Keep a Success Journal to Be a Happier and More Productive Lawyer


It’s that “rubber-meets-the-road” time of year again. When solos start closing out the books on their law practices for the year, it spurs them to look back and take a little personal inventory. Some law firms and law departments ask their lawyers to summarize their accomplishments in connection with their annual performance review.  I ask my clients to scrutinize their successes and their disappointments for the year that is ending, before setting their goals for the year to come.

As I assist lawyers with these processes, I notice that, although they may remember their shortcomings and disappointments with all the gory detail of a train wreck, they often forget significant achievements from the first half of the year. They also forget the heartfelt note of appreciation they received from a client four months ago and the midnight oil they burned for weeks to meet an important deadline.  Sometimes when they master a skill or change a habit, the new behavior becomes so natural that they don’t count it as an achievement.  They forget the awkwardness of their first attempts and how daunting the hurdle initially seemed.

A Success Journal Can Help Your Memory

I coach attorneys to keep a file where they record even their small achievements, and to personally acknowledge those little wins when they analyze their year. For some of us, keeping our desktop clean for a whole month takes a lot of effort, but we rarely give ourselves credit for that achievement. When wins are viewed together, not only does your progress become more evident, but patterns emerge that reveal the keys to your success. The success journal review can also come in handy if you need to summarize your efforts and results in order to persuade a boss, a judge or a compensation committee about the value of your contributions.

Reread Your Journal When You Need a Lift

Everyone has bad days. Sometimes we make mistakes.  Sometimes a prospective client chooses our competitor over us. Sometimes we don’t get the results we hoped for. Sometimes clients aren’t satisfied, even when we “pull a rabbit out of the hat” to get a win for them. Sometimes we just lose sight of why we do what we do. A bad day is a good time to go back and review your success journal. It can remind you of why you practice law, that you actually are pretty darn good at it, and that clients appreciate you.  Revisiting even small victories can point to your strengths that may help you triumph against the odds now.

Now Research Proves It

From my own experience, I discerned value in keeping a record of my wins. I began by saving thank you notes from clients and friends, which I reread on my gloomy days. Recently, I learned about research that provides even more illumination on the subject. Teresa Amabile is author of The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, and a professor and Director of Research at Harvard Business School. She says a “small win looks so incremental that it seems almost trivial.”  However, Amabile’s research demonstrated that by taking the time to capture and reflect upon small wins, people experience more engagement, enjoyment and even productivity at work. Making progress in meaningful work, even in small increments, is critical to enjoyment of your work life.

Ways to Capture Your Successes

Amabile extolls the benefits of journaling, even for only 10 minutes per day.  It can help you (1) celebrate small wins, (2) plan your next steps, (3) foster personal growth by spotting patterns, and (4) cultivate patience and perseverance as you’re reminded that you have overcome difficult circumstances before.  For those who feel resistant to the idea of journaling, however, here are a few alternate ways to make sure you don’t lose track of your successes:

  1. Create a folder in Outlook or another email program into which you drag all emails with complimentary language about you.
  2. Open a word processing file to capture quotations and dates of verbal compliments you receive, especially about your work.
  3. Purchase a notebook with pockets in which to write down compliments and achievements.  Paste in copies of any letters, emails, article clippings or other written evidence of your achievements, or put them in the pockets.
  4. Scan any documents that evidence your accomplishment and save them in the same folder as your word processing file of complimentary quotes.
  5. Flag your time records, calendar and social media postings for the dates of meaningful events in your work, such as closings, trials, your first jury argument, a particularly effective negotiation, being selected to run an important deal, bringing in a new client, etc.
  6. Save thank you notes and positive letters in a redweld folder or a shoe box.
  7. Save digital copies of heart-warming and ego-boosting voicemails you receive.
  8. Use an online/smartphone app like Evernote or IDoneThis to record and celebrate what you got done today.

Choose any combination of the above methods that you find comfortable. Ideally you’ll create a method that keeps everything in one place for easier review. As long as you are consistent, however, even a hodgepodge system will work.

Review Your Captured Wins Periodically

Make it a point to peruse your captured wins now and then. You can scan previous entries whenever you add a new one, for example. Of course, the end of the year is a good time to inspect your collection, but you might benefit from a more frequent examination in order to take optimal advantage of any patterns that emerge.

To quote Amabile, “Small wins can accumulate to big breakthroughs, but unless you occasionally look back at where you’ve been, it can be hard to see where you’re going.” For help in looking back over this year and setting goals for next year, download our free Year End Evaluation & Goal Setting form (PDF).

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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