Successful Goal-Setting: Looking Back to Get Ahead

  • February 14, 2017
  • Ivan Mitchell Merrow

One year ago, JUST. channeled the new year’s energy and excitement into an article called Make it Happen: A Lawyer’s Guide to Goal Setting.

The article shared personal and professional goals from OBA members across Ontario. At that time I was half-way through my articling term, and was asked if I had a goal to contribute. I went ahead and published a professional goal for the world to see: I wanted to bring in my first client before December 31st, 2016.

Here’s what I learned by looking back at my career goal for 2016.

Setting the Right Goal Matters

The challenge was to come up with a goal to achieve by the end of the year that was challenging but not impossible. I also needed to share a short plan to make it happen.

Finally, like all solid goals, it needed to be SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely. Without a measurable target and deadline, there was no way to tell I had hit the target. I decided to set the bar high while also keeping it simple:

After I get called to the Bar, my goal in 2016 is to bring in my first client before December 31st. The plan is to make a post-call announcement by letter mail to friends, family, and contacts that explains where I am and what I can offer, including referrals to other professionals.

Staying Accountable Helps

Never before had I made such a public commitment to hit a goal. There is some evidence that making goals public helps motivation by encouraging others to hold you accountable. Now that I’ve been through the experience, I can say that publishing my goal online was a major motivator.

Reflecting back, I don’t think the size of the audience matters as how much the audience means to you. Sharing a goal with family, friends, peers, or any group you respect gets the job done. Ideally, that group will then check in with you to hold you to your promise.

Making and Breaking Plans is Necessary

Giving up on a goal ends the goal. Giving up on a plan may help reveal a better way to achieve the goal.

Quickly after starting my job as a first-year lawyer, I realized that my first plan to send out an announcement by letter mail was a larger endeavour than I thought. Based on how long it was taking me to gather mailing addresses, my time seemed to be running out.

Rather than limiting myself to a time and labour-intensive plan, I focused on what I already knew how to do well: developing a social media presence and networking in person. Soon after I started focusing on my strengths, I started getting better leads.

If that didn’t work after a decent effort, I would have changed plans again. Changing the recipe is not a problem as long as the final product is what you promised. Experiment, learn, and adjust.

Defeating Roadblocks is Essential

Identifying necessary actions to achieve our goals is important. Equally important is identifying attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours holding us back.

For example, one major roadblock to business development I identified was that when I introduced myself as a litigator, none of my friends outside the legal profession knew what that meant. Instead of answering the question “what type of law do you do” with a technical answer, I started responding by saying “why do you ask?”

Changing this frame of reference made people more willing to talk about their legal issues with me, which led to referral opportunities to colleagues outside of my technical area. It also made me a better listener, by focusing on what they were looking for.

As I started listening more, I stopped believing that I only had to look for litigation problems to solve. People appreciated an introduction, whether I did the work or not. Another obstacle vanished. Defeating this roadblock helped me open up to opportunities to bring in non-litigation work, which ended up making all the difference.

The Results

After making a public goal to bring in my first client, changing plans, and breaking down a couple major roadblocks that were hindering my progress, I managed to bring in my first file by December 10, 2016. Two more followed suit quickly thereafter.

Besides goal setting and persistence, I have no doubt that the outstanding reputation of my colleagues and a dash of luck had something to do with it. Even if the result hadn’t turned out so well, what I learned was invaluable.

In sum, look back at last year’s goals to see what worked for you and what didn’t. Don’t let your 2017 new years’ resolutions grow dull and fade. Call a friend, re-energize with a public commitment, and 2017 can be the year when you Make it Happen!

About the author

Ivan Mitchell Merrow is a litigator at Miller Thomson LLP specializing in commercial litigation, construction litigation, contract and shareholder disputes.

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