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On Balance

Creative Goal Setting for Improving Your Solo Practice

By Megan Zavieh

It seems that every solo lawyer I meet has a list of things they would like to be doing better in their practice. Sometimes the motivating factor is business growth, sometimes it’s efficiency. At the heart of many “to do” items, though, is a desire to create a more ethically sound practice. Where do you start?

Don’t Get Stuck, Get Creative

If you hung your shingle with little guidance or infrastructure, the list of things that could be upgraded and shored-up can be overwhelming. The choice is not to either change everything at once or do nothing at all. The route to moving forward is to set reachable goals. Change one thing at a time until your practice is well-guarded against common ethical violations.

This is not the time to list out the things you need to improve; that is a post for another day (and past posts on Attorney at Work will give you ideas on how to start). This is the time to think creatively about setting goals for your practice.

Goal Setting Does Not Always Mean a To-Do List

We tend to think of setting goals as sitting down and making a list of needs to get done. Perhaps that list includes individual deadlines for each item. The longer that list becomes, the less likely we are to actually do anything on it. The psychological impact of its sheer length shuts down our motivation and crushes any belief that we can succeed.

Creative and Effective Methods of Setting Goals

Keeping in mind the need to go beyond a never-ending list, here are some of my favorite creative ways to set goals:

Straight-up incentivize. Bribes are not just for getting children to behave; we can bribe ourselves, too. Grab a short list of tasks, and promise yourself a reward for completing them within a certain period of time. Then follow through on the reward just like you would for your kids!

Make it a game. At the risk of sounding like Mary Poppins, introduce an element of fun or gaming. You could take your to-do list and turn it into a BINGO board. Make each item a bingo square; pick tasks to do each day to complete a winning bingo line, and then go for a “blackout” (finishing the whole board). Take your favorite game, and adapt it to your specific goals.

Timeline your plans. At TBDLaw, some of the most innovative thinkers in law have introduced me to two timeline tools for long-range planning. They both make a long-term plan for improving a practice feel very manageable, and they can be used with a long list of goals.

  • The “300 days” plan: On a sheet of paper, lay out the next 300 days of your practice. Break it into the next 10 days, the 30 days after that, the 60 days after that, the 100 days after that, and then the next 60 days, the next 30 days, and the last 10 days of the 300. List your goals for each of these time periods. Make them manageable, considering the amount of time allotted. For example, in your first 10 days you cannot entirely revamp your infrastructure, but you could probably revisit and improve upon your retainer agreements. And in the next 30, you could probably improve your trust accounting and billing practices.
  • The “now/next/never” plan: Look ahead in chunks of time. First, lay out the next few weeks, one week at a time, listing what you will accomplish each week. Then, break your plan into monthly pieces, setting out what you will do each month for the rest of the year. Finally, commit that you will stop three damaging behaviors of your choosing — no one has to know what you choose! (Ruth Carter wrote a great post about in “Nothing But the Ruth!”.)

Triage. No matter which type of goal setting system works for you — even if it is that long to-do list — make sure you triage your tasks. It is easy to get on a roll making a list of all the things you want to change and begin including really minor items — things that only make the list longer and not really better. Prioritize what needs to be done by four codes:

  • Code Red covers things like your trust accounting and bill collection systems. Weaknesses here expose you to the highest ethics risk.
  • Code Yellow likely includes the bulk of your tasks, including retainer agreements, communication systems (phone logs, practices for returning calls, filing of emails, non-engagement letter practices). These also expose you to ethics risk, though you can probably hobble around and keep yourself out of trouble until you get a great system in place.
  • Code Green might be business development tasks, for example, if you are making the rent but would like to kick it up a notch. (This might be Code Red if you are desperately failing to make overhead each month.)
  • Code White is for tasks that would be nice to get done but are not critical.

Pick a New Method and Try It

More important than which method you choose is that you choose something and run with it. If you realize there are things you should be improving, do not sit on your hands. Take a crack at organizing your goals in a way that will be motivating and fun, and see the result of an improved and more ethically sound practice.

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Megan Zavieh Megan Zavieh

Megan Zavieh is the creator and author of “The Playbook: The California Bar Discipline System Practice Guide.” At Zavieh Law, she focuses her practice exclusively on attorney ethics, providing representation to attorneys facing disciplinary action and guidance on questions of legal ethics. Megan is admitted to practice in California, Georgia, New York and New Jersey, as well as in multiple federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. Her latest book, “The Modern Lawyer: Ethics and Technology in an Evolving World,” (ABA 2021 ) covers how to run a modern practice while staying in line with current ethics rules. She podcasts on Lawyers Gone Ethical, blogs on ethics at California State Bar Defense and tweets @ZaviehLaw.

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