The Law Firm Retreat: Not Just Rest and Relaxation

by Joel A. Rose

A law firm retreat can serve as a practical management tool to accomplish many purposes.

A crisis situation, for example, often dictates the need for a retreat. Or, if a firm's net profits are down, the objectives of the retreat might be to examine why this is happening and what to do about it.

And another approach is to utilize retreats to review trends and developments in major practice areas and discuss what should be done to take advantage of potential growth areas, or to replace work that has been lost.

Lawyer management frequently utilizes this forum as an opportunity to consider strategic plans, but a retreat may also be used to improve communications and provide the lawyers — partners only or partners and associates — with an opportunity to develop better and more personal relationships with each other.

Whatever the goal, the successful outcome of a retreat will depend on the effort expended in planning it.

A smaller firm may assign the planning function to one or more partners. Larger ones usually designate a committee of partners, assisted by the office administrator. A firm should also determine whether the use of an outside consultant to serve as a facilitator is desirable. The consultant can also assist in gathering and analyzing firm financial data, management information, provide background on subjects and raise questions to stimulate discussion.

Determining the Agenda:

The agenda should be based upon the firm's priorities and objectives. To develop an agenda, the retreat planners should determine reasons for holding the meeting and identify various issues.

This can be a time-consuming process. However, as consultants to the legal profession, we can attest that this process is a particularly effective method of drawing all of the partners into the planning process. During discussions with the planners or through the use of survey questionnaires, attorneys are requested to identify general firm goals, suggest steps the firm might take to influence its future, discuss professional objectives, assess the firm's environment and discuss any complaints or concerns.

We have found that a survey process is an effective method of obtaining partners' views. The survey may be designed to uncover methods of designing and implementing firm policy, the present form of governance, partner/associate relationships, firm economics, practice management, marketing and development.

Surveying the partners through personal interviews or questionnaires is important in establishing firm management's commitment to include attorneys in the overall planning process. We have discovered that responses to personal interviews and questionnaires may reveal ground-in comments between partners that were unapparent before the retreat planning process. The following points are typical as reasons for having a retreat:

• To establish open and honest communications between partners and between partners and associates.

• To build unity and improve morale.

• To reach consensus on an organizational structure for administration and management of substantive departments.

• To identify common goals and develop plans for their accomplishments.

• To consider approaches to improve profitability.

Once the issues raised by the partners are reviewed, the planners should have adequate information to use in developing an agenda for the retreat.

As noted on the accompanying illustrative agenda, conceptual issues are addressed before a discussion of specific approaches for achieving results.

Home or Away?

The number of attorneys involved and the nature of the work to be accomplished should determine the duration and location of the retreat.

The retreat should be conducted at a facility away from the office. A resort with conference and recreational facilities will provide the attendees with an opportunity to interact on both business and social levels. A downtown or suburban hotel may also serve as an appropriate retreat site.

Retreats may be attended by partners only or by partners and associates. Some firms plan retreats to include associates and may schedule separate, as well as combined, meetings to address issues of common interest. Some firms invite spouses and guests of the attorneys. The objectives and location of the retreat will determine the invitees and guests.

After the subjects are selected, a detailed agenda should be prepared that includes dates, times, location, retreat leaders and participants.

Information about the objectives and scope of the retreat should be disseminated to those who will be attending the retreat. A workbook and agenda should be published and distributed to attorneys at least one weekend prior to the retreat. This will give the attendees adequate time to review it and become familiar with the scheduled issues.

The content of the workbook will vary depending upon the subjects and attendees. For partners, the workbook should include the overall agenda and discussion outlines on each of the selected topics, the firm's financial data and analysis, survey results and other pertinent data.

The workbook distributed to associates should include the agenda and discussion outlines on appropriate topics only.

In Need of a Leader:

The retreat leaders should be selected on the basis of leadership, communication skills, knowledge, insight into the firm, understanding, objectivity and ability to generate and control discussions on specific topics.

