Issue 6, April 2004



Individual Development Plans: Identifying Goals

Case Study: Stemming the Loss of Women Partners

Women and Minority Lawyers: Current Publications

Upcoming Conferences

ALA Management Encyclopedia

Award for Law Firm Innovation 

Dear Colleague:

It has been said that when we don’t know what harbor we are heading for, no wind is the right wind. Law firms expect lawyers to plot the direction of their careers, but few firms give lawyers the tools they need to navigate toward their professional goals. In a two-part series, Management Solutions will look at how law firms can help lawyers determine the specific goals that will achieve their career aspirations and use those goals as the foundation for a developmental action plan. This issue of Management Solutions will describe how to identify appropriate goals; the next issue will address how to create individual development plans.

Our case study examines how we helped discover the underlying reasons why women partners were leaving a law firm that had a reputation for being supportive of women.

In addition, this issue of Management Solutions highlights two of my new articles and provides information about three conferences where I will speaking in the next few weeks. One article deals with how women are changing the definition of career success, and the other with retaining women and minority lawyers. The conferences deal with women and leadership, mentoring across race and gender differences, and development and retention of 21st century associates.

You will also find in this issue information about the ALA Management Encyclopedia and a new award from the College of Law Practice Management to recognize innovative management practices.

Reminder: If you have not yet read my recent report, Mentoring Across Differences: A Guide to Cross-Gender and Cross Race Mentoring, it is available online at This research-based report describes how women and minority lawyers can find mentors, and how legal employers can create the conditions where diverse mentoring relationships take root and flourish.

Individual Development Plans: Identifying Goals

Lily Tomlin once said, "I always wanted to be somebody. I guess I should have been more specific." As if learning from Tomlin's imprecision, law firms are now asking their lawyers to be more conscientious about defining who they want to be and what kind of practice they want to have. They are expecting lawyers to take responsibility for their own careers, and toward that end, to prepare individual action plans based on specific goals.

Development plans include both long-term career goals (e.g., to become a partner) and the more immediate performance goals that move lawyers toward those long-term career goals (e.g., to strengthen my client management skills). Lawyers cannot necessarily control the outcome of their career goals, but they can improve their chances of achieving them by accomplishing their performance goals.

There is great value in having lawyers set SMART goals for themselves, i.e., goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-limited. Lawyers have a greater sense of purpose when they work toward particular goals, and their motivation is increased when the goals are for their own benefit. Goal-setting helps lawyers focus on their development needs. They can assess new situations and possibilities in light of their goals, and make choices that are more focused and meaningful. And goals set targets that allow progress to be measured.

Although it sounds easy to do, goal-setting for purposes of professional development requires assistance, especially in the early years of practice. How do associates know what types of goals they should set? In what areas should they set goals - substantive practice, management, business development? What goals are appropriate for a first, fourth or sixth year associate? Frequently, partners assigned to be mentors or advisors are expected to help associates identify and set development goals, but they do not have the tools or expertise that enables them to do so. They rely on their own personal experience, but do not know what specific goals are appropriate for the associates they counsel. If partners do not know what goals are suitable, how would a far less experienced associate know?

Firms that expect lawyers to set goals and create development plans must provide information that can help them and their mentors or advisors determine the career goals and performance goals that are appropriate for them. The two most essential sources of such information are:

  • Performance standards determined by each practice group and the firm. Specific written benchmarks and standards for successful performance provide the most accurate information about the skills, competencies, and behaviors lawyers should have at each stage of their careers. Comprehensive performance standards include criteria for admission to partnership (and to equity partnership in a two-tiered system).
  • Feedback. Both everyday feedback and annual or semi-annual evaluations (including upward and peer evaluations of partners) point out lawyers' strengths and areas needing improvement. They also inform lawyers how their performance is perceived by others. It is often helpful to have someone (e.g., a mentor or coach) help lawyers translate the feedback they receive into specific goals and actions implied by the feedback.

Additional sources of input that can help lawyers determine suitable goals include:

  • Personal ambitions and desires. What do I want to achieve?
  • Experience. What kind of experience do I want to have to become a better lawyer? On the basis of the experience I have had, in what areas do I need to improve?
  • Clients. What must I learn or improve in order to serve my clients' current and future needs?
  • Advice from others. What information is available from my peers, mentors, supervisors, and clients about becoming a successful lawyer?
  • Observation of others, especially role models. How do successful lawyers conduct themselves?

