Get SMART About Setting Marketing Goals

New clients will often ask me: “What do you need from us?” I do an intake interview to learn about their practice groups, their clients, and their current profitability. Then I ask them for their marketing goal.

Before the relieved look of “That’s it? That’s all it’s going to take?” leaves their faces, I hasten to tell them that they must thrash out a SMART goal. That’s Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely. It’s anything but easy, yet without it, most firms’ marketing initiatives will degenerate into unfocussed, ad hoc, pet projects that don’t contribute to bringing in business.

So what is a SMART goal and why does it matter?

I once sat down with the partners of a successful regional firm that wanted to grow beyond the borders of their southern Ontario town. I defined the importance of having a SMART goal and asked them what theirs would be. They started the discussion by saying that they wanted to be better known in a wider area. Eventually, they came up with the goal of being “the best-known law firm in the Region.” When I suggested that we try to make that more specific, they looked blank. To them, that goal was specific. I asked how we would measure their being “the best known”. Silence. I asked what they thought the value of being “the best known” would be. More silence. I asked when they would achieve this goal. Still more silence. It was like pulling teeth, but after many more questions, they had articulated their goal: “By December 31, 2013, we want to have increased the number of our clients outside of Anytown, ON, by X%, while retaining our existing client base.”


If a goal isn’t specific, you can’t measure it. If you can’t measure it, how do you know if it’s achievable? And if it isn’t achievable, who cares whether it’s relevant or timely?

Goals can be made specific by spelling out Who is going to do What, Where, and When. In the above example, the specificity lies in the What (increasing the number of clients outside Anytown by x%), the Where (outside of Anytown while still paying attention to Anytown clients) and the When (they were giving themselves 18 months to reach their goal).


The whole point of having a goal is to achieve something. If you can measure the results, you can see what you’ve gained. If not, why bother? In the example, the goal has a built-in measure (X% within 18 months).

You’ll need criteria for measurement, usually arrived at by asking ‘How much?’ or ‘How many?’ If there isn’t a number in the goal, you can’t measure whether you’ve reached it.


Is the goal you’ve set within your grasp? If my client in the example had said they wanted to become the go-to law firm for mergers & acquisitions in Canada, I’d have asked what they’d been smoking.

You can check whether your goal is achievable by asking if your firm has the resources needed. If the answer is no, can it obtain the resources? Everyone has to believe that the goal is achievable, otherwise it won’t be achieved. Oh yes, I know how hard it is to get lawyers to agree (you’ve been trained to argue, after all) but a firm-wide marketing goal is not something that can be plucked out of thin air by the managing partner in the shower that morning.

Don’t set the bar too low or too high. Too low and no one’s motivated. Too high and everyone feels defeated before they start.


This is the Why of the goal. You may have set a goal that’s specific and measurable and achievable, but does it matter to your firm’s business? In the example, the firm might have been able to become ‘better known’ outside of Anytown without it resulting in a single piece of new business from potential clients outside Anytown. To check a goal’s relevance, ask how important it is to the firm’s profitability. The operative word in that sentence is ‘firm’: everyone must benefit from achieving the goal, not just one practice area or lawyer.


Within what time period do you want to achieve this goal? Too short a time period will affect achievability; too long a time period will lessen results. In the example, my clients originally set a year as the timespan, but knowing how long it takes to plan marketing initiatives properly, I urged them to increase it to 18 months.

‘Timely’ refers to more than just a deadline, however. In the example, there was a new and rapidly growing retirement community on the outskirts of Anytown—a prime target market for my client’s Wills & Estates Group. Their goal was therefore timely in relation to the existence of prospective clients, too.

Don’t Stop There

Once you have a SMART goal for your whole firm, each practice group and each lawyer can set SMART goals for themselves as groups and as individuals. The fundamental principle is for all of those goals to be nested within each other, so that each lawyer’s individual goal contributes to the practice group’s goal and each practice group’s goal contributes to the firm’s goal.

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