Getting to your ideal practice
By Justin Stark
What is the definition of your ideal practice? Without that definition, how do you know where you are headed? And how will you know when you get there? Your ideal practice is unique to you and based on your values. And you can get there by treating yourself like a client — by setting a goal to change your practice to better suit you and sticking to that goal until it is obtained.
Lawyers, as human beings, are goal-oriented. We each had a goal to get into law school, to succeed (or survive) there and then to pass the bar exam. Then almost all of us had a goal to get a job. We have accomplished many of our goals already, which took work, sacrifice, planning and time. We had a vision for ourselves as lawyers. And we made it. Congratulations, you are a professional. So, here we are, in our law jobs, cranking away, improving the lot of our clients. So what’s next for you? Inevitably, something is next. More of the same thing, perhaps, but something is next.
Determining what’s next for you is an adult thing to do. To face what you have, compare it to what you want, and then plan how to get there — these are natural processes human beings engage in. They may not be easy, but they are important, because human beings are hard-wired to work toward what they aim for. You may have heard of a certain goal of putting people on the moon. Notwithstanding the belief of certain conspiracy theorists, people have walked (and driven around) on the moon. Vision is necessary — and it works. Take a few moments now to envision what your ideal practice would look like.
It Has To Be Your Ideal Practice
Before you get too sidetracked by pulling up your firm’s last strategic plan for your ideal practice, please remember that your firm isn’t reading this article; you are. We’re talking about your ideal practice. Your ideal practice is yours because it is defined in large part by your values. And values are a very individual thing.
Your values are unique to you. They are what make you feel funny when you’re headed in the proverbial wrong direction. They are what make you feel a little regretful when you cut the proverbial corner. They are what you use to measure your success. In a very real sense, values are those ideas and things that you love. Examples of values are achievement, autonomy, beauty, community, competition, creativity, emotional well-being, excellence, health, intimacy, leisure, peace, recognition, security, thrift, wealth and wisdom. An ideal practice is defined by values, and a surprisingly small number of important values determine your ideal practice.
To get a better sense of your values (in order to define your ideal practice), take an honest look at what’s already working for you. If you enjoy client relations but dread drafting, maybe you value human connection but don’t value creativity as much. These value differences should be respected and not ignored. Similarly, if you think litigation is where all the action is but you don’t care for arguing, maybe you value adventure or the spotlight but do not value competition. These examples merely illustrate that you can think about what is enjoyable for you in your practice. And your practice is enjoyable when what you do is aligned with what you value. By doing more of what you enjoy in your legal practice, the obvious result is that you will have a more satisfying practice. Psychologists have concluded that human beings are more satisfied in their lives and work when they emphasis their strengths, rather than focus on their weaknesses. In other words, if a lawyer feels like a fish out of water, maybe it’s time for that lawyer to get back in his or her own "water," rather than work like the dickens to evolve a whole new breathing mechanism.
Identifying What You Want
Once you have a sense of your values, you can begin to identify your ideal practice because you will know what suits you — and what does not suit you. Unless you are already practicing in a state of bliss (whatever that might mean for you), defining your ideal practice will involve contemplating change: in the type of clients you work with, the matters you handle, the amount of money you make and the hours you work. Don’t panic. Contemplating this kind of change is good, because you are moving toward what is ideal (or at least better) for you.
Who are the clients with whom you want to work? Clients can be considered from several different angles. As a first step, we can honestly look at whether we more enjoy working with individuals, small businesses or large entities. Then we can look at the demeanor and values of our clients. Maybe we want to work with clients whose highest value is money, reconciliation, growth, innovation or security. Do we enjoy working more with aggressive businesspersons, families, "mom and pop," the meek, the experienced, the uninformed, the powerful, the unorganized or the oppressed? Maybe we really would rather not represent individual clients at all, but would rather work in-house or within an agency. Defining your ideal client is not simply an exercise to develop a marketing plan; it is a necessary step in obtaining the kind of practice that is fulfilling for you as a human being.
What matters do you want to work on? Lawyers change areas of law in which they work all the time. Very probably you have developed a specialty that is not what you had intended when you were a brand new lawyer. Consider how this happened for you already: time, study, experience with actual clients and issues and, if you’re lucky, maybe a mentorship. And consider the fact that your practice will continue to evolve into different areas whether you like it or not. But you are involved to influence that evolution. Once again, look at your values, preferences and strengths. What areas or specialties of the law will you choose to be next for you?
