January 04, 2016 Asked and Answered

How can you make and keep reasonable resolutions for your career? (podcast with transcript)

By Stephanie Francis Ward

It’s time to set goals for the new year. But can you actually follow through with them?

In this month’s Asked and Answered, the ABA Journal’s Stephanie Francis Ward discusses what reasonable steps you can take in 2016 to improve your life and your career. Her guest Karen Kaplowitz gives listeners tips on making and keeping achievable goals.

Podcast Transcript

Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you have a work-related New Year’s resolution? Maybe you want more clients. Maybe you want more core time, too. Or perhaps you’re focused on keeping up with billing? If you’ve taken the first steps to set a New Year’s resolutions, congratulations. Now comes a more difficult step of carrying them out. I’m Stephanie Francis Ward, and on today’s episode of the ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered, we’re discussing setting and keeping manageable career goals.

My guest today is Karen Kaplowitz. A former litigation partner, Karen now does consulting work with the New Ellis Group. She coaches lawyers and law firms about rainmaking skills and marketing. Welcome to the show Karen.

Karen Kaplowitz: Thanks, Stephanie.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Of course. Is there a difference—if you’re setting up a New Year’s career goal for yourself, is there a difference in framing a goal as something you should do, versus something that you want to do?

Karen Kaplowitz: Well, I think yes. The most important question is: Do you need to do the goals you’re considering?

So in deciding whether to set a goal, here’s a litmus test that I would offer: What’s going to happen if you don’t achieve a particular goal? What’s that going to cost? And is the cost high enough to cause you to make a serious commitment to the goal?

So at the end of the day, it really matters for people to consider the consequences for themselves of not meeting the goals they’re setting.

Stephanie Francis Ward: OK. And in your experience, have you seen lawyers who maybe haven’t thought about the consequences—or maybe they did—can you share a story with me about how that’s worked out for someone?

Karen Kaplowitz: Well, I think that lots of people at the end of the year, when they’re filling out their self-evaluation forms for their law firm, or when they’re setting New Year’s resolutions, are doing a lot of knee-jerk resolutions and goal-setting. They’re deciding that they will bill more time. They’re deciding they’ll bring in more business. They’re deciding that they’ll stay in better touch with their clients, but without giving a lot of thought to what the consequences are; those don’t become really meaningful goals. They aren’t ones that people are likely to really follow through on when they get busy doing their regular work.

So I would say that like New Year’s diet resolutions, career resolutions often get made at the beginning of the year and then kind of set aside. So it’s this process of taking into account: What really matters? What do you really need to do? Is your job at stake if you don’t bill more time? Is your job at stake if you don’t bring in some major new clients?

I mean, those are the kinds of questions that I’ve encouraged people to consider as they’re going through this process of goal-setting.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you think—and it probably depends on what works for each individual—I think for a lot of people thinking about it positively instead of that fear—I guess that fear could get you motivated, but it might kind of hurt your confidence too, do you have thoughts on that?

Karen Kaplowitz: Well, it’s not so much fear as kind of evaluation and assessment of what really matters. But at the end of the day, one of the things that I think is really important is that people think about goal-setting and implementing their goals in the context of what they normally do. So the idea of crash marketing or crash rainmaking is kind of the same as crash dieting.

One of the ideas that I encourage people to think about is in setting goals and implementing goals, can you do it in a way that’s consistent with how you normally operate?

So for example, if I’m setting a particular goal and the way I operate is that I use and rely on my calendar, then I’m going to be thinking about: OK, what am I calendaring? What am I actually committing to and putting on my calendar? If I’m—if I have in mind the goal that I’m going to spend a certain amount of time every day reaching out to clients, am I putting some specific time on my calendar on a daily basis, on a weekly basis, on a monthly basis, to actually do that? If I have in mind that I’m going to be in touch with a particular significant client, do I have a specific day in mind that I’m going to set aside the time to do that?

So one of the ideas that I think really matters is doing things in ways that are consistent with how you operate successfully anyway.

