Planning a Law Firm Retreat: Part II

Print PDF

By Gerry Riskin | Apr 12, 2014

Expanded Annual Meeting

Many firm’s partnership agreements require an annual meeting for the election of member of management, selection of new partners, approval of compensation and other similar issues. These are important issues, not only because they concern day-to-day operating concerns but because they go to the fabric of what it means to be a partnership and the concept of being the owner of a business.

A retreat, of course, presents a convenient time to hold the annual meeting. Partners are assembled in one place, it emphases the business nature of the retreat and, some would suggest, conducting an annual meeting at the retreat legitimizes the event as a tax deductible expense. The issue of legitimacy extends beyond tax questions. Annually meetings are important events in the governance structure of all businesses. Combining them with a retreat brings a serious functionality to a retreat and provides an additional reason for partners to attend.

There can be some downsides to including the annual meeting at the retreat. Many partnership agreements dictate either specifically or in general the time of year during which the annual meeting is held. This may or may not be a good date for partners to attend or timing for the other issues to be discussed at the retreat.

The schedule of the business meeting during the retreat can also be an issue. Business meetings scheduled at the beginning of a retreat can be open ended. Discussions can expand to fill the time available and we know one firm where discussions of a controversial pension amendment scheduled for less than an hour, took up the entire three day retreat. Conversely, business meetings scheduled at the end of a retreat can result in knee-jerk decision about important issues discussed during the retreat.

On balance, if the timing of the retreat coincides with a partnership business, holding a business meeting at retreat makes sense but the ground rules should be laid that the meeting will last a maximum of a certain amount of time and if, at the end of that time, the matter is not resolved, the business meeting will be adjourned until a specific date after the retreat is over.

Internal Educational Retreats

For many firms a primary retreat objective is to convey information within the partnership. The scope of this form of retreat can be very broad. The information may involve making sure partners are aware of what various practice groups do or the latest industry groups that have been created. Topics may involve insights into the firms culture and values or the personality and motivations of individual partners. Programs could even take on the form of continuing legal educations or the teaching of skills not directly tied to the law but involved in legal practice.

Practice Information

As many firms focus their marketing efforts on cross selling, knowledge about the firm’s capabilities become critical. This extends beyond basic practice information to the special skills of individual partners and even their industry or client contacts that could be of value to the entire firm.

To provide practice information some firms carve out brief sessions in the program for practice group leaders to discuss what their group does and is capable of doing. The key to these sessions is highly little known information about the practice rather than to be all inclusive. It would come as no surprise to a room full of partners that their litigation department tries complex commercial and other civil cases. But, it could be valuable for them to know that the firm has been involved in more machine tool product liability cases than virtually any other law firm. It is equally important that these sessions be very brief (five to ten minutes maximum) and spaced throughout the retreat. The simple rule is that if the partners are bored, they won’t pay attention, and if they don’t pay attention there is no sense in wasting time with the presentations.

Another way to convey practice information is through practice group fairs. Schedule for an hour during the retreat, a particular department of the firm has a series of tables with displays of their available brochures, newsletters, articles and other marketing materials. The booths are manned by member of each practice group within the department. This allows partners in other departments to wander the fair and understand what the strength of the firm is in each area. The best fairs have a large number of booths on highly specialized areas of practice which may fall within practice groups. It is not necessary that booths only be for established practice groups and this is a great method for making the firm aware of a capability in a hot emerging area of practice.

It is also possible that their can be a mixture of booths. One very large firm devoted a portion of a retreat to the litigation practice and, in addition to the practice group booths, asked several outside companies to bring displays on imaging services, animated court room exhibits and forensic accounting.

Both the presentations and the fair can be adapted for use with industry groups.

Skills Training

One of the most popular retreat topics continues to be how to sessions on a variety of skills. The advantage of using a portion of the retreat for training is that it allows the firm to have virtually all of its partners receive precisely the same training, free of day-to-day practice distractions.

While there are a variety of training possibilities, by far the most popular is marketing, specifically sales and cross selling. For some lawyers the necessity of these skills is viewed as being demeaning to the profession. Others are shy or embarrassed at their need for the skills. Presenting the training to an entire practice group or the entire firm often increases individual attorney participation and receptiveness to training.

