By Ted Flett
Imagining myself in the distant future is hard. Perhaps it’s the Canadian in me that I do not want seem boastful. Or possibly declaring a clear measurable outcome leaves me fearful of failure in case I fall short. Or perhaps the superstitious streak my mom gave me tells me not to jinx my fortune.
I am not alone.
Last month, while many of us were immersed in holidaying and year-end number-crunching, a few dozen lawyers desperately seeking goal-setting tips assembled at the Law Society of Ontario for help in hatching their 2019 strategies.
Kerry Boniface of the Law Society organized the inaugural session to help lawyers get moving and motivated. “Goal setting is not a passive exercise,” she says. “It helps us stay active and interested with our own careers and professional development. As adult learners, we need to be riding a bike, not sitting on a bus, to get where we want to go.”
Enter Kate Dewhirst. The self-professed “life-long goal setter” who facilitated the workshop is adept at road mapping success for early legal ‘cyclists’ like me. Bubbling with advice, expressions, analogies, metaphors and most especially experience, Dewhirst applies what she advocates. A health lawyer, Dewhirst updates her goals and road-map quarterly and does what she calls “deep dives” at the end of her fiscal and calendar years.
First, Dewhirst recommends that we capitalize on the month of January.
“It’s a really important time of year to take a pause and reflect on what we want,” she says. “And if we don’t ever take a pause, we just continue to do all the same things we were doing before. We go into default mode. When we think about where we want to go, then it sets us up to look for opportunities to make them a success.”
“When we are defining success, we are building a bridge from yet to not yet,” she advises. “We are looking forward.”
Success varies according to the goal setter. This was evident from the many perspectives shared by workshop participants: Obtaining referrals from colleagues. Achieving the desired outcome for a client. Winning cases. Making money. A judicial appointment.
From there, Dewhirst helps devise a road map to reach an expressed goal which includes creating a network of mentors and advisors.
There are other approaches to success as well.
One of Canada’s newest junior sole-practitioners is Andrew Paterson who launched his Ottawa business this month after putting in 18 months at a large national firm. A savvy go-getter, Paterson prefers not to characterize his approach to practice as goal setting, however.
“I’m a disciplined guy and I’m a routine-oriented guy,” the former army captain says. “But, I’m just not a goals guy.”
The thought of where he will be in five years doesn’t terrify him, but Paterson admits it does not motivate him either. “I’m not knocking that approach,” he says. “It’s just not me.”
Paterson says he is excited by the opportunity of his new career direction and put ample thought into positioning himself as a “freelance civil-litigation-support guy for small law firms.” But the solopreneur prefers not to wed himself to a fixed, detailed plan. Which is not to say Paterson is casual about his endeavour into solo practice.
Two weeks in and Paterson says he is already seeing traction. Astute and entrepreneurial, Paterson has a circle of lawyers to tap into, is cultivating a sole practitioner network and follows career-development authorities such as the authors of the best-selling, career-advice book REWORK and contributors to the website 80,000 Hours.
Six months into solo practice and I find myself gravitating between the measurable plan towards goals and Paterson’s “build-a-strong-business-foundation-and-results-will-follow” approach.
Following Dewhirst’s instruction to reflect, I realize now that since 2012 when I decided to apply to law school, I essentially boarded a bus where my goals would be prescribed by external sources for the next five years. Law school admission requirements determined that my goal in the application process was a strong LSAT score. Graduation and market competitiveness dictated that my goal in law school was the elusive A. Firm hire-back required me to work relentlessly in articling. And, successful associateship largely meant fulfilling the goals of the firm.
Untethered from this archetype, setting goals without influence is unfamiliar and admittedly, a little overwhelming. To return to Boniface’s analogy, my cycling is rusty.
It’s why Sheena MacAskill asserts that “goal setting is not about shoulds, it’s about wants.” To achieve success, the articulate coach would have me envision the lawyer I want to be, not the lawyer I think I should be.
She helps to problem-solve the same quandary in which I find myself among her own new lawyer clients who want to work differently than the model suggests that we should.
“Coming out of law school, we are trained a certain way and trained to chase a certain carrot,” she says. “We can find way more independence when we give ourselves permission to do something different.”
To alleviate some anxiety among cynics to goal setting, MacAskill says objectives can be set in a less-intimidating framework than one might think.
Take the common business development tactic of increased networking, for example. “It’s not a pass or fail thought,” she says. “It’s an engagement thought.”
For those junior sole practitioners who are apprehensive about goal-setting, Dewhirst has some comforting words.
“I think you can have a very successful business and not plan for it at all,” she admits. But that reassurance comes with a caution.
“What I think can happen if you don’t plan for it, is a level of anxiety and with the lack of planning, you miss opportunities for strategic advantages.”
And now, with the armed-and-ready graduates of Dewhirst’s workshop attacking 2019 with sharpened goals, drive and focus, competition in the legal market just ratcheted.
Perhaps I should govern and goal-set myself accordingly.
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