Daily Dispatch

Professional Development

Sharpening the Saw

By | Jan.30.12 | Balance, Daily Dispatch, Legal Careers, Professional Development, Skills

I have a friend who is a gifted planner. We often get together near the end of the year, and I find her scheduling her professional development activities–and her vacation–for the upcoming calendar year. She says that doing so means both areas will be written in ink on her calendar before client needs can intrude. I invite you to do the same.

Cast Your Gaze Beyond Meeting Annual CLE Requirements

Professional development should offer you the opportunity to develop new skills, meet people who could enhance your personal or professional life, and serve as a break from the day-to-day demands of your work. Financial advisors will always tell you to pay yourself first. The same goes for your own professional development: Don’t put it off.

  • If you’re relatively new to the profession, ask supervisors and mentors for suggestions about the kinds of professional development they believe would give you the greatest bang for the buck. Look for programs being conducted by leaders in your field. Look beyond your field. Professional development doesn’t always need to be about what you are doing now—it can also be aspirational.
  • If you are more senior, consider areas of development that are devoted to management, supervision or career change—courses that go beyond the substantive content related to your practice. There are many things that you didn’t learn in law school; and how to supervise others is one of them. Since managing, in some capacity, is something you will probably find yourself doing at some point in your career, developing some skills in that arena can pay dividends later on.
  • If you’re a bit behind and find yourself playing catch-up on technology or some other area, consider leaving town to learn. Attending a meeting where you know no one else can help you overcome any self-consciousness you might feel in your own back yard.

Here are some painless ways to get started on planning your professional development activities—and pave the way for a smarter, more connected and more relaxed year.

  • Ask 10 friends and colleagues about the best programs they attended in the past five years. This will give you a real-live excuse to call people you like, and foster a relationship you may have been neglecting. Maybe it will lead to getting together for lunch. Maybe something more.
  • Ask people for references to specific speakers or teachers whose content has been useful to them. Sometimes it pays to attend a top-flight program with a nationally known speaker. There is a reason they are at the top of their field—and leaving with a few good pointers can jump start your own growth.
  • Make a list of things you would like to learn in the next few years. Make it wide-ranging.
  • Make a list of places that you would like to visit for professional development. There is no reason that you can’t select a warm and sunny location for the dead of winter.
  • Don’t forget your hobbies and avocations. Learning in another area of your life can often spill over to improve your law practice. Some people may consider fishing dull. But if you tell them you’re headed to a mountain stream in Montana for fly fishing lessons, they might see it differently. Get to a river and take some lessons. The ability to focus and concentrate—and to approach something with your whole body, not just your head—can easily translate to what you are doing at the office. Sometimes the best way to find a new approach to a problem is by taking a walk around the block.
  • Spend a bit of time searching trade periodicals for learning opportunities. And don’t forget your clients—ask what professional meetings they will be attending this year and consider tagging along. These meetings may offer a better return on investment than a gathering of lawyers. You’ll likely develop a deeper relationship with your client and meet others who may be interested in doing business with you.
  • Do something fun. Everyone can use a little whimsy, so spend at least a small portion of your professional development time doing something that fosters that all important funny bone. Your colleagues and subordinates will appreciate you returning to the office in a very good mood. All work and no play ….
  • Schedule at least some of this year’s vacation time in the first quarter of the year. It’s good to have something to look forward to. Too often when you find that you’re really busy, planning a vacation is the first thing to go. Getting away literally gives you a different perspective on life back at home. Planning something for later in the year will help you focus on what you have to do now—and having tickets in hand will keep you from putting off that valuable free time. Don’t wait until the spring thaw to schedule at least a few days off. Do it now!

Once you do schedule something, do whatever it takes to keep that commitment to yourself. You’ll be glad for it.

Wendy Werner is a career coach and practice management consultant for lawyers and professional services firms and an award-winning photographer. She writes the Careers column for ABA Law Practice magazine, and is a frequent contributor to The St. Louis Lawyer and Law Practice Today. Wendy has a master’s degree in Personnel Administration and Counseling from Indiana University, and served  as the Assistant Dean of Career Services at Saint Louis University School of Law. Find her at  Werner Associates, LLC.

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