“Where do you see yourself in five years?” is a FAQ in a job interview.
Even though it is frequently asked many interviewees don’t have a good answer to this question.
Part of the reason for the difficultly of responding to this question is concern that the wrong answer will cost the interviewee the job. However, the bigger problem with responding to this question is simple: the interviewee does not know the answer. Poor (but maybe honest) answers to this question would be:
- Hopefully not here;
- I’d prefer asking the questions so I plan to replace you;
- On a beach in the Caribbean; or
- Doing the exact same thing at this job day after day for the next 1,820 days (sarcasm intended).
Many find this question to be extremely uncomfortable because planning next month’s calendar seems a tall order. Taking away any scripted B.S. answer prepared for the purpose of landing a job, what is our real answer to this question?
Turn Panic Into A Plan
Whether you are thinking about hanging your shingle or opened your law practice years ago, sit down and interview yourself and begin by asking “where do you see your business in 5 years?” Don’t panic if you can’t answer yourself.
Turn the panic into a plan, into a search for the ultimate goals related to your vision for your business.
Separate yourself from your business.
Because many of us have difficulty mentally differentiating our business from ourselves, this question of “where do you see your business in 5 years?” equates to “where do you see yourself in 5 years?” You might be thinking “I am my law firm; wherever I am is where my business will be.” Separating yourself from you business, seeing your business without you inside it is the key to designing a legal practice built to last.
Envision the future of your legal practice.
As you begin to envision what your legal practice looks like in 5 years, 10 years, 50 years, envision a place where you are no where to be found. This does not mean that you shouldn’t be practicing law in 50 years, but successful business planning can only occur where your business is not dependent solely on you.
Identify your purpose.
By identifying the purpose or final destination of your law firm, you can separate your personal goals and dreams from the endgame of your business. Taking yourself out of the picture allows the canvas of your business to be a blank slate.
Why Begin With “The End”
The philosophical concept of teleology requires attempting to describe things by identifying their purpose or end goal. “Telos” in Greek can be translated as “end” and “-ology” means “the study of.”
Far too few businesses – and on a micro scale law firms – begin with the end game in mind.
For most solos, opening the doors is the only plan.
The shingle gets hung, one client turns into twenty, and before you know it, business (or really busy-ness) is booming. This continues for a couple of years until you have so much busy-ness that you need to include someone else in the chaos and so you hire a legal assistant. That additional overhead requires more clients, more business, more doing, and more late nights.
Years go by and one day burnout sets in and you step back and think “how did I get to this point? Why did I choose such a stressful profession? When can I take a vacation? How did I get to where I am?” The answer to the last question is that your destination was inevitable.
Plan To ‘Exit’ Your Business, Or Fail
If you don’t plan where you are going, you’ll never get there. If you don’t have a telos for your business your business will be your master and not vice versa.
In determining and reassessing your business’ telos ask yourself these questions:
- Why do I want to start (or maintain) a legal practice?
- How long do I want to work in my business?
- What kind of cases do I want my firm to handle?
- How much would I like to be able to sell my business for?
- What does my model client look like?
- How do I target my marketing to reach my model clients?
- How many hours would I like to spend a week at the office?
- How many cases could my firm handle without service suffering?
- What will I need to open (or grow) my practice?
- What kind of systems do I need to create to make sure that results are being delivered predictably?
- How will I implement period review opportunities to assess marketing, employees, financial numbers, and case management software?
- At what point will I need to hire a legal assistant? Could I avoid doing so if I were willing to take fewer cases, increase fees, etc.
A direct correlation exists between the detail you provide to these answers and the intentionality with which you can act to achieve your business’ end. A business operated out of desperation is a business designed to fail.
Even entrepreneurs who start a business with nothing and pick themselves up by the bootstraps and propel themselves to success by sheer will do so because they have a telos, a purpose, a vision that they believe in which existed in their mind before they earned their first dollar.
Without planning long term for your business, the endpoint for your business will be left to happenstance and luck.
Gambling with your business is about as dangerous as it gets, but remarkably that’s how many legal practices are run.
Images and characters from The Patriot are the property of Columbia Pictures
In The Patriot, Benjamin Martin, played by Mel Gibson, asks his sons “what did I tell you boys about shooting?” They respond “aim small miss small.”
If you want to hit a target, don’t point your weapon in its general direction; set your scope as precisely as you possible for the bull’s eye.
Once you have the roadmap for your business and its telos then you can determine if you are making good time in reaching your destination. You can assess your ability to stop at a rest area and stretch your legs or even take a scenic detour if you know where your ultimate destination is.
If you have no predetermined destination but are just racing as fast as you can to get there, you are wasting gas, energy, and getting massively frustrated. Just think how aggravating it is to be lost on a trip.
Remember a time in your life when you have been on a long trip and you miss your exit. You had to travel 5 miles in the wrong direction just to get turned around. Dwell on that feeling of frustration and then feel that feeling. It is miserable. This is how your every day will be in your business without a roadmap. Even if we don’t think we are working toward a goal, there is frustration from knowing that we are lost it’s just magnified because the stakes are so much higher when it comes to our livelihood.
Predict the Future & Be at Peace
Designing your legal practice with the end in mind is difficult because many of us find it impossible to be the type of soothsayer that can see twenty or thirty years down the road. There will be twists and turns on the road.
That’s why the list of questions above needs to be asked, then re-asked, then re-asked again on a regular basis for as long as your business exists. Maybe you will end up abandoning the law altogether in favor of some new career or business opportunity or to spend more time with your family.
The point of long term planning is not predicting the future, but rather working towards a goal.
And if the goal changes along the way that’s totally okay.
Human beings are creatures driven by results, driven by goals, driven by purpose. Living on purpose means living with a plan, living intentionally. As soon as monotony kicks in and we do the same thing everyday, the same routine, we stop living intentionally.
Creating the long-term vision of our business means that we are pushing our business forward rather than in a circle. Intentionally thinking about and designing our business and the end it is moving toward will not only help your business succeed, it will give new purpose to all aspects of your life.
James Minick is a criminal defense attorney in Asheville, NC and is the owner of Minick Law, P.C.