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Seven Great Ideas for a Partner Conference or Retreat

Seven Great Ideas for a Partner Conference or Retreat

It is now a number of decades (don’t ask how many!) since I first attended a law firm partner retreat as a newly minted partner.  Since that time, I have facilitated, led or spoken at many professional service firm retreats and conferences all over the world.  They seem to divide into seven basic areas of focus, although of course there may be more areas to consider or variations on the same theme.

When I first became a partner, my law firm  organised an annual weekend for partners and their families at a seaside hotel.  The event usually took place in September or October and was predominantly social, as the firm had several offices and saw the need for partners to get to know each other better.  Since then, I have organised or spoken at similar conferences where team bonding was the main objective.  Often such a retreat would have an external speaker but there would also be activities designed to help the firm glue together.  Naturally, there is a social element in every partner conference or retreat, but in firms where the aim is to build a one-firm mentality or to diminish silos (such as offices or practice groups practising semi-independently), it can be helpful to focus on relationship-building, one of the early benefits from which can be an increase in cross-selling. 

Focus Two – Horizon Scanning

Busy practitioners often become immersed in their client work, rarely lifting their eyes to what is happening in the world about them.  In contrast, it is part of the role of the Managing Partner and other senior leaders constantly to scan the horizon for the best opportunities, emerging trends and existential threats.  Hence, we often see retreats focused on horizon scanning as a main objective.  Sometimes, external speakers will make TED-type presentations on global trends, generative AI or other items both of possible advantage or risk. 

Focus Three – Establishing Strategic Intent. 

It is far from easy for any firm to devise a complete strategy in one weekend.   The establishment of an overall and shared strategic intent at a partner conference is a great starting point for the development of the central part of a firm’s strategy by agreeing an unmistakable sense of direction, identity and destiny for every person in the firm and by creating clear purposes and objectives which will drive the firm beyond its current limitations and constraints.  When considering future plans, firms tend to start by asking where they are now and where they want to get to without necessarily asking three preliminary and rather deeper questions “who are we?” (our identity as a firm), “why are we in business together?” (our career purpose) and “what is the strength and depth both of the partners’ combined ambition and the shared long-term view of the firm’s future?” (our vision).    If the firm’s high-level vision and strategic intent can be agreed at a partner conference than I have found it easier for firms then to move on to create a detailed plan that makes sense in the current environment and which will then generate enthusiasm about its implementation.  When the plan has been written and agreed, firms have often then held a further conference focussed on strategic implementation. 

Focus Four – Kick-Starting Strategic Implementation

There are many ways of implementing strategic execution and a partner conference or retreat is one of several options.  Prior to such a conference, my partners and I have worked with many firms to assist them with their strategic planning process over a period of weeks or months that then culminates in ana greed plan at which time the partner conference can be aimed to kick-start implementation.  If the firm has made the right choices from its strategic options, then successful implementation will involve a careful coordination and harnessing of the firm’s resources and capabilities. 

Law firm strategic plans can often be very internally focused, and therefore one of the first steps of the conference may be to separate the improvement issues from strategic issues. An improvement plan deals with the internal areas where the firm needs to develop and improve – performance, marketing, technology, morale, training and similar issues.  The strategic plan is then reserved for external issues related to the creation of new revenues, dealing with competitors, and establishing the firm’s differentiated position in the marketplace.

These conferences often divide into two parts.  The first part aims to focus the firm on confirming and detailing the prioritised strategic initiatives that have emerged from the detailed strategic plan.  I have found that a few of these – maybe just two or three – can deal with internal improvement issues, and a further two or three can deal with external strategic issues  — those issues that have the highest likelihood of successful completion and which have the greatest financial and strategic impact on the firm.

The second part of the conference should then result in action plans that include very specific accountabilities for leaders, practice groups, teams and individual partners, with timetables, metrics and mechanisms to assure that implementation occurs.

Focus Five – Business and Operational Planning

The context of an annual business planning retreat is to distinguish the longer-term Strategic Plan from the shorter term, action-orientated and highly measurable Business Plan.  The success of any strategy is determined by the effectiveness of its periodic business planning.  It will require a determined focus on the competitive environment.  What is more, the firm’s aspirations and strategic direction needs to be resolved into some consistent, straight forward and long-term goals.  This then is where business planning comes to the fore. Depending on the size of the Firm, I have found it useful to focus a business planning retreat on one or both of two levels.

First, the annual business plan for the Firm should work from the Strategic Implementation Plan discussed above. However, whilst the strategic plan and its accompanying implementation plan is usually for periods longer than one year, the business plan is annual and creates the budgets, resources and overall framework for moving the firm forward towards the successful achievement of the firm’s longer-term objectives.

Second, except in the smallest of firms, each department or practice group should have its own business plan which should follow an agreed format.  Hence a Business Planning retreat is often focussed on the business plans of each practice group or department, focussing particularly on business development.  Break-out time can then be spent in Practice Groups culminating in a plenary session where the business plan of each part of the firm is presented. 

Focus Six – Brainstorming

Creativity is somewhat unnatural for many professionals and so occasionally – particularly in situations where the firm is stagnating or somewhat stuck in the middle ground – it can be helpful to use the conference as an open forum to generate new ideas.  There is of course a multitude of different brainstorming techniques.  In one partner conference we successfully used Edward de Bono’s six thinking hats to disentangle normal thinking around some agreed decision needs and to sort ideas into six self-contained strands. Because the facilitator keeps the strands separate right from the beginning, these can then be weaved together in a more deliberate and systematic way. Another way of generating ideas is around scenario planning. This kind or retreat can be a useful prelude to a more detailed strategic planning process as it can find ways creativity to ask open questions like “What if there is a downturn?”, “What emerging or growing areas of opportunity are open to us?”, and even “Should we grow and if so how?”,

Focus Seven – Training Boot Camp

I have known firms that have identified general management shortcomings among their partners and senior associates.  As a result, I have led or spoken at partner conferences on several continents that have focused on developing key areas such as business development, client relationship management, financial performance, rewards, team building and leadership skills.  In one conference, building on my experience as Visiting Professor in leading the strategy modules at Nottingham University, I have even led a mini-MBA boot camp.  The general objective with such a boot camp is to equip the firm’s professionals with the full range of skills required to undertake their management and specialist roles. An action plan for every individual should result.

Summary and Imperatives

These seven ideas or areas of focus offer a choice for firms to consider, when planning a partner conference, retreat or workshop.  What is then important is for there to be absolute clarity over the expected outcomes.  Such outcomes often fall into one or more of three types. The most obvious of these are practical and learning outcomes such as the advancement of professional competencies, ensuring consensus on the key principles of the firm’s strategy, and agreement on next steps.  Second, and just as important come experiential outcomes such as a sense of regeneration, renewal and energy, institutional pride and a clear sense of belonging.  Finally, many firms also need in my experience to embrace mindset outcomes such as the progression from excellent technical practitioners to competent managers and then on to true leaders.  In this category I also see the need for growth from “local” to “global” mindsets and the preparedness and flexibility to move from resisting change to embracing it.

Nick Jarrett-Kerr

LL.B is a specialist adviser to law firms and professional services firms worldwide on issues of strategy, governance and leadership development as well as all-important business issues facing firms as they compete in difficult market conditions. In the last twelve years, he has established himself as one of the leading UK and international advisers to law firms. He has been involved full-time in professional service firm management for over twenty years.