How to Set Law Firm Goals That Boost Profits and Productivity

Reviews are a great way to analyze employees’ past performance, but law firm goal-setting is far more effective in shaping how individuals, teams and entire firms operate in the future. And now that most law firms offer some version of a hybrid work model, law firm goals are an effective way to keep teams grounded in your firm’s culture and long-term vision.

We’ve previously written about the importance of conducting regular performance reviews. These check-ins help individuals assess their performance, understand their personal strengths and weaknesses, provide invaluable mentorship opportunities and allow employees to provide their own feedback — aiding effective collaboration moving forward. 

Let’s dive into how law firms should set, assess and achieve long-term goals.

The benefits of effective law firm goal-setting

Goals give our work meaning and keep us motivated. Having a goal means that we know what we want to achieve — and we won’t stop until we get there. According to McKinsey, “goal-setting can help improve employee engagement in a way which elevates performance and benefits organizations overall”. Win-win.

Goal-setting is a core aspect of effective performance management. By specifically identifying what they want to achieve, individuals, teams and entire firms can properly assess their performance as they progress towards achieving the goal. Senior leaders will understand which employees are outperforming expectations and can reward them with greater compensation, a new title and more responsibility. This is key to ensuring the firm’s ongoing success.

Goals also ensure that everybody keeps the bigger picture in mind — both personally and across the entire firm. Ideally, every employee’s goals will contribute to your firm’s overall performance, and will aid effective collaboration. It’s impossible to successfully work together if you don’t even know what you’re trying to achieve. 

What sort of law firm goals should your team set? 

Goal-setting is far from a prescriptive process — the best goals are intrinsically motivated. Encourage individuals and teams to pursue goals they are inherently passionate about rather than trying to force benchmarks on them. 

A few main categories of goals might apply across your firm:

Financial

Yes, valuable fee-earners should be encouraged and incentivized to increase their billed hours and collections rates. But there are other types of financial law firm goals, and other ways of reaching them:

  • By capturing more billable hours. Rather than forcing more hours on already-burned-out teams, make sure you’re actually capturing all the work they do for clients. On average, Smokeball legal practice management software clients bill for 34% more time, thanks to automatic time tracking tools that bill for every minute spent in our software. 
  • By increasing efficiency. Think flat-fee firms can only increase profitability by increasing their fees? Think again. Your firm can reduce its hours worked against your fee charged by increasing efficiency. Smokeball’s Law Firm Insights pull data from your automatic time tracking to show profitability by matter and fee earner, so you can understand your profitability and set goals to improve.
  • By retaining more — and more profitable — clients. Your firm serves clients of many types and backgrounds, but understanding which ones have the biggest impact on your bottom line helps you set financial goals. Smokeball’s Firm Insights also reveal profitability by matter type, realization and more, so you can zero in on success.

Our legal practice management software also helps boost pesky collection rates, thanks to auto-generated invoices that draw from your matter details, a seamless integration with LawPay and more. Plus, Smokeball now allows for automatic credit card charges for clients on a payment plan

Educational

All attorneys are required to complete a certain number of continuing legal education (CLE) credits, depending on your jurisdiction. (For the month of June, Smokeball’s free CLE session focuses on ethical, effective law firm marketing.) CLE shouldn’t feel like a burden; rather it’s an opportunity for attorneys to explore areas of interest, share their learnings with the firm and provide better service to their clients and communities.

Paralegal and staff roles can serve as a stepping stone in the path toward their JD; if this is the case at your firm, provide time and mentorship for team members to pursue educational goals like studying for (and taking) the LSAT. By supporting employees with their long-term educational goals, they’ll feel your firm truly has their best interests at heart, and they’ll be more engaged in the workplace.

Cultural/Wellness

Understandably, most firms have struggled to support their existing culture in the wake of COVID-19. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of firms who participated in Smokeball’s upcoming Law + The Great Resignation survey told us the pandemic has negatively affected their culture. 

We also identified an area where firms can immediately focus their goals: Burnout. More than two-thirds (68%) of respondents told us they personally experienced burnout. But respondents were most likely to say less than 10% of their employees also reported burnout (34%). 

That doesn’t mean employees aren’t burned out — it’s more likely they’re not comfortable talking about it. Help your team set goals that promote a culture of mental wellness — discuss your own burnout; take their teambuilding and anti-burnout suggestions seriously; and set timelines for using vacation days. Smokeball’s Firm Insights also offer value here: They show which employees are working the most hours, potentially burning the candle at both ends.

How to help your staff set long-term goals

Keep these three best practices in mind when working with your team to set long-term law firm goals:

Make them SMART 

The best goals are SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timebound. There’s no point in setting unclear goals that your staff can’t achieve, that you can’t assess and that are irrelevant to the individual or the firm’s success. 

Remember: Intrinsically-motivated goals work best

A 2012 study showed that employees are three times more engaged when pursuing intrinsically motivated goals at work than pursuing extrinsically motivated goals. McKinsey research backs this up, revealing that intrinsically motivated employees show 46% higher job satisfaction and are 32% more committed to their jobs. 

Don’t just impose goals on your staff. Instead, let employees tell you what they want to achieve and, if possible, connect their individual goals and motivations to the firm’s future success.

Recognize and reward those who achieve their goals

We all like to be recognized for a job well done. If staff work hard and achieve challenging goals, remember to celebrate them. Use tangible numbers from Smokeball’s Law Firm Insights to inform bonuses or incentives, taking the guesswork out of identifying consistent outperformance. 

Always champion employees who pursue tough goals, raise their own performance levels and make the firm more effective as a result. This will go a long way to creating a culture of consistent outperformance. 

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“How to Market Your Law Firm Ethically and Effectively.”

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