How much do you want to work? And how much money do you want to earn? Many lawyers think that these concepts are inextricably linked. That may be the case for some of us, but it is not so for everyone. We all can name lawyers with lucrative practices that work a lot less than we do. So it is possible. More important than mere envy, of course, we can define for ourselves the ideal amount of work that fits with our values. And it is important that we get real concrete on this, because we are talking about how we are choosing to spend the finite number of hours we have remaining in our lives. If three-quarters of our non-sleeping time is devoted to work, we do not have balanced lives. Of course, what constitutes a balanced life is unique to the individual, but our friends in the field of psychology have said for about a century now that a balanced life includes equally important non-work things like relationships, physical health, spirituality, emotional well-being, mental activity and social connection. Take your own inventory. If career gets three-quarters of us, then other equally important aspects of our lives get less.
We cannot, for very long, rely on the excuse that we "have to take" clients or matters that are less than ideal to pay the bills. Contrary to what we have long heard, that is not a "mature" viewpoint. That is the abdication of our role as conscious, thoughtful professionals. Would we tell a client flat-out that they "had to take" what the party on the other side of a case or transaction was willing to give the client? We probably would not do so, without a more thorough discussion and consideration of options for other, more ideal outcomes. Similarly with you, taking work that you don’t like from clients that you aren’t comfortable with will lead you right where you think it will—fuller bank, emptier life.
Once you have a sense of your ideal practice, how do you come up with a plan to get there? One idea is to think of yourself as a client. When we represent clients, we exhibit an amazing number of skills, including planning skills. And when we have developed a plan for a client matter, we tend to accomplish the plan—that’s what our clients’ interests require. As lawyers, we already have enormous skills to get it done. So too, when we have determined our ideal practice, we can apply our skills to set the plan to obtain it. And when each of us has a plan to obtain our ideal practice, we can work the plan and change our practice.
The nuts and bolts of changing your practice to something more ideal is really nothing more than setting a goal and sticking to it. Easier said than done? Absolutely. So what? The bar exam wasn’t easy either, but almost all of us took one. It can be done.
Setting a goal means writing down some target that you will act to obtain. The target must be specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic and relevant. A goal is specific if the "who, what, when and where" of it are defined exactly and vividly for you. A goal is measurable if it is set in a way that a third person can verify your progress and attainment of it. A goal is action-oriented if it sets forth the action verb or verbs that describe, in physical terms, what you will do to attain it. A goal is realistic if it is possible to obtain within its specific parameters and your present life. And a goal is relevant if it is compatible with your values and it is something that you are motivated to attain.
A goal is not set simply by saying to yourself in your own head, "I think I want to stop doing litigation and do something else." Writing down the following, for example, does set a goal: "On Jan. 1, 2008, I will be in a different department at my current firm providing contract drafting and negotiation services in the area of real estate development to 15 different corporate clients whom I will have obtained by devoting at least one hour each workday to business development."
Sticking to the goal until it is obtained involves many aspects: strategy, focus, passion and competence. Once a goal is set to obtain your ideal practice, you can unleash your lawyerly skills to plan the big and small steps that will be necessary to take along the way. The details of the strategic and tactical plan to accomplish your goal are necessary, but alone they are not sufficient. The goal-achiever must maintain focus — realizing that to say "yes" to something will probably mean saying "no" to other things. Sticking to the goal requires motivation, and one of the best sources of motivation is your passion for what your life will be like after you obtain your ideal practice. In working toward the goal, the goal-achiever builds competence in goal-achieving itself. Similar to the snowball effect, every small success in movement toward the goal adds strength and momentum to take the next step or make the next decision necessary to reach your ideal practice.
It’s Your Life
Persons outside the legal profession will scoff at the idea, but most lawyers will always think of themselves last. It’s ingrained in what we do, caring for the clients’ interests, looking out for opportunities and pitfalls. It is how we have been trained. This arrangement, of course, works well for clients. But if, at the end of the day, lawyers neglect to consider what is in their best interest for their own tomorrows — i.e., what it is that they value, enjoy and hope for — then lawyers are missing out on the opportunity to improve their lives.
So, what is the definition of your ideal practice? What is your goal and plan to get there? Today is a good day to start..
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Justin Stark is a practicing member of the OSB and a certified professional coach. His coaching company, Lawyer Coaching Services, works exclusively with lawyers who wish to make positive changes in their lives and practices. He can be reached at (503) 288-4485
© 2006 Justin Stark