of their careers.

Even lawyers who have earned J.D. degrees after interning with a firm may well end up practicing in an area of law assigned by their firm. Conversely, they may want to practice a kind of law their firm doesn't really value.

I recently coached a young lawyer who truly enjoyed writing appellate briefs but found that neither his firm nor its clients really needed or appreciated that skill. The attorney needed to decide "what he wanted to be when he grew up" by recognizing the difference between what he personally values and what clients and the firm value.

Such career development requires planning. Every law firm is a business, and a lawyer who does not have a clear idea of overall goals and specific strategies for career development likely does not have much of a future.

An excellent acronym, SMART, describes what's required for an effective plan for any lawyer to grow competencies and expand focus in a career. If you undertake a SMART analysis, these are the types of considerations to include:

  • Specific: The issue should not be a general desire to get more billable hours. Instead, your focus should specifically be on what kind of billable work you want and what it contributes to the firm.

  • Measurable: If you can't measure the growth of what you are doing by specific standards of billable time, training or client development effort, you'll never know or be able to demonstrate what you've done.

  • Achievable: Set near-term targets that are realistic and continually raise the bar.

  • Reasonable: Don't set yourself up for failure with unreasonable income expectations or business development goals.

  • Timely: Give yourself an adequate timeframe that still imparts a sense of urgency.

A smart growth plan doesn't have to be complicated. It can be as fundamental as identifying two or three desired outcomes for yourself within a given time period, defining what steps are necessary to achieve those outcomes, then seeking out the means to achieve results.

For any lawyer, the future depends on whether you are committed to success and whether your firm provides the means to succeed. Defining "success" in relative terms such as "more revenue" or "better marketing" sets a subjective standard that is difficult to discuss, let alone achieve.

Once you look at your career as a series of structured business and professional development targets, the dynamic changes. It's no longer a matter of accommodating yourself to what partners or clients want you to do; it becomes a process of understanding what you ought to do.

Lawyers who understand how to grow a career can better assess the value they provide and better reflect it in their performance. These attorneys will have more satisfying careers because they are in charge of their own career development.

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