A SMART Approach to Goal-Setting

Before I dig too far into the importance of setting goals, and setting them the right way, let’s get this out of the way:

The Goal of any business system, process, or workflow is to derive Profit for the business by delivering Value to the customer.

This is undeniably true. Now Profit, as I explained in one of my earliest posts, isn’t just about money. But in the broadest sense, you need to be deriving some Profit from your practice or else there’s no point in having one.

(This notion of “The Goal” is taken from a book by that name by seminal Lean thinker Eli Goldratt, father of the Theory of Constraints. I’ve written lots about that theory, and will certainly do so again. Also, it’s the basis of the book The Lean Law Firm that I recently reviewed).

So while earning a Profit is “The Goal” for your practice, you still need to be able to articulate some other goals to help you know whether you are on track to finding (and maximizing) that Profit.

Let’s also touch on “the money thing” before we get too far. Yes, there are many types of Profit, and many of them are more important than money. But not all of them are going to pay your rent next month.

So yes, I get that money is important, and we’ll account for it. But if making more money is your only goal, then my concepts probably aren’t for you. It’s a little like trying to see a shooting star—if you go looking specifically for one they can be elusive. But if you put yourself in the right situations, with the right attitude, then a number of them will become apparent to you.

That said, let’s start with a money goal. How about “I want to have a $500,000 a year law practice.” That’s a fine goal, and one that is totally achievable for many lawyers in many markets. Some of you may have already blown past it.

There’s just one problem with it: It isn’t really a goal, it is an aspiration. Or maybe a hope, or an intent. But it isn’t a goal, at least not by my definition.

Here’s why: In my experience (drawn from the teachings of many intelligent folks before me), a goal isn’t a Goal unless it is a SMART goal. Which is to say, it contains the following elements:






Let’s evaluate that half a million a year law practice in light of those criteria (note: there are other answers for some of the letters, but this is my blog and I like these).

Is it Specific? Kind of. The number is finite, but what do you mean by your law practice? Is it just you? Is it 10 people? What types of products and services are you selling? Where? To Whom?

I’m not saying you need to go deep into the weeds (that’s what sub-goals are for—more on that in a minute), but having at least a high-level sense of where that money is gonna come from would be better. Maybe “I want to build a $500,000 a year family law practice with just my current team.” (Could be Immigration, or Estate Planning, or Employment Litigation—you get the idea).

You might also be missing an important part of the picture with a straight revenue goal—will that practice be profitable? Generating $500k in gross revenues and reaping $250k in net profits are very different goals. You can’t just assume that one will necessarily lead to the other, so better to be clear about which is more important to you.

Is it Measurable? Again, kind of. Yes, you can calculate your revenue per year pretty easily, and for this high-level goal that is probably enough. Here too, however, we’ll want to develop some sub-goals that will help you gauge whether you’re on track to this big one.

Is it Actionable? That’s a little less clear. One does not simply go out and find half a million a year, at least not in most industries. Part of this depends on where you are today. If, for example, you are already grossing $20k/month ($240k/year for you math-phobes), then maybe you can get there, but the goal itself, as stated, doesn’t show you the way.

What if instead you set a goal to grow those $20k revenues by 3% per month? That means finding another $600 in month one; that seems like something you can do, right? And then another $620 in month 2, $640 in month 3, and so on. Now you’re not going to hit those numbers exactly—some months will be a little over and others will full short.

But, through the miracle of compounding, if you average that 3% monthly growth over the course of a little less than two years you’ll have doubled your revenues to that $500k/annual target.

How about Realistic? Again, depends on your starting point. If you hung your shingle last week fresh out of law school, then you probably want to find a smaller interim milestone to shoot for. If you just left your big-law gig after 10 years with a $500k book of business, then it should be a softball.

But other factors come into play too. If you‘re projecting 30% growth out of a rural practice in a community with 18% unemployment and a couple other lawyers in town, you may want to reconsider. If you have a national profile evaluating cryptocurrency ICOs for SEC compliance risk, then your projections might make more sense.

(As an aside, strong growth is possible in both of the above situations, even the less likely one. Just not necessarily with your current business model. More on that in a future post).

Finally, is it Time-bound? For the $500k/year goal as originally stated, the answer is no. Sure you want that kind of revenue, but by when? Establishing a deadline is the key difference between a goal and a hope.

Setting a time limit is also important to setting the context of the other parts of the SMART framework. Is $500k/year realistic next year? Sure, if you booked $450k last year, but not if you’re new to practice. Same goes for Actionable. For that newbie, a goal of hitting $500k/year by year 5 of your business might make more sense (although that kind of long-term forecasting is hard to make actionable in the short term).

One final thought on timing: whatever your long-term plans make sure you break them down into sub-goals between 30 and 90 days long? Why? Some experts believe there is something about the human psyche that makes it hard to have an actionable plan for something that will happen more than 90 days in the future.

The problem is that for short-term goals then we can imagine our current selves being in that future state. But beyond 90 days we tend to think of that future-me as another person entirely, therefore it is harder to relate to that person.

