Balance Goals & Planning

Too much focus on your goals can get you into trouble

Juliet is a new partner with a corporate finance and securities practice. Over the past seven years she has honed her legal skills and has developed the trust of her partners and clients. She is a perfectionist at heart and has a killer eye for detail. She will do whatever it takes to get the deal done and still regularly pulls all nighters.

She has tried working with juniors but the delegation hasn’t worked well. The work product she gets back is not up to her standards and it seems like it takes more time to fix the mistakes than it would to have done the work herself. She has been asked to become a mentor but she hasn’t had the time to take part in the program. She is also quite stressed out because the HR Director called her in for a confidential meeting to tell her that she needs to more respectful of support staff. Juliet was really taken aback by this; she believes she works well with staff.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should. Professionals, be they lawyers, accountants, engineers, or business people all face this challenge in one form or another. It’s the challenge of taking the next step up from technical expert to leader.

Technical Experts

As we develop in our careers we hone our technical expertise be that as lawyers, researchers, accountants, or legal administrators. As we become more knowledgeable and skilled at our role we rise in the hierarchy and are increasingly responsible for overseeing the work of others.

The strategies we have used to develop as technically knowledgeable and adept can-do people are different from those that we need to become skilled at leading a team. Leading a team in the context of the legal sector can mean everything from instructing a secretary or delegating work, to leading a practice group, department or firm.

As technical experts one of the first things we learn is to achieve results on time with the greatest degree of accuracy. We develop a detailed knowledge of our area of practice, and amass valuable experience in serving our clients and working with our colleagues.

And it is technical expertise that is rewarded: At review time lawyers are principally evaluated on the quality and quantity of their work, and on the new business they have brought in.

Goal Obsession

The term goal obsession comes from the writings of Dr. Marshall Goldsmith, a world-leading leadership coach. Goal obsession comes about when people focus on their immediate goal to the exclusion of all else. The rhetoric of the day is all about the importance and value of setting goals and the soundness of this advice is unarguably correct. The challenge emerges when the goal obliterates all other priorities. When everything else is dropped in order to see the goal through. Dr. Goldsmith commented in his Harvard Business Review blog:

Goal obsession is one of the greatest problems that I encounter in my interactions with successful people. Goal obsession occurs when we become so focused on achieving our goal (or task) that we forget our larger mission.

Goal obsession is one of the impediments I see at play in law firms everyday. When Juliet is focused on a transaction her stress levels rise and all she can think about is the work at hand. She forgets about how she is treating other people and she can’t be bothered wasting time on teaching associates.

This is an excerpt from my column in September. Click here to read the full article.

About the author

Allison Wolf

I am the founder of AWAL and one of the most senior coaches for lawyers in North America. I have helped countless clients over the past fifteen years, develop thriving legal practices and before that served as director of marketing for award-winning law firms. My specialty is uncovering the thinking traps and gaps holding clients back and helping them acquire the mindsets, skills, and habits for growing successful and rewarding legal careers. After a career in legal marketing and business development with law firms in Beijing, New York, and Vancouver, I was trained as a coach in 2004 at Royal Roads University and now coach clients from across North America. You can reach me at or learn more about my coaching practice from the coaching section of the Attorney With A Life Website.