PLANNING A RETREAT TO TACKLE A PROBLEMby Joel A. Rose
Roger Davis, a member of the management committee, had a feeling that his 33 attorney law firm was in trouble. Inadequate cash flow was a continuing problem. For the past two years, the firm failed to attain its revenue projections. The firm's principle banking client was acquired by a major bankholding company. As a result, several attorneys who served that client were not fully occupied with billable work. To motivate partners to work harder, a new production oriented bonus system was implemented. Partners who recorded 1,800 billable hours or more would automatically receive a special production bonus. As a result, attorneys were no longer interested in doing consequential non-billable work, i.e., management, business development, etc. in favor of billable work, so they would satisfy the 1,800 billable hour objective.
Because of the short fall in revenue and retained earnings, partners became more contentious. The camaraderie and collegiality among partners that prevailed when the firm was more profitable began to fade. Partners formed cliques. More closed door meetings were held. Attendance at monthly partnership meetings declined due to the confrontational atmosphere. The frustration level increased as partners argued about "administrative minutia" rather than addressing broader philosophical and policy issues.
Roger realized that something was needed to coalesce the partners into a unified firm. He recalled the comments of a partner in a slightly larger firm, about how a weekend retreat attended by partners only helped that firm "get its act together."
Roger was realistic enough to know that a one or two day retreat would not be the panacea for all of the firm's ills. However, he thought that a well planned and executed retreat would focus the partners' attention on the firm and methods of resolving its problems. He believed that the firm had a reasonably good chance to succeed if only the partners were willing to subordinate some of their independence for the benefit of the firm and acknowledge that their professional and economic well being was tied directly to the success of the firm.
Roger presented his idea to the executive committee who in turn recommended to the partners that the firm have a retreat.
A law firm retreat can serve as a practical management tool to accomplish many purposes. As in the above scenario, oftentimes, a crisis situation dictates the need for a retreat and its agenda. If the firm's net profits are down, then the objectives of the retreat might be to examine why this is happening and what to do about it. Some firms 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. 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.
Planning the Retreat
A smaller firm may assign the planning function to one or more partners. Larger firms 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 may be particularly beneficial in instances where a firm may wish to address such topics as firm governance, profit distribution, long-term strategic planning, marketing of legal services, etc. The consultant's experience can be utilized in recommending and sharing ideas and concepts that have been implemented with success in other firms. The consultant can also assist in gathering and analyzing firm financial data and management information and provide background on subjects and raise questions to stimulate discussion.
Determining the Agenda
The retreat agenda should be based upon the firm's priorities to be addressed and objectives to be achieved. To develop an agenda, the retreat planners should determine the reasons for having the meeting and identify issues to be addressed. Determining the agenda may 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 describe their current feelings and major complaints about the firm. We have found the survey process to be a particularly effective method of obtaining partners' views concerning the current methods for determining and implementing firm policy and the present form of governance. Other areas may include partner/associate relationships, firm economics, practice management, marketing and development. We believe that surveying the partners through personal interviews or questionnaires are important in establishing firm management's commitment to include attorneys in the overall planning process. In our experience, we have discovered that responses to personal interviews and questionnaires reveal that there is frequently more common ground-in comments between partners than may be apparent at the beginning of the retreat planning process. The following points are typical as reasons for having a retreat.
(1) To establish open and honest communications between partners and partners and associates; (2) to build unity and improve morale; (3) to reach consensus on an organizational structure for administration and management of substantive departments; (4) to identify common goals and develop plans for their accomplishments; (5) to consider approaches to improve profitability, etc.
Once the issues raised by the partners are reviewed, the planners should have adequate information to use in developing an agenda for the retreat. For example, the following is an example of an agenda for a day and a half retreat.
As noted on the illustrative agenda, conceptual issues are addressed before a discussion of specific approaches for achieving results.
The number of attorneys involved and the nature of the work to be accomplished should determine the duration, i.e., one day, a day and a half, or two or more days, 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 business as well as social levels. A downtown or suburban hotel may also serve as an appropriate retreat site.
Retreats may be attended by partners only or 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 (partners only, associates also, or spouses and guests along with attorneys).
Information about the objectives and scope of the retreat should be disseminated to those who will be attending the retreat. The retreat 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 the workbook and become familiar with the issues scheduled to be addressed at the retreat. 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.
The retreat leaders should be selected on the basis of their leadership and communication skills, knowledge and 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. During retreats, facilitated by the author, the main rule of the entire session should be based upon the propositions that (1) the retreat should be a positive experience, (2) any comment or criticism with a negative shading must be balanced by a suggestion for improvement, and (3) issues be addressed rather than personalities of individuals, although it is frequently difficult to separate the two.
When conducting retreats for larger firms, we have found it 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. The reporter in each group 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 for discussion. When conducting retreats for smaller firms, the partners are usually grouped together and the meeting is conducted as a round-table discussion.
Implementation of Results
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. The 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 to the partners (and appropriate notes to the associates) and to establish procedures for follow-up by individuals and committees designated with specific assignments. The leaders should set a timetable for reporting on the 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.