Another area of skills training that some firms have used retreats for is computer skills. Most conclude, however, that the expense of shipping equipment and setting up training facilities off site exceeds to benefits of the training.

Culture and Value

A common area of concern in many firms is the importance of understanding and maintaining the law firm’s culture. Culture is the defining feature of most law firms and, not surprising, lawyers are eager to talk about cultural issues. This is especially true in law firms that have experienced recent growth or participated in a merger.

Typically the cultural segment of a retreat involves the use of a cultural inventory in which partners participate in prior to the retreat by logging into a special web site and answering a brief questionnaire. The results describe the firm’s culture and the anticipated manifestations of that culture in the way the firm operates. The results can be stratified in a variety of ways including by office, practice group, seniority, partners vs. associates and gender. The combination of cultural detail is presented to the partners. They can then, through the use of facilitated sessions and breakout groups, determine the aspects of their culture deemed to be important and the actions the firm can take to maintain the culture and inculcate it in new lawyers and laterals. At the same time the partnership may observe aspect of the culture that are not desirable and may want to consider ways of downplaying or changing that aspect of the culture.

While culture may sound touchy-feely to some partners, there is a significant body of research showing a direct tie between aspects of a firm’s culture and profitability. In a retreat setting, this tie permits a discussion of profitability issues in the context of the firm’s culture.

Core Values have always been an important issue to law firms but, since the Enron and WorldCom scandals, value systems have been an important retreat topic. Values are somewhat a self fulfilling prophecy and they values of a firm tend to become what the firm announces it values. Accordingly, the actions of partners and employees tend to follow the stated values of the firm. There are number of values exercises that stimulate thought and discussion and permit a firm to develop a strong understanding and statement of its values in a relatively short period of time at a retreat.

It is also possible to combine cultural and core value issues with an understanding of individual partner traits through the use of psychological tools such as Meyers Briggs. Individual assessment tool are a marvelous way to inculcate lateral attorneys or develop a better understanding among recent merger partners.

Inter-firm Relationship Building

For many firms, the most valuable feature of a retreat is the opportunity to have partners from various offices and practice groups get to know one another. This occurs naturally when you get a group of people together but there are techniques that can enhance the speed and depth of relationship building.

Breakout Group

It is one thing to know a partner as a person – who his spouse and children are, what avocations he or she pursues. While this information is important, having the opportunity to know the person as a lawyer is extremely valuable in functionally getting lawyers to work together across office and practice lines. One extraordinary way to do this is through the use of practice groups. Regardless of the of the group and its function, participating in a breakout group permits members to observe each other and work together in ways that would not have been possible in the normal practice of law or may have taken years to occur. The management of breakout group assignments is, therefore, important and retreat planners should be almost Machiavellian in their design.

Recreational Activities

Recreational activities can be excellent for developing acquaintanceships and even friendships but have some limitations. Almost every law firm retreat involves some element of golf. Spending four hours together with someone in a golf cart can create a relatively high degree of intimacy, particularly in that golf can tend to bring out the worst in some people. But while the depth of the relationship building may be good, it is limited to the person in your cart or perhaps your foursome. Tennis can be even worse. Many firms find that unusually activities such as fishing excursions, hot air balloon rides or even nature hikes can create equally valuable relationship with a larger number of people for the same investment of time. At issue is the desire to create relationships among the most people (six to eight seems to be the effective maximum) with the greatest depth (a golfer will probably remember little about the round at last years retreat but will always remember who they white water rafted with).

Team building is a popular concept in recreational activities at retreats. A number of firms have created scavenger hunt teams with each team getting a different colored firm tee shirt. Other firms have used an Olympics theme with different strange events. These events work well for extraverts. They are introverts worst nightmare.

There is a gender difference in building relationships. Many firms find that late night card games do as much to build relationships as virtually any other activity.

Social Activities

Social settings such as meals and cocktail parties are valuable if the interaction is forced. People have a tendency to gravitate to people they know. Some firms use assigned seats at meals to mix people up. Some large firms who use name tags at the retreat make each office or practice area be a different color and encourage rainbow tables. There are, of course, a host of ice breakers that can be used at cocktail gatherings.

