Setting Goals Is Not Enough: The Key to Making Changes in Your Law Practice and Life

It is nearly the end of the year and soon there will be the New Year’s Resolutions.  Even without this tradition, as driven professionals, many of us are quite accustomed to setting regular goals for ourselves.  The reality is most of us are resistant to change.  This resistance includes the things we want to change and even are bold enough to set goals to do so.   In the law practice, this may include such things as implementing new software or systems, embarking on a new path or career training in or outside of law, or even saving more for retirement.  These are just a few examples of course.  Well, I have some good news and bad news for those that feel change is hard.  The problem is not just lacking movement or or willpower.  Some would say, great, the problem is not me!  Well then the other side, which I personally do not consider ‘bad’ news is this:  Our own worldviews and assumptions about how things are actually contain the keys to change.  Would you feel better if I told you that if you fail at a goal it is likely that a sort of “emotional immune system” is covertly at work defending you from perceived threats?  That is, we may not even be aware of our own beliefs and assumptions and how they are actually sabotoging our efforts.  So how do you change things you are not even aware exist in your mind?

According to Harvard Graduate School of Education professors, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, when we fall short of a goal we have set for ourselves, it is imperative to dig deep into your own worldviews and ‘big assumptions’ that are creating competing commitments and therefore opposition to our goals.   So, yes, the good news is you have some control over this stealthy self sabotage!  It is not enough to recognize and attempt to change these behaviors.  Success comes from shifting your mindset.  Dr. Kegan and Lahey have outlined a very productive exercise for overcoming obstacles by understanding what feelings and beliefs are at play so that a shift in mindset may be accomplished.

I would like to walk you through an exercise that will help you map your immunity to change.  Make four columns on  a sheet of  paper which give you plenty of room to write or type.

  • Step 1: list your improvement goal. In column one, list a goal that would have a significant impact on your life.  At the bottom of the column, list some actions that would help you achieve your goal.  For example, you have always wanted to become a mediator and need to complete the training and certification process to do so.
  • Step 2:  identify behaviors that keep you from your goal.  For this colum two, consider what you are doing or are not doing that is keeping you from achieving your goals. In our mediator goal example, say you work have a full case load and keep putting off scheduling the training to even begin.
  • Step 3:  discover your competing commitments.  This is where some profound self-examination needs to occur.  Look at the behaviors you listed in column two and ask yourself how you would feel if you did the opposite.  For this exercise, list the fears in a ‘worry box’ at the top of this column and the competing commitments follow. In our lawyer who wants to be a mediator example, it may be fear of not being perceived a top litigator.  What if the time away has others perceiving loss of work ethic?  If you complete the training, maybe you have to give up a stable lifestyle as a litigator while you build your mediation practice.  If the feelings of shame, disappointment and fear are listed, it is easy to see how the concept of the emotional immune system is at work here.  Moreover, given these feelings listed in the worry box, it is easy to see the competing commitments as a wish to be respected professionally, to perform at the highest level, and to have security and stability.
  • Step 4:  identify your big assumptions.  Now you will figure out what internalized truths are at the root of your competing commitments.   For this part, frame your competing commitments in “if ____, then _____” statements.  For example, “If I am not respected as a top litigator, I will be seen as weak or a failure.”  List your big assumptions in column four.

The columns in the exercise above form your immunity map which will help you to see why you struggle to make changes or achieve your stated goals.  You must then take your emotions into account and truly test the assumption(s) that present the most significant obstacles to change in your life.  Challenge each assumption, perhaps even starting with a low-risk scenario.  For example, begin to take even one less case which would perhaps free up a block of time combined with a weekend to complete a training.  Does slightly lowering the expectations result in failure?  Most importantly, given time to to challenge a particular assumption in an conscious way may result in your beliefs shifting in a way that frees you up to do the things you have said are important to you.    As William Blake said, “If the doors of perception were cleaned, everything would appear to man as it is … infinite.”  Infinite sounds pretty good to me , and I genuinely hope you undertake the self-exploration to cleanse your own doors of perception.

Pamela Michelle is a practicing lawyer for over 23 years and has her M.S. in Mental Health Counseling.  She is also an ICF certified coach.  Pam brings her novel soul fulfillment and insight process work to lawyers who want to enrich their lives and become reacquainted with their deepest desires in order to live their lives optimally and in alignment with their soul. Pam may be contacted at