When “Carl,” a 4th year associate in a large firm, contacted me about lawyer coaching, he was dreading an upcoming evaluation. The office rumor was that associates were being asked to explain what they’d done to meet the goals they’d set in the previous year’s review, and Carl was nervous. He explained that although he’d been working toward the targets he’d set a year ago, he wasn’t sure that his efforts would be viewed as meeting his goals, which he’d written as follows:

1. Improve skill in taking and defending depositions.

2. Improve written work product.

3 .Get more experience in advising clients.

Do you see the problem that Carl recognized only in retrospect? None of these goals can be quantified. Had he improved his deposition skills? Well, he could point to the depositions he’d taken and defended over the past year, but he couldn’t prove in any quantifiable way that volume equals improvement. Same held true for his other goals. After talking about Carl’s year, we found ways to suggest that he’d met his goals, but he vowed never to make the mistake of setting fuzzy objectives.

Unfortunately, lawyers at every stage of practice can set vague goals. Have you ever said you’d like to “bring in more business” or “increase your billable hours” or “get more exposure to your target clients”? These ambitions count as little more than wishes, because they’re not concrete and measurable.

How do effective leaders frame their intentions? They set SMART goals, and they write down those goals. A SMART objective is:

Specific: define what you intend to accomplish with sufficient detail to be meaningful. Instead of planning to improve his deposition skills, Carl might have decided he wanted to get comfortable with the “funnel method” of questioning witnesses.

Measurable: a quantifiable definition of what you intend to accomplish. (As Peter Drucker said, “What gets measured gets managed.”) Carl might have said that he’d like to take 8 depositions over the course of the year and rate his comfort and skill in using the “funnel method” on a scale of 1 to 10.

Achievable: design a goal that’s a stretch, but a stretch within your reach. Carl might realize that he’d be unlikely to take 8 depositions over the next year, and so he’d scale back to 4 depositions.

Realistic: create a sensible plan to attain your goal, considering your abilities and limitations. Carl might approach the partner with whom he worked the most to share the goal he’d set and to get the partner’s buy-in, which would include agreement that the goal was realistic.

Time-based: define the time in which you’ll measure your efforts to determine whether you hit your objective.

When you know what you want, you’re much more likely to seek out and accept opportunities to reach your goals. Take a moment to recast your #1 objective as a SMART goal and write it down somewhere, perhaps in your calendar. And then notice what happens over the next few days and weeks. Chances are good that you’ll take steps toward your goal that you wouldn’t have taken without being concrete and clear and what you wanted to happen.

Julie A. Fleming, J.D., A.C.C. has coached countless lawyers, has practiced law for over 15 years, speaks for bar associations and law firms, and publishes a weekly email newsletter.