I still know a number of you who are not setting goals. I am hopeful that if you read what scientists have written, it might give you an idea of why setting goals is important and how to do it.

Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham, both professors, have summarized 35 years of empirical research on goal-setting theory in a professional paper titled: Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal Setting and Task Motivation. Here is what they found:

  1. The highest or most difficult goals produced the highest levels of effort and performance until the limits of ability are reached. I have found very few lawyers set goals that are beyond the limits of their ability. So, coaches should encourage junior partners to set goals that “stretch” them.
  2. It is very important to have goals that are specific rather than something general like to do one’s best. In their view when people are asked to “do their best” they generally don’t do it, in part because there is no external reference point.

How do goals affect performance? For me, setting goals always helped me set priorities on my non-billable time. Locke and Latham recognize this function of goals. They say: “…they direct attention and effort toward goal-relevant activities and away form goal-irrelevant activities.”

As illustrated in the scientific research, the problem many people have is setting their goals too low. I like what Evertt Bogue recently wrote How to Succeed by Being Completely Unrealistic. Check out his list of 13 ways to start thinking.

I remember working with associates in my old law firm and helping them decide what they wanted to accomplish in their work and careers and helping them prepare a plan with written goals.

I had great intentions and enthusiasm, and so did the majority of associates. But, over time I discovered that my large law firm was, perhaps inadvertently, contributing to our associates not following through.

Here is what I concluded happened. Maybe it is happening in your firm.

  1. The firm leaders don’t make clear that the firm values the associates setting goals;
  2. The partners don’t set their own goals;
  3. The firm seems to only value billable hours;
  4. There are no benchmarks identifying what associates are learning;
  5. Associates are made to feel they are not doing what they should when they do non-billable activities outside the office;
  6. Associates are not encouraged to participate in attorney development programs;
  7. Associates are not given meaningful feedback;
  8. Associates who set goals are put down when they share their goals with the partners for whom they work;
  9. Partners do not share credit with associates when they help with an article or presentation;
  10. Mentoring in the firm is just talk and not meaningful.





I’ve coached well over 1000 lawyers since I left my law firm and started coaching in other firms in 2005. I believe most, if not all the lawyers I have coached would like to attract, retain and expand relationships with clients.

Why are some of the lawyers I’ve coached successful and others are not? Many who do not succeed are really only saying they wish they could attract more clients.

Those who succeed do it a variety of ways. In some cases there’s luck of being in right place at the right time. In some cases there is luck of being born in the right family, marrying into the right family or having a friend who created a billion dollar company.

But, for most of lawyers I have coached who attracted major clients, they did it the old fashioned way.

They were motivated and worked hard, like an athlete training each and every day, and not seeing immediate results.

Fitness woman


I read an interesting Psychology Today article titled: Don’t Let Your Thinking Sabotage Your Goals, written by David Ludden, Ph.D. Please take a look because the writer treats the motivation to lose weight as I just explained above about the motivation to attract clients. Then, Ludden writes:

According to University of Chicago psychologist Oleg Urminsky, a sense of connectedness to the future self is essential for achieving long-term goals. (My emphasis)…

Urminsky considers his idea of connectedness to the future within the larger context of a well-documented phenomenon in behavioral economics known as time discounting. This occurs when people discount the value of a resource when there’s a delay in receiving it. For instance, if I offer you $120 now or $180 a year from now, you’ll most likely take the smaller-but-sooner option over the larger-but-later one.

Therein lies the problem, client development and attracting clients is a long term process. It requires lots of hard work for which there is no pay, and no immediate benefit. I know it took me two years of work, work, work before the first construction client called me.

I’ll leave you with one final example. I coached a lawyer 10 years ago. When I began coaching her, she had a very small amount of business in her column.

Recently she wrote to me and told me that a few years ago, she had set a goal of originating $3 million by the time she was a certain age. She told me she had reached and even exceeded her goal in 2016.

How did she achieve this awesome goal? Just as the motivation article suggests, she saw herself as a $3 million originator by a certain age, then she broke it down into smaller chunks and worked each year to get closer and closer to her long term goal.


Suppose for the moment that we will be working together in 2017. Suppose  we will have a one hour coaching session every other month. The first thing we would work on would be your 2017 Business Plan. To help you get started, here’s an exercise.

Exercise 1:

Title: Establish Your Goals

Duration: 30 Minutes

Instructions: Begin by brainstorming potential goals. Think about what you want to achieve, clients you want to serve, the type of work you want to do more of, what you want to experience, what you want to learn. After you have completed your list, think about and write down why each draft goal is important to you and when you answer, think about and write down why your answer is important to you.

In other words seek to determine what is motivating you to achieve the draft goal. From your list, determine which goal is your major definite purpose/most important goal. Based on understanding why achieving other draft goals is important, decide on which of the others should be part of your plan.

Exercise 2:

Title: Develop Your Action Steps

Duration: 15 minutes

Instructions: For each goal determine the actions you will need and want to take to achieve the goal. Additionally for each goal, determine what action step you will take in the next week.

