Using Reflection to Create a Personal Development Plan

There is one thing that can be said for lawyers at every stage of their career and that is we love a plan. Whilst we are trained to plan our work and our workload, once we qualify, we tend to get lost in the business of being a lawyer. Professional development is a continuous process and one which the SRA now identifies as highly individual. If you fail to nurture your career by continuously building upon your skills and knowledge, your professional growth and career progression will slow. It is an investment in time to sit down now and plan your career. Everyone should have a personal development plan. This applies to fee earners at every stage of their career. So, what is a personal development plan, and how will it help your career?

What is a personal development plan (PDP)?

A PDP is a written action plan of improvement. Following self-reflection, you identify your career goals and objectives and apply SWOT analysis assessing your strengths and weaknesses to determine your training and development needs. You are then able to plan your development in accordance with your self-identified needs. By considering your short and/or long-term goals, you can plan how to achieve them. A PDP can be useful when considering career progression, career change or creating a new enterprise yourself. By creating a PDP, you focus your mind on what you want to achieve, what steps you need to be able to achieve it, and most importantly, how you will take those steps.

How to create a PDP

Every PDP is different and will depend on your own circumstances, but to help you get started, let’s look at the process.

Step 1: Reflection

Solicitors often baulk at the suggestion that they engage in reflection. By ‘reflection’ here we refer to the deep consideration of what it is you want and why you want it. Where do you see your career now and in the future, what makes you happy and self-fulfilled and what do you need to change about how you see things or do things. Engaging in reflection requires that you set aside a bit of time and really think about your strengths and weaknesses. Now is also the time to consider what you are afraid of, what obstacles do you think will prevent you from achieving your goals? Some of these may be genuine issues, but you may find that when you really think of them, its just fear (false evidence appearing real). Of course, some obstacles like a lack of time are easily overcome with a bit of (personal development) planning. Reflection is a time to be really honest with yourself.

Step 2: SWOT Analysis

For each goal you identify, you should make a list of your strengths and weaknesses. What skills do you have to support your goal and what skills, training, or qualifications do you need? Again, reflection here needs to be honest. If your goal is to be a partner in two years, but you have never handled your own caseload, you may be aiming too high, too quickly. A thorough assessment of what is needed and your current capabilities will enable you to create a plan to turn those weaknesses into strengths.

Step 3: Action Plan

Once you have identified your weaknesses, you can then start to consider what actions you need to take. Some of the action plans may be obvious, but others can involve skills (rather than, say, qualifications) and you may need to do some research as to what skills you need, and then plan how you will acquire those skills. Let’s take the example above again. Instead of aiming to become a partner within two years, on reflection, you wish to aim for a promotion to associate. You need to determine what skills are essential. First, you need to manage a caseload, and your action plan may be to ask for one or two cases to start. You may need to develop the skill to bring new work in, and this may involve networking, blogging, posting in social media or finding opportunities to give presentations. Acquiring these skills will involve steps, and your PDP will lay out those steps. For example, if you plan to post on social media, do you have accounts on relevant platforms, your ‘handle’ or user name, determining what types of posts you will create and how often and, of course, reviewing your firm's social media policy. Each sub-task may itself have several aspects and how detailed you make this plan is up to you.

Each task should have a timeframe in which it will be accomplished. Having a target will help track your progress and ensure your PDP is a living and adaptable plan. The idea of a PDP is that it is a flexible tool, and it should change. As you acquire new skills and qualifications, it may expose other areas of weakness that you had not been able to think about earlier in the process.

Step 4: Review

As the PDP is a living and growing reflection of your aims and objectives, it must be kept under review. This is for two main reasons. Firstly, by scheduling regular reviews ensures accountability. It is easy to fall into the habit of procrastination but reviewing completed actions against the initial timescales should keep you moving towards your goals. Secondly, engaging in a review of your goals and completed tasks helps avoid your PDP becoming the equivalent of a New Year’s resolution. By ‘completing’ tasks, you will have a sense of achievement. This will spur you on to make further plans. For future reflection and action planning, it is always a good idea to record the results or outcomes of your actions; what worked and why/why not and what could you have done/will do differently. This information can then feed forward to future plans.

What does a PDP look like?

The good thing about a PDP is that it is personal. You can write what you like. In fact, you can design your plan however it suits you. I have seen plans presented as a mind map with different colours for different aspects. I have also seen plans presented as images, not too dissimilar to a vision board. The most inventive plan I have ever seen was a road map; a literal road map to partnership, with the various stages presented as driving directions with some ingenious dead ends (the obstacles and fears). The PDP itself can be a wall chart, a Word or Excel document, a diary with the timescales entered as appointments and the tasks scheduled. A PDP is truly a personalised plan. Your plan, your style, recorded your way.

Benefits of PDPs

There are benefits other than the obvious and deliberate planning of your development. When you look back at older versions of the plan, you will be able to track your progress and professional development. You can use this information to engage in a deeper reflection when assessing and re-assessing your learning, training and development needs. You can also use a version of your PDP to demonstrate your commitment to third parties, such your employer, e.g. in salary reviews and when pitching for more responsibility, a promotion or even if pitching for funding for formal qualifications.

So, what are you waiting for?

Bernadette McDonald MBA LLB is a PhD researcher in legal education, sessional lecturer, practising solicitor and law firm manager.

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