Publications Banner
The Nuggets Blog: Bite-Size Insight and Intelligence for Law Firm Leaders.

NuggetsBite-Size Insight and Intelligence for Law Firm Leaders.

It's Time To Get Shot of Targets

Monday, 14 December 2020

We all need goals, do we not? And of course they must be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely).

For an alternative view, listen to a man very much in the goals business, Sean Dyche, manager of over-achievers Burnley F.C. Many good judges think his success in keeping them in the Premiership, and in one recent season taking them into Europe, is at least as impressive as the trophy-winning feats of Pep Guardiola, whose 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, that’s great when you’re 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! We’re miles behind where we wanted to be! Oh no! Oh no!’”

In his scepticism about targets, Sean Dyche is not alone. It’s long established that when employees care exclusively about reaching a goal, and fear the consequences of failure, cheating and bad 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 of the Windrush scandal at the Home Office, so often the Department for Unintended Consequences. No-one disputes that the Government’s target of reducing annual immigration to “the tens of thousands” was key to developing the hostile official mindset which caused so much damage.

In law firms, there is much evidence that narrow financial goals 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 to developing relationships. 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” ( He makes two points in particular: First, “If you know the exact behaviours you want, stretch goals may be fine. But, if you want employees to engage in other pro-social behaviours (e.g., helping others in the organisation) 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 professionals 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 far more effective way to grow sustainable, revenue than just whacking up the hourly rate. Developing skills in scoping work, pricing it and drafting effective terms of engagement is the way to minimise write-offs. Become an accomplished rainmaker and objections to you spending non-chargeable time melt away.

I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want!

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. This is the context in which goals should be set by us and for us. To endure, they must be based on values, not cash. What should they be? I think these are universal:

1. Put stellar client satisfaction first, the firm’s interest second and our own third. This way lies competitive advantage and true collegiality.

2. Consistently hone our skills, and learn new skills – commercial and interpersonal as well as legal, properly supported by the firm.

3. Deliver the whole firm: seek ways to collaborate and help create opportunities for colleagues as well as ourselves.

4. Ensure governance which is demonstrably fair, transparent and effective.

5. Mentor and support colleagues to help them make the most of their talents, overcome difficulties and live fulfilling lives.

6. Invest consistently in the resources needed to stay successful.

7. Recognise that the firm is part of a wider community, and give back to it.

Consistent with these overarching goals, each person is free to pursue their personal objectives. The overwhelming majority of professionals start out motivated to do their best. If the leadership walks the walk – never a given – goals like this ought to 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, the point of targets should be bullseyes, not bullsh*t.


Thank you for reading, I hope it's been enjoyable and helpful. If you have not subscribed and would like to, please see the subscribe form at the bottom of this page.

I was the founder and senior partner of a multi-award winning law firm that became a UK leader in its sectors. Today, I work as a consultant and non-exec with leading law firms throughout the UK and in Ireland. You can read testimonials here. You can read testimonials here. If you would like to link with me on LinkedIn, you'll find me here.