Exercise 3:

Title: Begin Work on Your Plan

Duration: 15 minutes

Instructions: Determine how much time you plan to commit to non-billable activities over the next year. Then determine how much of that time you will spend on your professional development, firm activities, pro bono services and client development. For each category, prepare a draft list of action items you could do in the allocated time.

Here is a 2017 Business Plan Template you can use for your plan.



I’ve coached several lawyers this year whose focus in our coaching sessions is broader than just client development. They’ve been interested on the intersection of their career and their life as fathers and mothers.

I shared a blog about our daughter Jill that I posted four years ago and since many of you were not reading my blog back then I wanted to share it with you again.

Why should you set goals for your career and life? Setting goals gives you a strong sense of where you want to go and will help you:

  • Prioritize
  • Focus
  • Execute
  • Know when you are off track

I recently read a short Success Magazine blog: Take Control of Your Dreams. The writer began with this analogy:

Imagine arriving on the outskirts of a large city and being told to drive to a particular home or office there. But there are no road signs and you have no map. In fact, all you have is a very general description of the home or office, so finding it would be very much a matter of luck. Sadly, this is the way most people live their lives.

As you may know, my daughter Jill teaches special education. As she explains in this guest post, growing up with me pushing her to set goals was a bit of a challenge. On the other hand, she is doing what she set as a life goal many years ago.

When I was growing up my father made me set goals every year and write them down. (He also made me write book reports during the summer). He spent what then seemed like countless hours lecturing me on the importance of setting goals in my life. He always said it is important to be aiming at something you think is important.

Oh, he used to drive me crazy. I felt like I was one of the young lawyers who worked for him and who he was trying to inspire to be a great lawyer. For a long time, I rejected what he was telling me. I would prove to him I could be successful without writing down goals.

I never realized what an impact he had on me until a few years ago. While looking through some old papers I found a list of lifetime goals I had written in high school. (I never told my father I had actually written down goals as he had suggested.) I had not thought about these written goals in many years.

When I looked, I saw that my number one lifetime goal was to become a special education teacher. I had achieved my number one goal! I was excited when I found I had actually done what I had set out to do years before!

My father advocated coming up with goals every year and having lifetime goals. Each year, I write 10 professional goals and right beside them 10 things I want to do in my “real life”—life outside of school.

My “real life” goals can be financial, spiritual or things to do with my family. One of the reasons I write down my goals side by side is because, as I learned from my father, both parts of my life are equally important. As teachers, we often forget that we have lives outside of school because we spend so much time working during the school year.

I think Jill’s approach is one that would also work for you. I guess that is natural for me to say since it is based on me “driving her crazy” while she was growing up.

Want a fairly concise idea on how to set goals you will actually achieve? Here goes.

When I teach or coach lawyers, I like to play the Curly video from City Slickers. It’s the One Thing video.

Figuring out your “one thing” is the beginning point of long range planning. But, that is not enough.

You won’t stick with it unless you also identify the benefits of achieving that “one thing.” I call it the answer to the “Why” question. Why is achieving it important to you.

I suspect every reader knows that as an associate handling litigation for the partners in my small law firm, I decided I wanted to focus on and represent construction contractors building highways, bridges, airports and rail.

I clearly understood the benefit to me.

  • First, I am far more comfortable knowing a lot about a little rather than a little about a lot.
  • Second, at the time, the highway construction program across the US was growing leaps and bounds. So, I would be working with a growing industry.
  • Third, I knew of no construction lawyers who were focused that narrowly on transportation construction. So, I could become known as the “go-to” lawyer in that narrow field.
  • Finally, I loved being out on construction projects and working with construction contractors on those projects.

What is the one thing you want to achieve or become in five years? More importantly, what will be the benefit to you of achieving that one thing?

I will be in Denver this week working with lawyers in that office of a national law firm. I am very tempted to ask:

Did you work out this morning?

Maybe I should ask the same question the first Monday in March just to see if you are sticking to it.

Screenshot 2015-12-12 10.38.51 copy

Each year the statistics are about the same: Just 8% of People Achieve Their New Year’s Resolutions. Here’s How They Do It.

Before you click, how do you think the 8% do it?

On December 30, I received an email from one of the most enthused lawyers I have coached. Here’s what she wrote:

I worked on my goals for all the important parts to my life in 2016. I really appreciate how you got me in the habit of making big goals and then breaking them down into more realistic steps to accomplish. I still e-mail with L and S so that we can hold each other accountable for the short-term goals. Thanks for making an impact on our careers.

This email gives you good ideas on sticking to your goals (New Years Resolutions). Break down big things into the smallest possible pieces. Then find a colleague or friend and hold each other accountable.

I’ve seen it work so many times. Give it a try.


I have written about it many times. Client development activities start with a Business Plan. I guess what surprises me is when I learn how few lawyers have one that is valuable.

Why should you prepare one?

