United States: Foundation For Your Firm's Future

How To Set Goals And Achieve Strategic Objectives

Strategic planning is key to ensuring a law firm's long-term viability, and goal setting is an indispensable ingredient. Unfortunately, firms often find themselves falling short of achieving their goals, which can undermine their overarching strategies and jeopardize their very survival.

Trouble reaching goals can usually be traced back to the time the goals were first set. Poorly conceived goals often result in their non-realization. But if you follow the tried-and-true SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-specific) approach to goal creation, you are much more likely to reach them. As we approach the beginning of a new year, setting SMART goals may be what it will take to set your firm apart from the others.


The SMART system of goal setting was first introduced to the business world in the early 1980s and has since been embraced by millions of organizations. Although the acronym's letters have been associated with different meanings over the years, they are commonly defined as:

Specific. Your firm's goals must be precise, rather than general. Simply stating that you want to "grow the firm" is too vague and provides no direction. Do you want to grow revenue, your client base, the number of practice groups or something else? For each goal, define the "5 Ws" — who, what, where, when and why — as clearly as possible.

Let's say you want to increase the size of your intellectual property practice. To make the goal specific, you will aim to add three attorneys before the end of the year to position your firm as a top option for IP clients.

Measurable. Setting goals is of little value if you cannot easily assess your progress toward them. So, your goals should include a way to measure progress and success. If you want to grow your client base, for example, specify the number of clients you would like to add over a certain period of time.

Setting measurable goals makes it easier to focus and track your firm's (and its individual attorneys') efforts. If steady progress is being made on a monthly or quarterly basis, you might decide to set the goal higher. Conversely, if your firm seems to be missing periodic benchmarks, take steps to boost the odds of success.

Achievable. Goals that are unrealistically aggressive can be extremely demotivating, because no one wants to put time and effort into something that is likely to fail. So it is important to ensure that your goals can actually be accomplished. By the same token, your goals should not be too easily accomplished. The best goals are somewhat of a stretch.

To strike the right balance, consider your firm's strengths and weaknesses, as well as factors outside of your control that could affect you from achieving your goals. For example, it might be nice to increase the number of settlements reached. However, "it takes two to tango" when it comes to settlement, and circumstances may make it unlikely in some cases. Factors like the economy, competition and clients' internal conditions can also impact your goals.

Relevant. Once a goal is achieved, how will it move your firm forward? Goals should support your strategic objectives.

For example, social media plays a significant role in today's business world, so your firm might decide it wants to expand its numbers of Twitter followers to 5,000 by year end. This is a specific and measurable goal, and you may consider it achievable. But will it help your firm become a leader in a specific practice area or grow revenue? Goals should matter to your firm's long-term viability and align with other objectives.

Time-Specific. Assign each goal a deadline. Deadlines motivate by creating a sense of urgency that spurs action. Also, once you have established a deadline, you can work backwards and set periodic milestones that will be essential to reaching the goal.

Some management experts have extended the SMART model to SMARTER. "E" and "R" represent "evaluate" and "re-evaluate." You can apply these principles by regularly examining and reconsidering your goals. If necessary, adjust them to reflect internal changes such as attorney departures or hires, or external changes such as new competition or economic shifts.

Survive and Thrive

Goal setting may sometimes seem like a waste of time, particularly when you have more than enough client work. However, even if your firm is thriving now, it is important to keep an eye on the future, and meeting long-term strategic objectives starts with setting simple, straightforward goals.

Sidebar: Know Your Three Cs

Once your firm has set SMART goals, three additional "C" measures can improve the likelihood that you'll reach them:

  1. Chunk. Ambitious goals can become less daunting and more achievable when broken down into smaller chunks. This principle is particularly effective for goals with lengthy timelines because it provides participants with an ongoing sense of accomplishment.
  2. Communicate. It is not enough for your firm's leaders to believe in goals and understand the rationale behind them. Goals need to be shared across all levels of the firm — from the executive committee to the support staff.
  3. Collaborate. One of the primary reasons for communicating goals to employees is to foster collaboration. Everyone within your firm should be working in the same direction.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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