Career resolutions

Publication: The Bottom Line

(Volume 20, Issue 3)
Law Practice Management & Technology Section


Rachelle J. Canter, Ph.D.

It's that time of year again: gyms are bustling, restaurants are serving lots of low calorie meals, the air is filled with the energy that comes from New Year's resolutions.  When it comes to making your own resolutions this year, why not add career management to your list? The reasons to do so are plentiful: legal practice is a demanding career and for many attorneys, not a satisfying one.  Legal newspapers and other publications are filled with articles about high turnover rates and associated costs, and the high levels of dissatisfaction among those who leave and those who stay in their firms. 

Like great abs or incredible cardiovascular endurance, career satisfaction and success require commitment and work.  But just as you won't develop great abs doing hundreds of shoulder curls, it takes the right kind of commitment and focused work to reach your goals.  Does your career deserve less of your newfound end-of-the-century energy and resolve than your physique?

20th Century Career Management

Permanent employment is like a winning lottery ticket: everyone talks about it and longs for it but almost no one ever experiences it.  And those who do don't necessarily enjoy it (permanent employment that is, not a winning lottery ticket).  The notion that hard work, dedication, and loyalty will assure a job for life is outdated.  As many lawyers know, you can do all the right things -- work hard, bill lots of hours, resist the temptations of headhunters and clients to remain a loyal employee of a firm -- and still end up unemployed.

What has replaced the old employment contract?  While it might appear to be a free-for-all of everyone for himself/herself, the new employment contract asserts shared responsibility for career management: an individual is responsible for managing his or her career, and a firm is responsible for providing the tools and resources to do so. 

Using the exercise analogy, the firm provides the equipment and the facility for doing exercise, but the individual is responsible for making use of it.   Applying this analogy to career management, firms are responsible for providing programs, inside or outside coaching, performance feedback, and other development opportunities and tools to help employees manage their careers.  Employees are responsible for making use of these programs and tools to plan and manage their careers, and increase their skills and marketability.

Career Management Advice from the Experts

If this sounds like a tall order, it is.  Firms and attorneys are too busy already to entertain, much less implement, career management strategies.  Is there no quick fix to be found?  No lesser experts than David Maister and Stephen Covey are here to tell you that (1) there is no quick fix and (2) there is nothing more important to an individual and a firm's future than effective career management. 

David Maister, in his classic book, "Managing the Professional Service Firm," points out that professional skills, knowledge, and client relationships are one's assets -- and thus the source of one's success or failure.  These assets are constantly growing or shrinking.  The temptation is to keep doing the same things again and again because it is both harder to generate and complete asset-building work. 

But repetitive assignments deplete your assets rather than build them, which leads to professional atrophy.  Growth requires new challenges and skills.  Perfecting existing skills is not enough.  His conclusion?  "Continual professional development is a lifelong requirement, not an option."  A career plan to identify and direct professional priorities, along with ongoing efforts to locate and secure asset-building assignments,  are essential to growth and success.  

Stephen Covey, in his "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," makes a similar point.  Covey recommends organizing our lives around activities, including developing and implementing a career plan, that renews and moves us toward our long-term goals. Truly effective people make conscious choices to schedule time for these important activities.  How to make time in an already overburdened schedule?  Covey's advice is "just say no".  He reminds us that we are always saying no to something.  He observes,

"So many of these problems and conflicts seem to come from that tired old question:  Can you have it all?  But that really isn't the right question.  No one, not even the most successful male CEOs, can have it all; they don't, for instance, spend much time with their children.  The right question is about choices:  implicit ones, explicit ones; choices made consciously and choices made by default."

Career Resolutions for Firms

With this background in mind, let me propose some career resolutions for firms and attorneys:

• Offer an ongoing program of career management to help attorneys manage their careers.

