Career Goal-Setting: A Poison Pill for Lawyers?

As long-time readers know, I just adore it when data backs up my intuitions. This time, it’s about goals. I know, it’s completely heretical to question the value of setting goals as a career and life coach–especially when I coach all those goal-oriented lawyers—but I do question goal-setting. A lot.

red and white capsules

Most of the time, goals aren't going to be your magic pill. Image courtesy

I have long been uneasy with goal-setting as a means of motivating people, whether they are clients looking for that legal career alternative or just humanity generally. Now, thanks to Ray Williams’ recent post, Why Goal Setting Doesn’t Work at Psychology Today, I better understand why typical goals are basically poison pills for lawyers and other driven-professional types.

One of my discomforts about goal-setting is that goals usually are quite extrinsically driven. Like, “I want to lose 20 lbs. before the reunion next month” or “I’m going to go to 2 networking events weekly until I get a new job.” They sound kind of good, don’t they? And they could actually BE good goals—if they are born of intrinsic values.

I’ll talk more about that next time, but for now, I’ll just note that most of the time, goals aren’t set from the inside out. So we get lots of lawyers setting extrinsic goals and living to the outside, the external, to those priorities and values not their own. It’s the ticket to a life of disconnection and discontent.

We as a society have been trying live the goal-oriented life for decades, and look where it’s gotten us: a morally bankrupt corporate culture (which, not coincidentally, lawyers help perpetuate), and a people so cut off from their inner lives and real values that they embrace all kinds of wacky, rule-driven fundamentalist beliefs in a desperate attempt to incorporate spirituality into their lives without taking the actual spiritual risk of uncertainty.

But Aren’t Goals the Only Way To Get Things Done?

I can hear you asking, OK, really, aren’t goals the only way to get anything done? That question reveals a lot. If the only way people are motivated is through external forces (punishments if they don’t meet a goal, for example), that’s a sign that a person or organization’s attention lies on the wrong things.

According to Kellogg School of Management Professor Adam Galinsky, goals can lead people to participate in extreme behaviors to achieve the goals. Like, say, meeting billable hour goals at the price of neglecting everything else important in life.

Galinsky says that goals are treated as an over-the-counter cure-all for what ails ya, when instead they should be treated as prescription meds. I’d take it one step further, and say that goals are like steroids: Used in very limited circumstances, they’re quite helpful, but overuse leads to some very bad side effects. ‘Roid rage in business settings is just ugly, folks.

The Dark Side of Goals

Galinsky is one of the authors of Goals Gone Wild, a 2009 study published by Harvard Business School. That study identified several specific, negative side effects associated with goal setting:

  • degrading of employee performance;
  • shifting focus away from important but non-specified goals;
  • harming interpersonal relationships;
  • focusing on short-term results that actually inflict long-term organizational harm;
  • corroding organizational culture;
  • promoting cheating;
  • inhibiting learning and cooperation;
  • reducing intrinsic motivation; and
  • motivating risky and unethical behaviors.

Billable hours are the most obvious goal-setting behavior for lawyers, the yardstick by which law firms measure success or failure. And lawyers get beat over the head with that measurement of worthiness so often that they usually internalize that value, even if intellectually they know better.

Notice how many of the general bad effects outlined by Goals Gone Wild are mirrored in law firm and lawyer behavior:

  • favoring quantity over quality work;
  • punishing those who want to contribute to the community—the choice is either sleep or do the good works;
  • punishing those who value relationships, non-law interests, spirituality, or anything except money and billable hours;
  • dismissing those who want to explore new ways of doing things that may not be immediately profitable but could be game-changing (remember the resistance to websites? And the current resistance to social media by most law firms?);
  • padding of time sheets;
  • glossing over ethical conflicts and ignoring unethical behavior and harsh employee treatment by rainmakers;
  • rewarding the selfish, who won’t teach, train and give useful feedback to new lawyers, and punishing those who do;
  • devaluing loyalty to a firm or a team;
  • encouraging attorneys to neglect their basic needs, like adequate rest, food, medical care, relaxation, and exercise; and
  • rewarding the status quo in a rapidly-changing world.

And the benefits of this behavior? Well, for some it’s very high incomes and fat bank accounts. Lots of toys and accoutrements of wealth. Yet despite all the tech innovations these days, bank account balances, cars, houses, vacations and gadgets still don’t hug you at night or comfort you on your sickbed.

So how do you have a productive career and life that isn’t littered with goals (often unmet, I might note)? I’ll talk about that next time.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who coaches unhappy attorneys to put down the to-do list and back away slowly, and then find what gives them daily career and life fulfillment. She offers discounted sample sessions so you can see how coaching can help you set intrinsic, meaningful goals. Contact Jennifer at to schedule yours today.

9 thoughts on “Career Goal-Setting: A Poison Pill for Lawyers?

  1. What a fascinating post and article! This came at the right time because I’m rethinking my whole approach to goal-setting and productivity. Sometimes I think I use my lofty goals and my failure to meet them as a way to beat myself up even if I’ve made great progress. I’m also afraid that if I don’t set goals, I’ll turn into a lazy sloth (laughably untrue, as I’ve recently discovered). Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  2. I’m still a fan of strategic life planning.

    I know that the Five Year Plans don’t work for communist countries, but I’m an individual! I should be able to make sure I know where I’m going and when I want to arrive at certain life checkpoints using carefully crafted numeric-based goals.

    If you don’t know where you generally want to be 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30 years from now, how will you get there? How do you know whether you have failed or succeeded? I actually periodically try to do this. I haven’t tried this some time.

    I first entered the world of an external goal driven life when I was about 14. I still remember the careful strategic planning and weighted GPA calculation that I had use when I was on my Valedictorian Quest in high school. And yes, other students were existential threats to me. If they were to win, I would lose! Very anti-cooperatvie. Was I better than they were? Was I in the top 0.01%? Or was I one of the 99.99% of society who were losing the game of life because they Weren’t Good Enough?


    I was too burnt out by college to really try playing that game again.

    Note: I have no strategic life plan at this point. 😦

    Note #2: I never want to work Night Shift in attorneyworld.

    Note #3: I just met with a client who got a DWI on a riding lawn mower. I did tell him I thought it was funny. He can laugh about it now that he’s out of jail.

    • Oh, I’m all about having an overall plan. Just not so much on goals that set you up for feeling like a loser when you’re not.

      And seriously, the DWI? You just made my day with that story!

      • The secret to collecting fascinating stories in legal practice is to use television ads to bring your clients in the door.

        I guarantee that you will get lots of very interesting stories.

        The downside is that you will also get some very horrible stories.

  3. Pingback: Gooooaaaallll! | The Adventures of Corporate Girl

  4. Awesome! I am a massive GOAL HATER so I’m glad to see this.

    I do have goals, but I know what they are (be me, have a peaceful life where I can have space to think and do what I want, tell stories). Anything I’d have to list in a business context like “bring in ___, bill ____” has been total BS – I never believed in it, and took it as a personal affront, so you can guess how long I’ve focused on achieving them…

    My first “real” job was taking over a position from a guy transferring away from the Crazy Boss, who told me that he (transferring guy) always had a 5 Year Plan, and I had to have a 5 Year Plan. You know what the only plan that I could come up with was? The same one I have now – “not be doing this job in 5 years.”

  5. Pingback: Career Goals That Actually Work « Leaving the Law

  6. Pingback: If You’re Creative, You’re Screwed in Law « Leaving the Law

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