HR Feature Human Resources Management

5 Ways to Guide Career Development Plans for Associates

These tips can help set your associates up for success. 

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I’ll spend the first four sharpening the ax.” In line with this familiar quip, it’s no surprise that planning and preparation are an essential aspect of career development. 

Drew Amoroso

Nonetheless, many law firms overlook the power of investing in career development planning, and many associates massively underestimate the power of a well-crafted, well-executed plan.

The primary challenge with development plans is teaching associates how to build them in a way that is meaningful, incremental and accessible — and then how to put them into action. 

Below are four key concepts to consider including as part of your career development planning. 


Every great development plan should begin with identifying a “why.” The why is your reason, your cause, your purpose, your motivation for investing time and energy into pursuing a development path in the first place. 

In other words, if we want associates to truly and consistently engage in development, we should encourage them to consider the why behind their plan first. 

The why could be any number of things: to move closer to promotion or partnership, the intellectual stimulation that comes with developing a new skill set, the satisfaction that comes from representing a certain type of client, financial gain or any other number of motivations that are unique to each associate. 

Understanding and keeping your motivation top of mind is key to making long-lasting, impactful changes. A strong why encourages you to stay excited about pursuing new opportunities and helps push through obstacles that you’ll inevitably encounter as you start to make changes. 

Try this: As your associates develop their plans, begin by walking them through a simple exercise that invites them to consider and write out the why behind their plan. If you’re looking for a place to start, Simon Sinek is an author and motivational speaker who has written extensively on the topic and has a number of resources you can consult to develop a simple why exercise.


When crafting an outline of the plan, remember to keep it simple and accessible. Many development plans try to do too much by requiring the associate to look too far into the future or create an elaborate set of multitiered goals and action steps.

Asking an associate to craft this type of plan, particularly early on their career, can be confusing and discouraging if the associate is at a place in their career where the answers to these questions are unclear. 

A well-designed plan is one that allows the associate to have an intentional path forward but that also allows for natural shifts that come with the passing of time and more experience. 

Try to keep the plans simple and to the point — a succinct, simple plan encourages action and makes it more likely that the associate will engage with and refer to the plan more often. 

Try this: Use a model that encourages associates to keep the plan to one page. It’s valuable to have additional pages that include ideas and other aspirational goals, but reducing the specific, actionable part of the plan to a single page will make the plan more accessible. 


Development plans should be driven by the expectations the firm has of the associate as well as the associate’s vision for their unique path forward. 

“The most effective associate development plans are both strategic and flexible,” says Lena Kravets Capehart, a Training and Development Manager at Ballard Spahr LLP. “Associate development plans should be tied to the strategic goals and plans of the firm. They also should be strategically tied to the associate’s own career goals.”

As such, part of the plan development process should be educating the associates on the specific expectations the firm has regarding the associate’s progress. This includes things like practice skills, citizenship, leadership, client development or other competencies. 

Importantly, invite senior attorneys to explain their career trajectory. One of the most challenging parts of crafting a development plan is the uncertainty around what to expect as your career unfolds. Hearing how the paths of other attorneys at the firm have been a unique mix of planning and flexibility will provide some clarity and generate ideas.

“Administrators, partners and mentors can help expose associates to a wide variety of career paths,” says Capehart. “This helps associates understand that there are many ways to define and achieve success. They can also help associates understand the big-picture strategy of their law firm and how the associate’s practice fits into that strategy. Helping associates see the big pictures goes a long way in increasing engagement both in the firm and in their own personal career development.”

Try this: Provide several sample plans that your associates can use as a starting point. Encourage them to be creative and take ownership for the development process.


Of course, a development plan is only effective if it results in action. Given the nature of a busy associate practice, encourage associates to include incremental action steps in their plan. 

A list of action steps will provide smaller “entry points” that will encourage consistent participation and prevent goals from seeming unattainable. For example, if the associate’s goal is to take her first deposition within the next 90 days, then a list of action steps might include:

  • Expressing to the partners they work with that she wants to take a deposition, and asking them to keep her in mind for an opportunity
  • Shadowing two depositions
  • Spending one hour watching/reading a Practicing Law Institute (PLI) course on depositions

Try this: Build incremental action steps into the development plan’s framework and give examples of how to include a list of tiny actions that will help the associate move incrementally toward a larger goal. 


Finally, consider what kind of accountability mechanisms you can establish to help keep associates engaged. Accountability mechanisms could include:

  • Quarterly working-lunch meetings led by senior associates or partners that are designed for working on/reviewing development plans
  • Scheduled meetings with partner mentors
  • Pairing with peers who are responsible for checking in with one another

“Ultimately, development plans are only as effective as the execution of the plan,” says Capehart. “Many plans end up forgotten in a folder somewhere. Associates should revisit their plans regularly and revise as necessary. Even something as simple as calendaring a personal check-in for yourself at regular intervals, with the written plan attached to the calendar appointment, can be a great help.”

Whatever accountability mechanisms you choose to promote, make sure they encourage a strategic review of the plan every 90 days.

Working sessions or accountability check-ins don’t need to be more than 30 to 60 minutes. The point is to keep the goals top of mind and continue to apply light pressure with the goal of achieving incremental progress.

Try this: Within the plan, ask the associate to identify how they are going to remain accountable and provide firm-sponsored options that will promote consistent engagement.