by Joel A. Rose

Administrators in the more progressive and better-managed law firms play a critical role in planning and conducting firm retreats.

The law firm retreat provides an opportunity for attorneys to meet for a reasonably lengthy and uninterrupted period of time, at a location away from the office and the pressures of business.  Some firms use the opportunity to inform attorneys about developments and trends in areas of practice, while others devote the time to specific problems.  Overall, the retreat enables attorneys to become better informed about the firm’s policies and operations, and to develop a closer relationship with one another.  With proper planning, guidance and establishment of ground rules, the legal administrator can play a pivotal role in securing the framework for the retreat to insure that the firm’s objectives are met.  Two crucial areas of pre-retreat activity include selection of planners and discussion topics.

The success of a retreat is directly related to the amount of time devoted to planning the function and obtaining the cooperation of all the attorneys.  Selection of the retreat planners should be made by the firm’s executive committee.  Smaller firms frequently assign the planning function to one or more partners.  Mid-size and larger firms usually designate a committee of partners to be assisted by the office administrator.  Outside consultants may be helpful to firms that are considering topics such as organization, profit distribution, strategic planning, business development and the like.

Generally, the senior or more influential partners (representing different age levels and practice areas) may be selected to coordinate and serve as discussion leaders for specific topics during the retreat.  They should be selected for leadership and communications skills, knowledge and insight about the firm, understanding and objectivity, and their ability to generate and control discussions on specific topics.

The administrator should plan to attend all of the sessions held during the retreat particiularly those concerned with finance, personnel, systems and future planning.  If the administrator has been actively engaged at the onset of the planning process, he or she is instrumental in assuring that the discussion adheres to the published agenda, recommending well-conceived programs or solutions to problems, or providing information and/or responding to questions.

As a source of financial and management information about the firm and its operating problems, the administrator has an important role in recommending topics to be discussed at the retreat.  The administrator should review the firm’s financial, administrative and personnel operations on a step-by-step basis, prior to the retreat, and by analyzing this information, suggest suitable topics.  The partners should be provided with firm financial data that includes balance sheets, income and expense statements, attorney-time summaries, unbilled inventory for time and costs, aging of accounts receivable, fees billed and received, and any other relevant information.  The administrator should also provide the partners with comparative information about the firm – from one year to the next – on such issues as growth or contraction of areas of practice, increase or decrease in revenue and expenses, lawyer and nonlawyer personnel ratios, equipment acquisitions, space requirements and business development.

The administrator can and should play an important role by preparing pro forma financial statements showing the impact of proposed activities on the income and cash flow statements and balance sheet of the firm.  The administrator can be helpful in explaining these reports to the partners, prior to the meeting, to enable them to be prepared and better able to enter the discussions during the retreat.

The administrator should have a role in surveying partners for suggestions and recommendations on subjects to be discussed.  This can be accomplished through questionnaires and/or personal visits.  The administrator should also elicit suggestions for retreat discussion from the supervisory staff to determine which administrative aspects of firm management require attention.

After selection of the subjects, planners should draft a proposed agenda that will include dates and times for the meeting, location, recommended retreat leaders and attendees.  As part of the planning functions, the administrator should circulate the agenda and followup by meeting with partners to clarify ambiguous subjects and elicit additional suggestions for discussion.  In establishing the timetable for the agenda, the administrator should include lead questions that may be appropriate for each topic.  For example, if the discussion will include methods of improving firm revenue, suggested questions may include:  “Should hourly rates be increased or remain the same?”  Should a minimum number of fee producing hours be established for partners, associates, or legal assistants?”  “What methods should be introduced to reduce accounts receivable and the inventory of unbilled time and costs?”

After discussing possible sites with other retreat planners, the administrator should recommend the most suitable location for the retreat.  Considerations include the objectives to be achieved, the location of the law office(s), the number of participants attending the retreat, whether spouses and guests will be attending along with the attorneys, and the costs to make this determination.

Unless the retreat planners have recent experience with the proposed site, the administrator (and perhaps a committee of the retreat planners) should visit the facility to obtain first-hand knowledge about the current accommodations, food, meeting rooms and other facilities.  A hotel visited years ago may not be as pleasant as remembered.  It is well worth the time and effort to visit the facility.  The administrator should arrive at the retreat site early to review all of the details and the timetable for meetings, coffee breaks, food, recreational functions, etc., and should make it a point to know where the meeting rooms and other facilities are located.

It is equally important to review all details concerning programs for spouses or guests who may be attending the retreat.  The administrator should insure that the guest program adheres to schedule and that personnel assigned to coordinate the program are capable of handling problems that may arise.  If a sightseeing tour is scheduled, the administator should make certain that spouses and guests are provided with appropriate information concerning the activity.

If prepared material has been distributed to the partners prior to the retreat, the administrator should make sure that additional copies of the materials are available.  Also, it is always a good idea for the administrator to be alert to items mentioned and suggestions made, to be followed up on during the retreat or back at the office.

The administrator should publish the minutes or policy decisions agreed upon at the retreat in a timely manner, follow up with a timetable, and implement the policy decisions that are made.

By utilizing the recomemndations described above, the retreat can be an excellent showcase for a concientious and professional administrator.

©1999-2017 Joel A. Rose & Associates