Time is a lawyer’s most important asset and you must use your time wisely. Preparing a business plan will help you prioritize how you spend your time, focus your attention on the important things and execute. With no plan you will find it easy not to do any client development efforts.

One of our most memorable anniversary trips was our 30th Anniversary Trip to Ireland. It was our first visit to Ireland. We’ve been back four times since, including last year.

Nancy spent at least 20 hours planning this trip for us. She decided she wanted us to go to Ireland and she knew why.

She wanted to go to Ireland because her family came to the United States from Ireland. She also knew she would enjoy the people, the scenery, the golf courses, the Irish beef cooked by French Chefs and the Irish Pubs serving Irish beer. So, she knew what and why.

Then she planned where we would stay, where we would play golf and the itinerary for each day. I like to say she did a top-down and bottom-up plan.


Her top down plan was looking at what she wanted us to do and where she wanted us to go. Her bottom up plan looked at how many days we would spend and what we could do in that number of days. Then she had a plan for each day we were there.

I prepared my business plan the same way and you should also. I start with one major goal. That is what I want.

It will seem funny to some of you but many years ago in the mid 1980s, I think I was making about $75,000 or so. I remember announcing to my partners that I wanted to make $150,000. I saw the look on their faces. It told me not one of them thought I could ever possibly make that much money.

I really wasn’t motivated by the money as much as I was motivated by what the money would represent. It was a way of keeping score.

I recently looked at my Business Plan for 1999. At the very top of it was my big goal for that year. I wanted to generate $3 Million in fees. That was a big hairy audacious goal (BHAG).

I am not sure whether I shared that goal with anyone in my practice group. If I did, I likely received the same look of disbelief. My plan for that year had many, many action items to do that I believed would help me achieve my goal.

I did not reach my goal that year, but I came close and I know I came closer than I would have if I had no goal or if it was lower. I did not do every one of my action items but I did do most of them. Two years later I brought in $3.3 Million in business and I know I was able to do that as a result of the planning and the efforts I made in 1999.

I have set goals since childhood. When I was young, I set goals related to my sports activities, such as free throw percentage in basketball, strike outs and earned run average in baseball, and average yards per carry in football.

When I started law school, my goal was to finish in the top five of my class. When I became a lawyer, my first goals centered on what I wanted to learn and what I wanted to experience. I remember one year I wanted to have five jury trials. Even though I did not have five jury trials that year, having goals motivated me, stretched me and forced me to prioritize my activities.

Because I owe so much of my success and career satisfaction to setting goals and working to achieve them, I struggled when I learned many, if not most, associates do not set goals or have career development plans. Naively, I assumed all associates would enjoy setting goals, having a plan and working to achieve them.

Bwoman chair thinking SS 74496718

Setting goals is a difficult process. To set goals, an associate must focus on something other than doing billable work. To quote John Lennon” Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.” For lawyers that means doing billable work.

To set goals you must be willing to look inside and determine what you really want. That’s tough to do. Many associates are uncomfortable looking within themselves. They know how to please others – parents, teachers, law professors, bar examiners and partners, but do not know what they really want.

Sitting down and writing out what they want to achieve in the short-term as well as the long-term is daunting and often leads to a feeling of helplessness. Achieving goals requires a commitment of time and energy, and willingness to take a risk.

Yet, taking a risk can make your career way more enjoyable. I know that has been the case for me. I also know that the feeling of having more control over your future can make the commitment of time and energy well worth it.

If you are a regular reader, you know that I have written many times about how to actually achieve the goals you set. One way is to hold yourself accountable.

Are you finding setting goals a challenge? If so, you are not alone.  I have 10 tips I hope will help you.

  1. Start broadly and work to specific goals.  
  2. Think of your major definite purpose (what you want to accomplish), understand why accomplishing it is important (why), and your core values (how you want to live).  
  3. Think of goals in the four aspects of your life. 
    1. Physical/Economic 
    2. Mental/Learning and Growth 
    3. Emotional/Relationships 
    4. Spiritual/Values/Contribution 
  4. Brainstorm and write down as many potential goals as possible in each of the four aspects of your life. 
  5. Just as you did for your major definite purpose, for each goal ask why achieving it would be important to you.  
  6. When you come up with an answer to the why question, ask why again. 
  7. If you do not have a good answer to the why question, discard that goal because you will not likely have the passion to achieve it. 
  8. For each goal make a list of no less than 10 things you need to do to accomplish it. 
  9. Share your written goals with your spouse, friends or mentor. 
  10. Take the first action step right away so the train will leave the station. 

In 1978, I decided that my major definite purpose was to be the preeminent transportation (highways, airports, rail) construction lawyer in the United States.

Why was that important to me? First, it was important because I wanted to be the “go to” lawyer in a narrow niche. Second, I wanted to pick an area that was not a crowded field. Third, I wanted to use my government contract experience I had gained while on active duty in the Air Force. Finally, I wanted to work for highway contractors because three of my college friends were active in family owned highway construction businesses.

I hope these ten tips help you find success in your goal setting. Please feel free to make comments or ask questions – one of my goals is to hear from you.