A s 2019 draws to a close, many of us start thinking about our New Year’s resolutions. We are all excited to lose 20 pounds, work out five days a week, stop smoking/drinking/[fill in the blank], clean our home/office/garage, and generally live a better, happier version of life. For about three weeks. And then, back to business as usual.
For the lawyer seeking to build their career, it is also a good time to create a personal development plan for 2020. This plan is something very different from the template document your law firm or company uses as part of the performance evaluation process. In keeping with the goal of building a holistic, even joyful, legal practice, it should encompass both professional and personal elements. It will be less about your current job, and more about your growth in all of the roles you fill – attorney, business person, family member, friend and as a happy and fulfilled individual. It will include hobbies, wish lists and things you want to do for fun. It includes taking vacations, spending time with friends and family, and other ways you maintain your physical and mental health.
Before you start drafting a personal development plan (which I recommend you draft on your personal computer so that it is is truly yours), let’s start with some reflections on 2019.
- What were your three biggest accomplishments professionally? Personally? Did you have a hard time coming up with three in either category? Are your accomplishments unbalanced – for example, lots of professional accomplishments but very few personal ones? If so, why?
- What were your one or two biggest challenges professionally and personally? Anything goes here. If you list particular job assignments, spend some more time thinking about why they made the list – for example, was it an all-consuming trial or M&A deal that swallowed your personal life? Perhaps it was a project with a partner or client with whom you had difficulty working? Was it a situation involving a family member or an illness? Or a general feeling of being overwhelmed and stressed out?
Once you have identified both your accomplishments and your challenges, think about how they are related. Are they the same, or very different? Is there a common theme underlying the challenges? How much of what challenged you was under your control? Did you learn anything as you worked through the challenges? Are the challenges ongoing? If so, what steps can you take to make progress on them? Think expansively here. It is not necessary at this point to have a clear plan. Just focus on getting your ideas on paper.
Now, think about the things that you do best – your strengths – and how you demonstrated them in 2019. Again, answer this question from the professional viewpoint, and then from the personal one. How do these strengths relate to your accomplishments or your challenges? I recently attended a leadership training course where the point was made that we all focus too much on our weaknesses. While it is important that our weaknesses do not hinder our career progression or make us ineffective, everyone will always have weaknesses. We are all human, and we are all different. Our strengths have gotten us to where we are in our career. They should not be overlooked or undervalued simply because they seem natural or easy. We need to continue to do what we do best, leveraging those strengths in new situations or in areas we identify as weaknesses.
It is now time to look forward. Where do you want to go in your career? Will that path bring you joy? Why? The why is a very important question. It might make sense to actually sit down and list your personal values and how your path aligns with them, remembering that some may change over time. For example, financial security is a valid value, and might be very important when you are supporting a young family. It might be less important later in your career, when you have built up a nest egg for retirement and are focused more on giving back to your community. Now, think about what you need to do to get there, including any concrete steps you can take to get closer to that goal in the next 1, 3 and 5 years.
As part of the goal of developing a holistic practice, think also about your personal circumstances. What are you doing now to take care of yourself – not to take care of your family or personal responsibilities, but yourself? What are your most important family or personal responsibilities? Who depends upon you? Are you spending enough time with family and friends? What are some activities that you would like to spend more time doing with family and friends? Here, it is absolutely fine to put your family and friends first, but try to avoid listing activities that you dislike or find boring. Think about what type of activities motivate you. Do you take joy from volunteering, religious activities, spending time in nature or reading a good book? Did you spend enough time on those activities in 2019?
Where are you mentally and emotionally? Are you excited about your work and your life? Do you wake up most mornings feeling good, or are you dreading the day? Are you sleeping well? Are you exhibiting other signs of stress or anxiety? Are you generally happy with your life, your work and your relationships? Remember here that it is ok to reach out to a professional for help thinking about mental or emotional concerns. It is very hard to see clearly when you are in the thick of the fog. Someone with outside perspective might see things you cannot.
Your physical health is also important. Are you getting physical activity? What, when and how? Do you enjoy that physical activity? If not, is there another physical activity you might enjoy more? Have you planned your next vacation? If not, please take a moment to at least put some dates on the calendar. Have you had your annual physical exam? How about dental and vision appointments, and any preventative testing recommended by your doctor? Or have you been delaying these appointments due to lack of time or the pressures of your job (or because you just do not like doctors)? Again, take the time to make the appointments.
Now, taking all of the above into consideration, spend ten to fifteen minutes writing a wish list of everything you would like to do in the next year if you had both enough time and money to do those things. Think also of one or two things you would like to learn. Are there people – family members, friends, mentors or professionals like executive coaches or therapists – who can help you in your journey? It is important to know that you can always ask for help. As noted above, if you are having thoughts of suicide or think that you might be depressed, burned out or unduly anxious, there is no shame in seeking help from a therapist or mental health professional.
Thinking back on all of your reflections, what are the three to five specific things that you want to do in 2020? Is there anything you need to do now to ensure that you can meet those development goals? Focus on your future career path more than your job today. And think about what will bring you joy, today and in the future. As you write down your development goals, remember to stay balanced – they should not all be about work, and in some years, they might be all personal, rather than professional.
All of the above is intended as a way to help you begin thinking about your career and development in a holistic manner. As you think through these questions, feel free to skip any questions that seem less relevant, or to allow your mind to roam onto logical extensions of other questions. You also can ignore these questions entirely. The goal is to spend quality time thinking about yourself and your life. Who are you? What do you want? How can you grow? What brings you joy? As you think, start to put thoughts on paper. There is no magic format for a personal development plan. You can use SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Based), or not. Don’t worry initially about writing your goals with precision. Thoughts, dreams and desires work too – you will get to a desired level of focus over time. Small things also count – talking to one person about a relationship issue that has been bothering you is a goal. Most importantly, remember that this is a living document which will change throughout the year. It not a to do list, or a checklist. You should set aside time each month to reflect on your personal development plan. I suggested in the opening that you put your personal development plan on your personal, not your work, computer. It is best to set aside time to do this reflection away from the office, when you are not likely to be interrupted. In the end, you might decide to do some or none of your goals – the value is in taking the time to reflect and be mindful of the whole person, and to create your own definition of a holistic legal practice.
Until next time…