Stephanie Francis Ward: You mentioned people come up with like these knee-jerk goals at the end of the year. And there’s so much going on at the end of the year, I think that a lot of times maybe we don’t think about it closely, especially if we have to come up with some sort of goal for work. I’m wondering maybe, is it better to think about goals, and even set new goals throughout the year, as opposed to when you’re like, “OK, I must set up a goal”?

Karen Kaplowitz: Oh, you’re right. I completely agree with that idea. I mean, goal-setting is certainly not restricted to—or even best done—when you’re under the pressure of getting deals done at the end of the year.

But there’s some natural things that happen towards the end of the year that give rise to goal-setting, so it often really makes sense to do it at the end of the year. So for example, law firms have these forms that they ask people to fill out, you know, a self-evaluation form. And they often say things like, “OK, what did you say last year you were going to do in the way of billable hours, and what did you actually do? What did you say you were going to bring in in the way of revenue? What did you actually do?” And it’s a time when law firms ask lawyers to make commitments and set goals, which the law firms are then using in doing their budgeting and their projections.

So I agree with your point that goal-setting isn’t restricted to the end of the year, but it really is kind of a natural process for the end of the year. It’s a time when you kind of take into account which clients mattered the most, you know, to whom are you sending a holiday gift, and that kind of feeds into planning for the next year.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you have thoughts about getting yourself in the right frame of mind before thinking about career goals you want for the New Year? I mean, I would imagine if you just finished writing a motion and you were under the gun, you may not be—or maybe you are in the right frame of mind to come out with goals, but maybe you’re not, either. Do you have thoughts on getting your mind to the right place to do this, so it’s the most helpful for yourself?

Karen Kaplowitz: You know, that kind of depends on how people operate. In some cases people give themselves a break to be contemplative.

You know, for some people it’s the sort of thing they do when they are out for a long walk or out for a run. I know I myself have been a runner or walker my whole life. And it’s a time that is very productive for me in terms of thinking about goals and thinking about problems, and kind of sorting through things like that.

I think that’s a very individual kind of thing. For some people it helps to have somebody to talk to, either inside their firm or outside their firm, to kind of talk through goal-setting and problem solving.

You know, people need to do those kinds of things in ways that are comfortable for them. That’s kind of an ongoing theme for me, which is that it’s much harder to do things that are brand new, and that don’t reflect what your own strength and success has been.

Stephanie Francis Ward: And that leads to my next question. When you’re thinking about setting up your career goals for the New Year, should you focus on “OK, what do I do well and how can I do those things even better?”

Karen Kaplowitz: Absolutely. So the starting point often is: Where does my success come from and how can I do more of the same? You know, where did my best clients come from? Where are my best relationships?

But at the same time it’s important to ask the question: What if a particular goal doesn’t happen to be aligned with strengths that you think you already have? So if you need to generate more new clients and that hasn’t been a strength, what are you going to do? Are you going to forego that goal, or can you consider whether there’s some way to do it?

Do you have some strength that you can bring to bear in a particular goal that’s not aligned with where you’ve been successful in the past? And is the goal—for example getting new clients—sufficiently important that you’re going to find a way to do it even if it’s not something you’ve done well in the past? Is there someone you can find inside your firm, or outside the firm, to help you get going on some goals that are not easy?

Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you see many lawyers having problems where they set a career goal that they really don’t have much control over?

Karen Kaplowitz: Absolutely. I mean, we’re all involved in a lot of things we don’t have control over. At the same time, what I see having worked with lots of law firm partners is that not having control is often an excuse for people who are not fully committed to a goal.

And I think it’s important to understand that in virtually every goal we set there’s some risk. And the game is really to evaluate the risks you can afford to take and the ones you can’t. And to sort through, what can you control?

So for example, one thing that’s very frustrating to lawyers when they’re looking to find new clients is people who just don’t respond. You have in mind somebody in particular that you think would be a great new client. You reach out to them and they just don’t respond. And you try a second time and they still don’t respond.

