Saturday, February 21, 2009

What’s Your Long Range Plan?

As lawyers, we are obsessed by the short term - the answers to interrogatories due tomorrow, the deposition at the end of the week, the hearing next Tuesday. But what about the long term? I don’t mean next month or even next year. I am talking about the rest of your life. What legacy do you want to leave behind? To lead a fulfilling life as a lawyer means more than meeting the next deadline. It means having dreams and living for them. If you want to take control of your life instead of letting circumstances control you, consider the following:

Start at the end. When you retire, what do you hope to have accomplished? Let’s take it a step further. After you die, how do you want to be remembered? Do you want to be remembered for billing lots of hours? For the discovery you propounded? Or do you want to be remembered for something more? People remember those who touch their lives. Do you want to affect others, touch their hearts and shape their minds? Do you want to be known for giving back to the community? For your commitment to pro bono? For winning the big case, being a mentor or writing a novel? To be remembered, you have to live a life worth remembering.

Sit down with a pen and paper and write down how you want to be remembered and what you want to be remembered for. Don’t make it long. Try to reduce it to a note card, and tape it to your computer screen or affix it to the refrigerator door. These are going to be your life goals. Always keep them close by.

Dream big. Don’t be afraid to dream big. Where do you really want to be? Don ’t ask yourself where you expect to be or where life will likely take you. Take charge of your life and direct it toward something bigger than yourself.

Develop a plan. Once you know what you want to accomplish with your life, figure out how to get there. Write out a plan of action to reach your goals. I suggest keeping a journal. On the first page, write down how you want to be remembered. On the next several pages, write out what you plan to do to be remembered that way.

Set Benchmarks. Once you have set out a roadmap to get you to your destination, set benchmarks to meet along the way. Where do you want to be twenty years from now? Ten years? Five? Map out how far along the path you want to be when you reach given stages in your life.

Decide how to reach each benchmark. Once you have decided upon short and long term goals, decide what tasks you need to perform to reach each benchmark. If you want to leave a legacy as a leader, what steps do you need to take to assume leadership roles in bar and civic associations? Set manageable goals. Put them too far out of reach and you’re setting yourself up for failure. You’re writing the script of your life. To get that happy ending, the individual acts have to be thought out and achievable.

Check off benchmarks, and make adjustments when necessary. In your journal, keep a record of your accomplishments. Did you get elected to the board of a bar association? Did you get to first chair your first trial? Write it down. Periodically, review your accomplishments and compare them against the goals you wrote down. Did you fulfill them? Did you get close? Were the goals you set realistic? Were they goals you truly wanted to pursue? You may find that the goals you set may need some adjusting. If so, reevaluate your life plan and make changes where necessary.

To make this work, you have to work on your life goals every day. Once you have set down goals for yourself, you have to work every day at achieving them. Some days, you’ll only be able to do something small -make a few calls, maybe read a couple of articles on practice development. But large or small, pluck away at it every day. Don’t lose traction and don’t lose sight of what you’re trying to accomplish.

Live your dreams. At the end of the day, all the goals and dreams in the world don’t mean a whole lot if you don’t pursue them. Live your dreams. Mark off your accomplishments and keep moving forward. Dreams are something bigger than us. They’re more than learning how to draft a motion or ague a hearing. They’re about leaving a mark on this world, making it better, changing things and shaking them up. Figure out what you really want out of life. Have you figured it out? Good. Now go do it.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Keeping Perspective

When faced with a crisis or a tough decision, it is easy to lose your head and make a rash decision. The trick, as Kipling said, is to keep your head when all those about you are losing theirs. If you can keep your poise, when others cannot seem to keep theirs then you are showing the maturity and character you need to deal with the stress and surprises that litigation brings. Lucky for you, poise is something you can learn.

Challenge yourself. People are afraid to fail so they avoid the tough challenges. Problem with that, though, is that there is nothing surer in life than the fact that you will face tough challenges, and if you have spent a lifetime running away from them you may fall apart when you are staring one in the eye. So, as with everything else, practice makes perfect. Search out the tough cases, the challenging legal issues, the depositions no one wants to take and tackle them all. Sure, you will fall on your face from time to time, much more than if you had played it safe. But it is in the falling that you learn that you can get up again. And it is in the falling that you realize that the falling is not so bad after all.

Make a list of what is important. Sit down, take a pen and a paper and write down the three most important things in your life, that without you would be less of a person for. Your spouse? Your kids? Your faith? Is that deposition coming up on Tuesday on that list? How about the trial at the end of the month? When you are faced with a challenge at work, compare that to what really matters to you. It will help you keep perspective.

Seek help. If you are overwhelmed, do not hesitate to seek advice from others at your firm about how best to tackle a problem. There is probably someone at the office who has tackled the same problem and can tell you how you can do it too. A trick to keeping perspective is to seek the advice of those who already have it.

Take a breath. When faced with a “crisis,” take a breath, take a step back and think through your reaction. You will get through this and chances are you will get through it better if you have a game plan instead of shooting from the hip.

Have an exit strategy. When there is a fire you need to know where the emergency exits are. When a problem lands on your desk you need to figure out how to put the fire out. Sometimes you only have a few minutes to make a decision, sometimes a few hours and sometimes the luxury of days or weeks. Size up how much time you have to react, and plan an exit strategy to extricate your client from the problem at hand.

As lawyers, we are faced with problems all the time. The key is keeping perspective and staying in control so that you can control the problem and not let it control you.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Writing to a Partner

As an associate, you will receive your share of writing assignments from the partners at your firm. Before you turn in your next assignment, consider the following advice:

Know the assignment. After a partner gives you an assignment, repeat it back to him to make sure you took it down right. Even if you did take it down right, the partner, after hearing his own words read back to him, may realize he gave you the wrong assignment. The “repeat back to me” assignment may be intimidating, but is preferable than coming back several hours later with the answer to the wrong question.

Don’t reinvent the wheel. Another associate may have addressed the very issue you were asked to research. Another associate may have written a letter to a client very similar to the one you were asked to draft. It’s worthwhile to find out whether what you are about to write has already been written. It will both save you time and help you get it right.

Think it through. You are billing the client for your time and the clock is running. It’s tempting to just jump in and start writing, thinking you’ll save the client some time and money. The fact is, though, writing this way is very inefficient. Running off to write something without thinking it through first may result in a lot effort expended but very little accomplished. Before you write, think through what you’re going to write – either in your head or on a pad – plan it out – and then start writing. The extra time spent on the front end will result in time saved in the back end.

Know your audience. Some partners like detailed memos. Some don’t. Some like memos that look like the ones they wrote when they were associates. Some could care less. Talk to other associates. Ask for memos they wrote for the partner and that the partner loved. Study those memos, not for the content but for the style, and emulate it. If you give others what they want, they will be grateful.

Make it easy to read. Partners are busy. Use plain English, get to the point and support it in as few words as possible. Consider using bullet points or charts to state the facts or make your arguments. The less time and effort the partner has to spend reading your memo, the more time and effort they will have for everything else.

There are no rough drafts. What you submit to the partner has to be perfect. Proofread it, proofread it, and proofread it again. You do not turn in rough drafts. Assume the partner will turn it over to the client and draft it accordingly.

Follow up. After you turn in your assignment, follow up with the partner. Does she need anything else? Additional research? Does she want you to revise your work? Follow up and make sure everything was done to her satisfaction.

Good writing takes time. Take the time to learn the assignment, to tailor your research, to answer the right questions and answer then in a style and manner the partner wants. Do this consistently, and your writing will get noticed.