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Stephen Gold

Consultant, Stephen Gold

Quotation Marks
"Like every other business, law firms must set strategic goals and reflect them in the goals they set for their people..."

Time to take aim at targets?

Time to take aim at targets?


While setting goals is necessary, focusing solely on narrow performance targets can lead to negative outcomes, argues Stephen Gold

We all need goals, right? And of course they must be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely). For an alternative view, listen to a man very much in the goals business, Sean Dyche, now managing Everton in the Premier League, but who made his name at Burnley. Many good judges think his success in propelling them to sixth in the league in 2018, and European competition the following season, is as impressive as the feats of Pep Guardiola, whose champions Manchester City have only the sovereign wealth of the United Arab Emirates to fall back on.

When I was at Watford, they had a system that was about six-game cycles and there was a benchmark as to where you wanted to be. Well, thats great when youre winning. But what about the six-game cycle when you get four points and the benchmark was 14. All the best with that when the players go, Ooh! Were miles behind where we wanted to be! Oh no! Oh no!’”

In his scepticism about targets, Dyche is not alone. Its long established that when employees care exclusively about reaching a goal and fear the consequences of failure, cheating and poor behaviour are likely. This is not to argue for a ban on incentives. But goals which focus on narrow performance targets can easily lead to disaster.

Look at the carnage over immigration that occurred in the Home Office under Theresa May. The Governments target of reducing annual immigration to the tens of thousands was key to developing the hostile” official mindset, which led to the Windrush scandal.

Like every other business, law firms must set strategic goals and reflect them in the goals they set for their people: moving into new markets, or growing their share of current ones, for example. It makes sense to set goals to improve the firm’s finances and efficiency, such as accurate time recording, or timely cash collection.

But narrow performance goals can have baleful effects. Aggressive billing targets risk overcharging, employee burnout and clients in revolt. Excessive focus on billable time discourages spending the non-chargeable time essential for developing relationships and improving client care. Targets imposed to reduce time written off frequently result in fee-earners forgetting” to record it altogether.

Stretching (is) out

Professor Max Bazerman of Harvard Business School is co-author of the research paper, Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goals Setting” ( Two important points he makes are that first, If you know the exact specific behaviours you want, stretch goals may be fine. Buts if you want employees to engage in other pro-social behaviours (e.g., helping others) and/or to act ethically, you need to be a lot more careful than simply providing a stretch goal.” Secondly, learning or mastery goals” are far more beneficial to performance and motivation than stretch goals in isolation.

Apply this to the issues above and you see its wisdom. Mastery of our specialism, allowing us to do more complex work, or a wider spread of it, or do it more productively, is a more effective way to grow sustainable, ethical revenue than just ramping up the hourly rate.

Developing skills in scoping work, pricing it and drafting terms of engagement is the way to minimise write-offs. Become an accomplished rainmaker and objections to you spending non-chargeable time melt away.

Universal goals

The law is a tough, relentless profession, in which sustained excellence is the minimum standard. It makes great mental, physical and emotional demands. If we are not highly motivated, we may enjoy bursts of short-term success, but no more. At the same time, there needs to be a robust framework in place which protects against ambition tempting us to cross the ethical line.

This is the context in which goals should be set by us and for us. What should they be? We will each have our own answer, but they are more likely to be achieved if they are pursued in an environment shaped by a robust set of values. I think these are universal:

  1. We put client satisfaction first, the firms interest second and self-interest third. This way lies competitive advantage and true collegiality.
  2. We continually hone our skills, and learn new skills – commercial, managerial and interpersonal as well as legal.
  3. We will deliver the whole firm, creating opportunities for colleagues as well as ourselves.
  4. We will ensure our governance is demonstrably fair and transparent.
  5. We will mentor and support colleagues to help them make the most of their talents, overcome difficulties and live fulfilling lives.
  6. We will invest consistently in the resources needed to stay successful.
  7. We will design a reward system to reflect an assessment of overall contribution to the success of the firm, not just short-term individual performance.
  8. We will select, evaluate and reward those in managerial roles based primarily on the success of their group, rather than on individual performance.
  9. We acknowledge that individual billings may not be the most important measure of an individual's contribution to the business.
  10. We recognise that the firm is part of a wider community, and will give back to it.

Fit to Practice?

Particularly since Covid, there has been an increased focus on lawyers’ physical and mental wellbeing, a fact that may sometimes irk older practitioners fond of bragging about how many all-nighters they pulled when they were young. But few deny it is overdue.

It’s great to be ambitious, but leaders must take care to set realistic expectations that take into account workload, capacity, and other commitments. Unrealistic targets are more likely to lead to stress and burnout.

The phrase “work-life balance” is often met with a groan and an eye-roll. But there is nothing inevitable about this. Firms who get it right will have a significant advantage when recruiting, particularly younger people, who are clear they won’t stand for the environment their predecessors tolerated.

We should encourage taking regular breaks to recharge. There is much debate about how flexible working hours should be and the right number of days to be in the office. What’s right for one firm may not suit another, but if firms are inflexible, or do not communicate clearly that their people’s welfare is a top priority, they should not be surprised if quality recruits look elsewhere.

Having set targets, it’s vital that firms support their people in meeting them, for example, giving access to training and development opportunities, mentorship programmes, and administrative support. In the best run firms, there is a culture of open communication and transparency, which allows everyone to voice concerns, seek help and provide feedback on the fairness of how targets are set.

Finally, it’s incredibly important that people are celebrated by their leaders when they achieve their targets. Money matters, a lot, but so does appreciation. Few words are more powerful in combination than “well done”.

Lawyer join the profession because they are inspired by the idea of helping others, and are attracted to the intellectual challenge of the work. They are highly motivated to do their best. Money is far from irrelevant, but rarely the most important thing. They need a few carrots and fewer sticks. If leaders walk the walk, the approach I’ve suggested should encourage high performance, strong ethics and team spirit, while discouraging the hamster-wheel mentality and cult of the individual that bedevils so many firms.

As the plain-speaking Mr Dyche might put it, Targets – theyre about bullseyes, not bullsh*t!”.

Stephen Gold was the founder and senior partner of a multi-award-winning law firm which grew from a sole practice to become a UK leader in its sectors. He is now a consultant, non-exec and trusted adviser to leading firms nationwide.