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Young Lawyers Conference

A Conference of the Virginia State Bar.

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Take Time to Reflect Think About the Bigger Picture

By Nathan Olson

As lawyers, we often get busy with work, family, and friends, and lose sight of goals that we want to accomplish. Young lawyers are unique in that we go through a tremendous amount of transition for the first five-to-seven years out of law school. We make career advancements and changes; we start families and begin providing for those families; we volunteer; travel, socialize, and we try to maintain our youthful appearance while fighting time and stress along the way. I believe that it is important for us to take time during the year to take a step back and think about where we are, both personally and professionally, and to make short-term goals and reassess long-term plans.


For the past several years, I made it a point to schedule these periods of reflection about four times a year, generally as the seasons change. For some reason, transitioning into a new season is a natural time for me to reflect. After the holidays, I think about the past year and try to make an overall goal for the upcoming year. Sometimes, the goal is very specific, such as to complete a triathlon or to generate more business than I did last year. Other years, the goal is more broad and undefined. For example, last year, one of the partners at my firm asked us to pick one word that we thought would define our 2015. I picked “control,” and so I focused my 2015 goal on that word. I then set smaller goals throughout the year in hopes of staying on track.


At the end of the first quarter, I think about whether I am meeting my short-term goals. If so, I try to focus on what I did right and make it a point to keep doing so. If not, I ask myself where I fell short, and, more importantly, I try to seek advice from others. This not only gives me helpful hints as to what wasn’t successful but also makes me feel more accountable to follow through. Midway through the year, I make decisions about whether I am on track or whether, given unforeseen circumstances, I need to modify my overall goal(s). I’ve found that it is better to scale back your original goal and still follow through than it is to keep an unrealistic goal and use the excuse of impossibility as a reason to give up. In the last quarter, I really try to push myself to follow through.


I encourage you to try this method, especially if 2015 left you unsatisfied. For instance, if your goal is career advancement, try to set a specific goal such as obtaining senior associate or partner status, getting a promotion, or simply getting a substantial raise.


In the first quarter, you should gather information: take your boss out to lunch, talk with senior associates at your firm and mentors or other professionals in your field. Try to get a sense of what specific steps you can take or what criteria you might need to meet to reach your goal. After that, make small goals for yourself in the next quarter that are in line with these criteria.


At the beginning of the summer, evaluate your progress and whether you are on track or whether you need to reassess. For instance, if your goal is partnership and your boss tells you that you are still several years out, or you get the feeling that it is not in the cards, you can either change your goal to a substantial raise/bonus or you can focus on changing firms to one that more appreciates your talents.


In the third quarter, seek out the same folks you spoke with at the beginning of year to get feedback and tips. Continue to follow their advice. As autumn rolls in, focus on self-promotion, and as the year comes to a close, highlight your success to those in charge.


I found that bosses oftentimes look most closely at your last three-to-four months of work when evaluating your progress. You need to be proactive and remind them of that awesome win you had at trial in February, the settlement you negotiated in March, and/or that fantastic legal brief you wrote in April. Be your own best advocate.


If you want to define your year by a word or theme instead, your focus should be on making and reaching several short-term goals that are in-line with your theme. Try to make two or three smaller goals each quarter. Then, as the seasons change, set new goals or expand on goals you’ve already met. Involve others in some of these goals to keep you motivated and accountable.


I hope this article has given you a blueprint to stay on track or at least provided you some food for thought as we progress through a new year. Whether you take my advice or not, or whether you even need it, I wish all of our young lawyers a happy new year and many successes in 2016.