Some firms are turning to internal or outside professionals to help lawyers determine development goals. Arnold & Porter has hired a full-time Career Development Specialist (a lawyer with experience in law school career services) to work with associates on their individual career development plans. Another approach that is gaining in popularity is to hire outside coaches to help individual lawyers set and work toward development goals.

In the next issue, we'll discuss how to turn identified goals into a development plan.

Case Study: Stemming the Loss of Women Partners

A mid-sized law firm based in Northern California contacted me after several women partners left the firm over a six-month period. The number of women partners before these departures was close to the national norm for firms of this size. Although the departing women generally said they were leaving for better opportunities, their departure caused alarm in the firm. Because so many women had left, the firm was concerned that other factors were causing the women to go and wanted to know what those factors were and how they could be remedied.

We decided on a three-pronged approach to identifying the reasons for this high attrition and finding a way to reverse it. The steps occurred concurrently. I surveyed all firm lawyers to audit attitudes and perceptions about the performance, treatment, and prospects of women lawyers in the firm. I conducted focused interviews with male and female lawyers throughout the firm to obtain more specific data about their attitudes, perceptions, and experiences toward or as women. And I conducted confidential post-exit interviews with women partners and associates who had left.

Of the many important findings, one of the most salient was that women did not receive sufficient respect, recognition, and compensation for their accomplishments from their male partners. The stories I heard were striking and disturbing. One woman who had been the only woman partner on a large corporate transaction was the only partner not seated at the head table with the client when the firm held a celebration party after the closing. When she mentioned it to the partner who had made the seating arrangements, he scoffed at her for being "hyper-sensitive." Another woman who received less compensation than her male peers was told by the all-male compensation committee that she "needed less" because she had a husband with a good income. Because of such treatment, many women partners felt that they had to find a more conducive workplace. The "better opportunities" they used as a reason to leave did not just fall into their laps; the women actively went after them.

When such findings, supported by specific examples and consequences, were presented to the firm's partners, there was considerable unease among the men in the room - and nods of recognition among the women. While there was also some denial and resistance, most partners were troubled. They saw that these conditions were insulting to women and causing the firm to lose valuable talent and its good reputation. This knowledge strengthened the firm's resolve, and led to a comprehensive plan, to ensure that women were treated fairly and respectfully.


Women and Minority Lawyers: Current Publications
  • In "Women in Law Firms: Redefining Success," an article in the April, 2004 issue of Law Practice, I present the changes needed in order for women to stay and advance in law firms. See The entire April issue of Law Practice deals with lawyers' careers and is worth a look.
  • The Monday, April 26, 2004 edition of the New York Law Journal will include a special insert with my article, "Women and Minority Associates: Keys to Retention." It should be posted online at on or shortly after its publication date.


Upcoming Conferences

I will be speaking in three programs in the next few weeks:

  • Women in Law Leadership Academy, sponsored by the ABA Commission on Women, in Chicago on April 16-17, 2004. Information can be found at I will moderate sessions on "Transforming Your Career: Practicing Law as a Segue to Leadership."
  • NALP Annual Education Conference, in Salt Lake City, April 27 - May 1, 2004. See My presentation, on April 30, is entitled "Mentoring for Women and Minority Lawyers: Make It Happen."
  • Bar Association of San Francisco, May 17, 2004. See I am the featured presenter in the program, "Making Your Office a Great Place to Work: Addressing the Needs and Concerns of 21st Century Associates."


ALA Management Encyclopedia

The Association of Legal Administrators has created a comprehensive resource containing 73 articles in six management areas: Human Resources, Financial Management, General Management/Strategic Planning, Facilities Management, Marketing and Technology. My contribution is an article on "Giving Constructive Feedback with a Positive Impact." (See Issue 3 of Management Solutions for a related discussion.) The ALA Management Encyclopedia is available online by subscription. A complete Table of Contents, a list of all authors and four sample articles are posted at


Award for Law Firm Innovation 

The College of Law Practice Management, in concert with Edge International, will be presenting the First Annual InnovAction Award to recognize innovation in law practices around the world. The goal, as they describe it, is "to demonstrate to the legal community what can be created when passionate professionals, with big ideas and strong convictions, are determined to make a difference." Awards will be presented in four categories of innovation: client service or delivery, creation of an entirely new revenue stream or market development, advances in skill-building or knowledge-sharing initiatives, and improvement of internal management or firm efficiency. For more information, including nomination forms, see

©2004 Ida Abbott Consulting

6114 La Salle Ave
Box 634
Oakland, CA 94611