And so one of the ideas that I encourage people to think about, which relates to this question you’ve asked about control is to think about going for the “no.” And that’s kind of an idea, which is if somebody doesn’t respond, you—once or twice or even three times, you can go back to them and basically say, “You know, I’ve reached out to you. I haven’t heard back. And I’m assuming that means that you’re either very busy or you’re not interested and could you let me know which it is?”

So that is an example of taking control of a situation in which, you know, you don’t have control. You don’t have control over whether somebody is going to respond or not, but you do have control in asking kind of the ultimate question, which is, “Do you want me to continue pursuing you or do you want me to go away?”

Stephanie Francis Ward: That’s really good advice. Do you have advice for people who manage lawyers on how they can help the people who report to them stay on track with their goals and encourage them?

Karen Kaplowitz: Yes. Well, I think it is very important for managers, practice group leaders, and law firm leaders to actively encourage people who they manage to stay on track. And some of that is just being in touch and being available. One thing I see often in the context of lawyers who are making lateral moves, who aren’t well integrated into their new firms, is that they feel very isolated, very left alone. You know, people have promised them coming in the door that they will be supported and encouraged and introduced to clients. And then they find themselves just kind of in a silo by themselves.

So it’s very important for practice group leaders and law firm leaders to stay true to commitments they make to the lawyers with whom they work, and to make themselves available. And at the same time to invite those lawyers to share with them their progress.

The idea of a goal-setting is not just the big idea; it also is breaking it down and getting organized about what the steps are that are involved in meeting the goal. And so a manager, a practice group leader, can invite somebody in the firm to report to them occasionally on how they’re doing, and to offer support.

Stephanie Francis Ward: What tips do you have about staying committed to your goal throughout the year?

Karen Kaplowitz: I think the most important thing is to have the big goal, but then have some identifiable steps and markers of success. You know, for—I go back to my own running experience. You know, for me I always found that when I went for a run, I liked an out-and-back course, so I could have a milestone, a place that I knew it was time to turn around. Some people do it in terms of a distance, some people do it in terms of a time, but the idea is to have some milestones that make it easier to kind of stay on track. I never liked just kind of running around in a circle on a track.

I think the same thing is true in terms of goal-setting in a career context, if you have specific steps laid out. For example, you have a particular client you want to connect with and get to know better and get work from. What are the steps? Where are you going to see those people? When are you going to talk to them? What are you going to send them? Who might you introduce them to? Over what period of time are those things going to happen? You want to be a more visible leader in a particular area of practice, are you going to be writing? Are you going to be speaking? How are you going to get things done, and on what time table?

So breaking down the steps and keeping track of them is a very key part of staying on track for a particular goal. At the same time, it’s also great to mark instances of success. You know, if you get the meeting, if you get the new matter, if you get published, it’s important to mark the occasion, share it with other people and maybe give yourself a reward. That’s all part of staying committed, staying on track and making goals work.

Stephanie Francis Ward: How can you avoid feeling overwhelmed when you’re trying to reach a goal? I think sometimes people will feel overwhelmed and abandon their goal, and then they’ll feel guilty about it, and that doesn’t do any good for anyone.

Karen Kaplowitz: Right. It’s often the case that people get overwhelmed, but I think the place I see the most problems is when people are trying to manage too many goals at the same time, especially if they are conflicting goals.

For example, if somebody decides they need to spend more time on their career, they need to bill more time, they need to do more client development work, they need to write more—whatever it is they decide they need to do. And at the same time they also decide they need to invest more time in their families. They may be setting themselves up for huge stress. You know, not being overwhelmed in part is setting manageable goals, and ones that are not in conflict.

And the other thing is that it’s really important to give yourself permission to adjust your goals. I often start work with clients by developing a business plan. And I always take the position that we’re going to create a business plan, and then we’re going to start working on executing on that business plan with the idea that we’re going to adjust it if it doesn’t seem to be working or it doesn’t seem to make sense. Because you’re making commitments and you’re starting toward a goal, but you need to be flexible. You need to be willing to say, “OK, this isn’t working. Let’s adjust that goal.”