Mixed Purpose Retreats

Depending on the length of a retreat, it is sometimes advantageous to combine several objectives in a single retreat. This is especially true for firms having experienced several previous retreats or where there is not a driving issues or question to be resolved.

Multiple objective retreats are engaging because they meet the needs of a wider variety of partners. A partner who would not show up for a three day retreat devoted exclusively to strategic planning will come if there is also marketing training, an important vote at a business meeting and an opportunity to play golf.

The downside is the risk that too many objectives can cause a loss of focus and intensity. If every issue is deemed to have been handled superficially because there is not enough time, the partners will be as dissatisfied as if they were bored with a single issue.

A good way of planning a mixed objective retreat is to select the most important objective in holding the retreat, determine the total number of hours available at the retreat, and designate the number of hours for each objective as one would allocate assets in an investment portfolio. A common allocation is one-third Consensus Building, one-third Education and one-third Relationship Building.

Special Issues

There are some special issues involved in law firm retreats that are worthy of consideration.

Facilitation

The quality of the facilitation will make or break the retreat. Facilitation is a skill that takes training and experience and facilitation of lawyers is an art unto itself. It is almost impossible for someone from within the organization to successfully facilitate a retreat. A good facilitator must be able to do three things:

  1. Control the group in a way that permits everyone to participate, does not allow any individual to dominate the discussion and summarize comments so the process is constantly moving forward;
  2. Bring knowledge to the proceedings by being able to serve as an immediate source of expertise, e.g., when a partner makes a claim about what other firms do the facilitator must be able to speak with credibility about what, in fact, is going on in the legal marketplace; and
  3. Guide the discussion to make sure the group does not become side tracked or miss important areas completely.

A good law firm retreat facilitator is knowledgeable about the legal industry, is experienced in facilitating a significant number of law firm retreats, is articulate and has a good sense of humor and is someone who will get along well with your partners.

Speakers

In a mixed objective retreat, speakers can be an excellent addition to the program. Authors of pertinent business books, motivational speakers, consultants, celebrities and a variety of other speakers can add interest to the retreat. If they are a published author, it is also possible to order discount quantities of their book as a giveaway to the partners.

Too many speakers, each speaking for a relatively short time can give a fragmented appearance to the retreat. It is also expensive since, with travel, each speaker ends up charging for virtually a whole day even if they only speak for an hour. Another concern is that people have a limited attention span. Listening to a podium speech of an excellent speaker that lasts more than half an hour is difficult (an average church sermon is 20 minutes). Before booking a speaker, consider the audience, their attention span and to what they react well. A morning long interactive session that involves a lot of audience participation may be more enjoyable than an hour long speech.

Partner vs. All Attorney Retreats

As issues of associate retention become increasingly important, a number of firms are moving toward inviting all attorneys to, at least, a portion of the retreat. Inviting associates is a function of two issues:

1. The purpose of the retreat. If the purpose of the retreat is to build consensus or establish a strategic direction, it is probably best to have only partners. But, if the primary purpose is education and relationship-building, having all associates or just senior associates is a nice gesture.

2. The size of the firm and the retreat budget. For a firm with more than 500 attorneys, it is almost logistically impossible to have an all attorney retreat and the cost of bring attorneys in from a widely dispersed firm can be prohibitive.

There is also the risk of not being able to get the genie back into the bottle. As nice a gesture as having all attorneys may be, once the firm stages an all attorney retreat, it is extremely difficult to go back to an all partner retreat, should that be desired.

Spouses

The number one controversy is whether spouse should be invited to a law firm retreat. Proponents cite the advantages of using spouses to build a bond between them and the firm through their friendship with other attorneys’ spouses. Such friendships could be supportive in keeping an attorney who might otherwise consider changing firms. The disadvantage of spouses is that it removes focus from the retreat. Partners must pay attention to their spouses. The effect is to reduce the amount of relationship-building time available. Of course, like associates, bringing spouses represents a genie that is hard to get back in the bottle.

If the purpose of the retreat is primarily social, bringing spouses is great. If the primary purpose is business, leave spouses at home.

Conclusion

Retreats can be an important and powerful tool for law firm leaders and managers. The keys to their success are clearly defined objectives, a skilled facilitator and a great deal of advanced planning.