Let’s Talk Professional Development

Every lawyer—associates and partners alike—should have a professional development plan.  Professional development and business development go hand-in-hand for several reasons:

  • Professional development includes identification of strengths (and how to maximize them) and weaknesses (and how to compensate for them). Doing this will help you to work more effectively, work with clients more effectively, and grow as a practitioner.
  • Professional development can help you refine what you want your practice to encompass, the areas of substantive law you want to address, the mix of those areas, the kinds of clients you want to represent, and more. This information is critical for business development because it defines the scope of your activity and offers direction for how your BD activities should be focused.
  • Professional development plans are designed to help you determine your long-term practice goals and how to reach them. Defining the kind of practice you want to have and your role in it will focus your BD activity; it will also ensure that as you take the professional development steps laid out, you’ll be working toward an end result you actually want.
  • Professional development plans can help you uncover the habits, attitudes, and mindsets that will support or retard your success so that you can address them. If you believe, for example, that you are responsible for building your own practice, you’ll be more likely to focus on BD and to implement the plans you set; if you believe that other lawyers in the firm will feed you work, your BD efforts will feel less pressing and you’ll be more likely to let your plans slide. Likewise, excellence is necessary in practice, but perfectionism is often a one-way ticket to paralysis, so you need to know where on the spectrum your tendencies fall. Failing to explore your beliefs about practice and your role in it means you’ll be on unexamined autopilot—and that’s a quick route to disaster.

Once you have a current professional development (and business development) plan in place, it’s time to determine what you’ll choose to focus on from these lists over the next year. For professional development, I recommend a mix of skills/experiences and attitude/habit development goals. For instance, you might set goals of becoming the go-to person on a certain area of the law within your firm and in the outside world, learning how to delegate work effectively to more junior lawyers and to staff members, and getting speaking experience designed to prepare you to speak at a large conference that your ideal clients attend.

Your firm may request you to create a PD and/or BD plan. If so, it’s necessary to use the firm’s approach, and it’s wise to do your own personalized plan or addendum as well. The key difference between your personalized plan and the plan that you may co-create with your firm is that the personalized plan is keyed to your goals without attention to the firm’s goals except to the extent they support your desires.  Your plan should be designed to fit what you — as owner of your practice and “CEO” of your career — want.  The two plans might be identical, or they may be quite at odds.  If you know that in 10 years you’d like to have a personal injury practice with a partner ready and willing to buy you out so you can compete in the America’s Cup, for instance, that’s almost certainly a goal that you’d be wise not to share if you’re working in a mid-sized insurance defense firm because your goals and the firm’s goals don’t mesh.

Summer can be an ideal time to work on your PD and BD plans. You’ll have plenty of time to develop them before year-end conversations with firm leaders, and you’ll be ready to hit the fall running. So, start now.  Set aside time on your calendar, and mark it in ink.  Designing your plans will move you forward like little else.  Don’t miss this opportunity.

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