Which is a great segue into sub-goals. This post is already long, so I won’t dive down too many rabbit holes, but know that you need to nest some sub-goals in under your main goals if you want them to be truly actionable.

Going back to my 3% monthly growth example, where is that growth going to come from? If you currently make your money on the back of 20 in-progress matters, (giving you an average monthly revenue of $1,000 per matter), perhaps your sub-goal is to add one high-quality matter to your mix above your replacement rate in the next month (meaning if you close 2 matters in that time, you need to pick up 3 new ones).

Can your team handle that increased volume? If not, perhaps you need to set a productivity goal to make sure you have the necessary capacity. Fail to improve your productivity and you may need to add resources (like hiring someone) in order gain the capacity to hit your target.

Is your marketing able to deliver enough high-quality leads to bring in that extra matter? If not, you may need to invest in an upgrade. Or maybe you don’t have a strong sales technique to convert your existing leads to clients, or your intake is so sloppy that you’re not able to realize revenue from those clients as quickly as you ought to.

(This, by the way, is getting back into Bottleneck Theory: Once you have a goal, you need to find the single bottleneck in your system (and there is only one) that is preventing you from meeting that goal.)

I’ll leave it there for now, but hopefully you get the idea.

Those last ideas, by the way? They’re not really goals, they’re strategies. Improving productivity, enhancing marketing, increasing conversion: all are techniques you can try to help you hit those high-level goals. Put another way, they are experiments you can (and should) run to find out what is going to work. And, as experiments, they should have their own measurements and targets, but more on that in my next post.

In the mean time, think about what you are trying to accomplish this year as a firm (or team, or with your specific practice) and try to frame them in the context of some SMART goals. The process of thinking through them will clarify things for you and help you develop a realistic action plan for hitting your specific, measurable, and time-bound targets.

Want help? Need someone to bounce your ideas off of, or even to hold you accountable to your progress? That’s what I do. Don’t hesitate to reach out and start a conversation with me.

Someone Just Beat Me To My Book Idea

The Lean Law Firm Cover

Greetings from ABA Techshow 2018, where today I learned that Larry Port and Dave Maxfield have just published the book that I’ve been thinking about writing for years. It’s title: The Lean Law Firm.

Honestly, the similarities between what they’ve produced and the outline I generated are uncanny, right down to the idea of using bicycle manufacturing as the parable for teaching lawyers how to build a Lean practice.

I have to admit, my heart sank a little when I saw it. It’s not like I didn’t know it was a possibility—Larry and I had a great conversation about Lean for Lawyers a couple of years ago and he told me straight up what he was gonna do. But lots of people say they’re going to write a book but don’t actually follow through (? I’m startin’ with the man in the mirror ?).

Here’s the thing: It’s fantastic.Continue reading

Case Study: Optimizing a Small Family Law Practice

Case Study: Optimizing a Small Family Law Practice

A quick tangent from my Domains of Activity series, I’m putting together some case studies of firms I’ve worked with and the improvements they’ve made. Here’s the first one:

Case Study: Optimizing a Small Family Law Practice

The Situation

A family law firm consisting of two attorneys and three staff struggled with workflow optimization and task balancing among staff. In order to keep track of the tasks and cases that were in process the head attorney (and firm owner) had put elaborate checklists and a rigid schedule in place. This approach had left the support staff disempowered and limited their investment in the completion of each case.Continue reading

MGST Part 2: Articulating your Mission.

In Part 1 of this series I laid out the four domains of activity for your law practice (any human enterprise really). If you haven’t already, you might want to read it first.

The Mission domain, sometimes expanded to Mission, Vision, and Values, should be the North Star of your operation. It is why you have a law practice to begin with—your declaration of purpose—and it should both encapsulate and permeate who you are as a business.Continue reading

Mission. Goals. Strategies. Tactics. Part 1: An Introduction.

I’m probably most often thought of as a legal project management guy. Which makes sense since I’ve named my business after my preferred project management toolset.

But for most of the teams I work with, project management turns out to be a relatively small part of the job. Why? Well, for one thing it may not be their primary bottleneck at the moment (although there are solid Lean and Agile techniques to help determine what that bottleneck is and help understand how to fix it).

More often it is because using project management is a Strategy, and specific project management efforts are Tactics, and Strategies and Tactics are of only limited utility unless they are expressed within the context of the team’s Mission and Goals.

I refer to these four areas as “Domains of Activity,” and if you’re going to make any sort of progress with your enterprise (yes, your law practice, but really any human enterprise), you have to understand what they are and how they relate to each other.

I draw them like this:

Domains of Activity_crop

Down the left side of the drawing I’ve put chains. That’s because the Goals have to hang from the Mission, the Strategies have to hang from the Goals, and the Tactics have to hang from the Strategies.

Up the right side I’ve put pillars. That’s because the Tactics have to support the Strategies, the Strategies have to support the Goals, and the Goals have to support the Mission.