You know, often something changes that affects your ability to do something. You know, you’re going after a particular client opportunity, and that company get acquired, you know, it’s merged out of existence and you don’t have any strong relationships at the acquiring company. Well, you might as well take that group off your list. You’re not going to feel bad about it, you’re not going to be overwhelmed by it, you’re just going to make the adjustment and move on.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Can you think of any unique career goals that maybe you’ve had or lawyers you know who had that worked out really well for them that you can share with us?

Karen Kaplowitz: Well, one of the most interesting kinds of goal-setting that I’ve seen lately is in firms and lawyers and leaders in law firms committing to improving the diversity of their law firm, which I certainly heartily encourage. And for many law firms that’s proved to be a very challenging goal. It’s been hard to create diversity in the ranks. It’s been hard to hold on to diverse talent. And one of the ways in which I’ve seen law firms really succeed is by marrying the goal of diversity with the goal of client development, and working closely with clients, who are often the biggest proponents of law firms improving diversity in their ranks.

Clients are telling law firms that they expect diversity; that they feel they’ll benefit from diversity; and are willing to reward diversity by giving more business to law firms that have diverse lawyers handling their matters. And I think that the collaboration between clients and law firms in promoting diversity in the ranks and in the leadership of law firms is one of the ways that I’ve seen goal-setting work really well of late.

Stephanie Francis Ward: With your mention of diversity, I’m reminded of a law firm you started that was all women in Los Angeles awhile back. I’m curious, do you feel like professionally has your goal-setting changed over the years, and if so, how?

Karen Kaplowitz: Well, my own goal-setting, you’re right, has always included a focus on diversity and equality. I did start early in my career a women-owned law firm in Los Angeles. And I’ve continued to be very engaged in a variety of ways in advancing diversity, both gender, race, LGBT diversity in law firms, so that’s part of my own set of goals and values that hasn’t changed. You know, how I do it may have changed. You know, I don’t bring lawsuits anymore. I work as an advisor to law firms and to lawyers. But the values are still very much the same as they were 40 years ago.

Stephanie Francis Ward: And have you seen over the years how successful lawyers who are happy with their careers, do you see common behaviors in how they treat their career goals?

Karen Kaplowitz: Yes. I think that many, many, many lawyers are deeply committed to their work and love their work. I think the most successful lawyers are very engaged and happy about what they’re doing. They love the problem-solving. They love interacting with clients. They love the excitement of the work they do. And they tolerate well the burdens—you know, the hard work, the long hours, the disruptions that a successful legal career often brings to people. They are very committed and sometimes it’s really hard for them to give it up.

So one of the things that I see that’s really challenging is for very successful lawyers to transition to their post-lawyering work. It’s hard for them to find things when they retire from their law firms—which they are often really pushed to do these days—that are as satisfying as the work they’ve done during their careers.

Stephanie Francis Ward: That’s everything that I wanted to ask you today Karen. Would you like to add anything else?

Karen Kaplowitz: Well, I really appreciate the opportunity to talk about these issues, because goal-setting is really at the heart of what successful lawyers need to do on a regular basis at the beginning of the year and throughout the year. And it’s the kind of process that I find personally very rewarding as a business development strategist and coach. So I really appreciate the opportunity to talk about these issues and thank you for inviting me.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Thank you for joining us. I’m Stephanie Francis Ward, thank you for listening to the ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered.

End of transcript

Update on Jan. 7 to add transcript.

In This Podcast:

Stephanie Francis Ward
Karen Kaplowitz is the president of the New Ellis Group, a business-development consulting firm. She specializes in business development strategy, training and coaching for lawyers and other professional service providers. In 1971, Kaplowitz was the third woman lawyer hired by O’Melveny & Myers, and a few years later she opened a small, women-owned law firm that focused on plaintiff employment cases. She also was a partner with Alschuler, Grossman & Pines.