3 Tips for Setting 2021 Career Intentions

With the new year underway, many of us naturally gravitate toward a focus on the future—including the future of one’s career. Attorneys and law firm professionals emerging from the uncertainty of 2020 may feel a combination of hope and apprehension as the legal industry landscape and workplace norms remain unpredictable in many ways.

In this context, setting career goals can feel especially challenging. Yet it remains crucial—perhaps now more than ever—to translate your long-term aims into specific actions you can pursue in the coming year to support your professional trajectory. Setting clear intentions is a powerful way to support your career growth, especially when unknowns make the future seem difficult to pin down.

You have long-term professional goals, and perhaps even a defined path for the arc you envision for your work. The intentions you set for 2021 should act as a set of guiding principles to help you identify achievable near-term actions you can take both to move forward and to successfully pivot as circumstances require.

Your intentions need not be numerous—in fact, it’s important to focus on just a few—nor does creating them require a large time investment. Below are three simple approaches to creating effective intentions that will guide your career-development decisions and activities, no matter what 2021 holds.

1. Focus on achievements that you can control 

Last year was filled with unexpected and far-reaching disruptions—both to people’s personal and professional lives—which continue to reverberate among us all.

In this environment, you’ll feel greater satisfaction and reduced stress by keeping your attention on what’s in your purview, rather than on decisions that lie in the hands of others (such as a promotion or bonus). Set intentions that focus on advancing the things you can control, such as building your client relations skills, expanding your network, strengthening your relationships, gaining experience in a new practice area, or learning a new facet of your current practice area.

Translate these intentions into specific, “bite-size” actions—e.g., a certain number of outreach efforts per week, attending one training workshop per month or quarter, etc. Measure your success by the actions you take. Even in these uncertain times, you have a great deal of agency over many facets of your work, and the effort you put into those aspects will pay off—perhaps in unexpected ways.

2. Include professional development in your intentions 

No matter where you are in your career, sharpening your existing skills and regularly learning new ones increases your capacity to succeed where you are now—and better positions you for success in the future. Junior attorneys in particular have raised concerns about the loss, during the era of mostly remote work, of traditional talent development opportunities last year; 2021 is an ideal time to commit to your professional growth and overcome any gaps you encountered during the turmoil of 2020.

A proactive attitude is crucial in taking charge of your professional development. Certainly, avail yourself of any programs at your firm—which have been substantially expanded by most employers. In addition, pursue self-led avenues for growth: reach out to potential mentors, request informational interviews, and attend online programs (e.g., CLEs, conferences, and seminars). Consider joining bar associations and interest groups related to your practice—they’re an excellent source for education and networking.

A pivotal element of professional development is the kind of hands-on training you encounter within your day-to-day work. Make it a point to deepen your expertise by proactively asking for feedback and volunteering for work assignments that further your ambitions. Remote work makes it easier than ever to, for example, observe hearings, depositions, negotiations, and client meetings—seek such opportunities whenever you can.

3. Set just a few intentions and revisit them regularly 

Attorneys tend to have high expectations of themselves, and that can translate into long lists of goals and objectives—but having too many can come at the cost of focus and flexibility. Set yourself up for success by choosing just a few intentions for the year (perhaps just three to five), and you’ll find it’s easier to take actions that move you forward.

Keeping your intentions front of mind will help you retain your focus; you may wish to jot them on a notecard and keep it visible on your desk. Revisit your list regularly, perhaps monthly, to identify productive actions you could take in furtherance of your career—especially when you encounter unexpected obstacles. You may need to adjust your plans as things change, but your intentions can be guideposts along the path as it twists and turns.

To say 2020 was a challenging year is an understatement—and 2021 will no doubt bring more changes. Even in the most difficult times, a few well-considered intentions can help you thrive where you’re planted and grow in the direction you’re aiming for. Wherever 2021 brings, the guideposts of your intentions will help you stay on the path to career success.