This will help attorneys be more successful and satisfied and it will help the firm maintain or achieve a status as an employer or choice.  Improved individual and firm performance and reduced turnover are some of the ways the firm stands to gain by providing career management services and tools. By teaching attorneys how to define their skills and goals, how to benchmark their current skills against their targets, by providing the firm's specific expectations for technical and interpersonal skills, and group and individualized assistance to gain needed skills and address performance deficits or problems, the firm can make good on its investment in its people and simultaneously send a message that people matter.  As the recent NALP study on associate turnover indicates decisively, attorneys are eager -- even desperate -- for this assistance.

• Train attorneys in how to coach and mentor.

Partners are not trained in how to manage, coach, and mentor others.  Some have a natural aptitude for these activities, but many never learn how to bring the best out in people.  These are skills that can be learned.   Once learned, and with appropriate follow up and coaching, these skills can make partners more effective managers and their subordinates more successful and satisfied.

• Reward mentoring, feedback, and other development activities.

In busy law practices, there is never enough time for everything.  By setting specific, measurable expectations and rewards for attorney involvement in these activities (and punishing them for their failure to do so), development and career management will assume new importance in the firm. 

Activities without accountability will not work.  A fundamental tenet  of psychology is that behavior is a function of its consequences.  Change your compensation system before you introduce career management initiatives or you will waste time and money.

• Increase performance feedback to attorneys.

Feedback is most effective when it is specific, behavioral, and frequent.  Very little performance feedback in law firms meets these criteria -- but it can.  Formal performance feedback systems can be made more comprehensive and they can be supplemented by a system of regular but informal performance feedback.  Something as simple as routinely giving each subordinate five minutes of specific feedback on his or her performance in the past week can have a big impact on performance and morale. 

A recent study shows that an absence of performance feedback had as negative an impact on subsequent performance as negative feedback.   Frequency and specificity of feedback also make the formal performance reviews less tense and less surprising.  Feedback can be a positive tool for performance improvement and morale if used frequently and well.

Career Resolutions for Attorneys

• Put together a career plan.

At a minimum, the plan should include the following: your long-term career goal; the skills, experiences, and accomplishments necessary to attain this goal; and specific objectives and activities to make yourself your marketable and build the skills needed to reach these long-term goals.

• Seek assignments to help you build the skills you need.

One of the conclusions from research on successful executives is that on-the-job assignments are the major source of learning. Challenging assignments that stretch abilities and require risk-taking are the best learning experiences of all.  Part of career management means not waiting for someone to offer you such a plum assignment: propose the assignment you want or ask for an exciting assignment that is available.  Don't wait for it to be thrown in your lap.

• Make one networking contact a week . 

The key to making change is to keep it simple.  Don't tackle too much at a time.  Do new things with regularity so they become habits.  This can be as simple as a phone call to a colleague in another firm or lunch with an acquaintance in the U.S. Attorney's office.  By taking small, incremental steps to maintain and increase your network, you gather important information on the profession and the market and increase your professional visibility.  Don't wait until you are looking for another job to network.

• Keep a log of your accomplishments in your office drawer.

Maintaining an up-to-date record of specific contributions and results will come in handy when you are lobbying to take on a new assignment or increase your compensation or when you are preparing for a formal performance review.

• Ask for feedback.

The performance feedback systems of most law firms are poor.  They provide infrequent, insufficient, and vague information which cannot help individuals understand where they need to improve, much less how to do so.  Just because the formal system is poor, there is no reason why you cannot ask for detailed feedback on your performance.  Ask frequently, ask specific questions, and ask multiple people to obtain the most comprehensive information.  Careers derail over lack of feedback.  Do not fall into this trap.

Making Resolutions

The preceding career resolutions for firms and attorneys are meant to suggest some of the many ways firms and individuals can promote career satisfaction and success.  The goal may be lofty but as the saying goes, every journey begins with a single step.  Career resolutions can inaugurate a new career era in 1999, providing focus, commitment, and inspiration for doing the right things.

This article originally in the 1999 issue of The Bottom Line (Volume 20, Issue 3), Law Practice Management & Technology Section, a publication of the State Bar of California.   Copyright © 1999 State Bar of California.  All rights reserved.  This information of any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the State Bar of California.