When an organization isn’t making progress, or when progress is haphazard, at least 25% of the time it is because the organization itself (and especially its leadership) is unclear about how the things they are doing in one domain relates to the things they are trying to accomplish in the other domains.

The other 75% of the time? It’s because they failing to consider at least one of the domains altogether.

This is especially true at the enterprise level. Your law firm—or the company you work for, or the company you run—ought to have a Mission, needs to have Goals, better have at least one Strategy, and almost certainly is engaged in some Tactics (I don’t have to worry about Tactics—that seems to be where many people are most active).

It works on more granular levels too. Your practice group? Your in-house legal team? The matter you’re working on? If it is going to run well, you need to be considering all of the domains. What’s more, you should also understand how your granular set of answers relates back to the primary domains for your enterprise (or your client).

With this series of posts I’ll examine each of the domains in-turn, I’ll offer some tips for how to craft and express your thinking for each, and I’ll talk about how they relate to each other (and what to do if they don’t).

If there’s anything in particular you’d like to see, or questions you’d like me to answer, please don’t hesitate to reach out while I’m working on the posts themselves.

Or, if you’d like my help getting your domains in order (this is one of those things where an outside perspective can really help crystallize your thinking), please don’t hesitate to start a conversation with me.

Continue on to: MGST Part 2: Articulating your Mission.

Feb 8 Legal Innovation Meetup featuring Tali.

If you’re gonna be in the Portland area on Thursday February 8, I’d love to see you at our Legal Innovation & Technology Meetup. (We’re a division of Legal Hackers, but we have a complicated history with the name 😉 )

We’ll be hearing from at least a couple of the Three Matts behind Tali, a voice-assistant-powered time-tracking tool that integrates with Clio and a growing number of other tools.

Think “Alexa, tell Tali to log .8 hours on the Jones matter.” Bob Ambrogi has a good write-up of the product at his Law Sites Blog, as does Malia Spencer over at the Portland Business Journal.

According to Rick Turoczy at Silicon Florist, Tali just got accepted into the SXSW Accelerator program, so now is a good time to get in on their origin story before they get HUGE!

RSVP over on our Meetup page.

Return to Minimally Viable

Return visitors will notice that this site is substantially stripped down from its previous version. The old version had become something of a Frankenstein’s monster, (or maybe more of a Winchester Mystery House), full of partially implemented features based on incomplete ideas.

Turns out I was violating two of my own maxims:

Instead, I’ve gone back to a Minimum Viable Product approach: What is the most basic thing I can do to accomplish my goals and lay the groundwork for a feedback loop of continuous improvement?

My goals for this site are to:

  • Validate that I exist.
  • Provide a way to contact me.
  • Establish that I know something about the topics I propound.
  • Encourage those lawyers and legal teams who think they might be able to use my help to start a conversation with me.

That’s it. I may add more goals later, and I will likely experiment on new and better ways to accomplish my goals. But I think this simple website satisfies my current goals in at least a minimally viable way.

(And, frankly, I think it does a far better job of it than my old site, for which I paid a fair amount of money and invested a better-than-fair amount of effort. But rather than succumb to the sunk cost fallacy, I’ve decided to scrap it and start fresh. Again. And again.)

Agree? Disagree? Want to know about how to implement a Lean Startup Approach to elements of your own practice? Good. Let’s start that conversation so I can get my feedback loop going.

A call for bold action to address A2J

I’ve been honored to serve as Chair of the Innovations Committee of the Oregon Bar’s Futures Task Force for the past several months. Convened in two parts, a Regulatory Committee and an Innovation Committee, the Bar’s Board of Governors commissioned the Task Force to “Examine how the Oregon State Bar can best protect the public and support lawyers’ professional development in the face of the rapid evolution of the manner in which legal services are obtained and delivered.”

After much work and careful deliberation, the Task Force’s findings and recommendations are in. They call for the Bar to take bold action, both through regulatory reform and improved business practices, to embrace and leverage innovation to address the (growing) access to justice gap as well as to build new and sustainable models for modern legal practice.

I’ll address many of these findings and recommendations in detail in future posts, but a few highlights:Continue reading

An Easy Way to Detect Law Firm BS

Back in my software industry days, our company president (the wonderful Sally Von Bargen) was ahead of her time when it came to a relentless focus on customer experience. Her term: Outrageous Customer Service. She was also fond of pithy management one-liners that, despite their folksy wisdom (or maybe because of it), were highly effective in driving the right kinds of behaviors among her teams.

One that pops into my head quite a bit lately (given my recent experiences with BigLaw) is an elegant little rhyme: Measure what you Treasure. Continue reading

A fresh start to your practice and mine

I know things have been quiet on this site for awhile, and I have a simple explanation—I took a job. And not just any job: in early 2016 I was asked to head up the legal project management and process improvement function for an AmLaw 150 law firm. For a guy who bills himself as an expert in LPM and process improvement, this would probably seem like too good an opportunity to pass up. And it was, although I wasn’t without reservations when I finally said yes.

You see, I have intentionally avoided BigLaw for as long as I’ve been a lawyer. Continue reading