In many firms, the managing partner or chair of the management committee, will serve as a retreat leader. However, other partners and/or outside consultants may be selected to serve as leaders. Choosing an outside consultant to serve as a retreat facilitator may motivate attorneys to participate and to take the retreat more seriously than if one of the firm's partners served as the leader.

The decision about the individuals to serve as retreat leaders should be based upon the objectives of the retreat and the capabilities of these individuals. The retreat leaders must be capable of stimulating and controlling the discussions.

If the retreat topics include sensitive issues, the leaders may wish to announce ground rules that set forth methods for dealing with these subjects in a manner that fosters diplomacy. In conducting retreats, the leaders must be sure that no personal agenda of attendees will be permitted to override the nature of the discussions.

The main rule of the entire session should be based upon the propositions that the retreat should be a positive experience; any comment or criticism with a negative shading must be balanced by a suggestion for improvement; and issues should be addressed rather than personalities of individuals, although it is frequently difficult to separate the two.

For larger firms, it is beneficial to organize the participants into workshops. Workshop discussion topics included in the retreat workbook address the firm's priorities. These assignments are made prior to the retreat.

In addition to pre-assigning the workshop groups, the planning committee selects a coordinator and a reporter for each workshop. The coordinator's role is to stimulate discussion, help the attorneys adhere to the topic and timetable and maintain general order.

A reporter is designated for each group and is charged with taking notes and recording the consensus reached by the attorneys on specific issues. At the conclusion of the workshops, the coordinator and reporter of each group present the findings of their respective groups. When conducting retreats for smaller firms, the partners are usually grouped together and the meeting is conducted as a round-table discussion.

Walking the Walk:

While summarizing recommendations, solutions and action plans, the leaders should establish timetables and assign partner responsibility and accountability for implementation of work to be performed.

The final phase of the retreat should emphasize implementation and follow-up.

The post-retreat activities will generally reveal the effectiveness of the retreat process. Retreat leaders, or other designated individuals, must oversee the implementation process to make certain that notes of the proceedings are prepared and to arrange for their publication and distribution. Leaders should also establish procedures for follow-up by designated individuals and committees.

The leaders should set a timetable for reporting on preparation and implementation of action plans and appraisal of results. The extent to which the partners are willing and able to implement policies and programs agreed upon at the retreat will determine their level of commitment to the firm for the future.

Below is an illustrative retreat agenda:


9:00 a.m. to Noon    Setting Firm Objectives Over the Next Three Years:

• What are the most promising opportunities for developing further work from existing clients and new work from potential clients in your area? Other geographic locations?

• How should the firm position itself to take advantage of these opportunities? Who should be responsible for managing this process?

• Considering the current practice areas, which are most likely to fall-off in demand over the next three to five years? What should the firm do to replace this work?

• Which practice areas are most likely to flourish? What should the firm do to take advantage of these opportunities?

• Should our firm consider establishing new offices? Where? Should it risk the cost of such offices? Should these offices be self-sustaining from the start?

• What type of policy should prevail with respect to the ratio of associates to partners?

• What should be the criteria for elevating associates to partner status?

• Should associates advance to partner without regard to the ratio? Should a second-tier partner category be established?

Noon to 1:00 p.m.   Working Lunch

1:00 to 3:00 p.m.     Role, Authority and Accountability of Partners in Firm Governance and Administration

• How well satisfied are we with the present form of governance?

• What specifically should be the role and authority of the management committee, managing partner and other committees?

• How would you evaluate the effectiveness of communications among and between the management committee, the managing partner and other committees, and the management committee and other partners?

• How can communications be improved?

3:00 to 5:00 p.m.     Practice Management

• What should be the role and authority of each section head, originating attorney and who is the attorney responsible for performing the work?

• What should be done to improve the synergism between practice sections?


9:00 a.m. to Noon   Partner Compensation

• How should each partner's total contribution to the firm be determined and evaluated?

• What are the objective criteria to be considered by the compensation committee?

• What are the qualitative criteria to be considered by the compensation committee?

• How should under performance be treated? Should the individual be confronted? By whom?

• How should explanations for compensation decisions be communicated to the individual partner?

Noon to 12:30 p.m.  Concluding Comments

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