by Joel A. Rose

Whatever the goal of a law firm retreat, it will not succeed unless adequate time and effort have gone into the planning process. In fact, a major portion of the work involved must be done before the retreat is actually held. The retreat should not be viewed as a panacea, but as a practical management tool that can be wielded in a variety of ways.

Retreat Objectives:
The structure, discussion format and duration of the retreat will invariably be determined by what the firm wants to achieve. For example, if there are new trends in major practice areas, then the meeting might entail a review of the firm's ability to take advantage of those potential growth areas. Some firms may use the retreat as a forum to present future goals and long-term strategic plans, approaches for transitioning clients from senior partners to others, etc. Often a crisis dictates the agenda, more than likely involving firm economics. If a firm's net profits are down, or the volume of profitable work is declining, then the objective of the retreat might be to examine the causes of the problems and what to do about it. The retreat may also be used to improve communications and provide the members of the firm with an opportunity to develop better and more personal relationships with one another.

Benefits notwithstanding potential drawbacks to a retreat also must be considered. The amount of time involved in planning and attending the retreat can reduce billable hours. Depending upon the size and geographical dispersion of the firm, the cost of a retreat may be substantial. If the retreat involves open discussions, some partners may object to the diffusion of firm decision-making. There is also the possibility that discussions on such topics as individual commitment or other personal philosophies will become volatile and fuel or exacerbate dissent.

Despite these and other potential mishaps, with proper planning, guidance, a strong retreat facilitator, and the establishment of ground rules, the benefits to be derived should outweigh the risks. Because the process is an effective method for the firm to identify objectives, appraise results and address various critical issues, considerable time and effort should be devoted to planning the retreat.

Selecting the Planners:
The retreat planners should be selected by the firm's management committee after considering the objectives of the retreat. A smaller firm may assign the planning function to one or two partners. Larger firms usually designate a committee of partners assisted by the office administrator. The retreat planning committee should consist of partners from the firm's major practice areas and branch offices - those who have key roles in the administrative and substantive management of the firm. By involving a diverse representation of partners in the planning process, lawyer management can reaffirm its credibility and establish a basis for consensus. In many instances this mixture of partners is politically expedient and ultimately critical to the success of the retreat. By drawing the various factors into the planning process at the initial stage, the firm begins to acknowledge the importance of issues that may be disrupting its unity.
At this juncture, the firm should determine whether the use of an outside consultant would be beneficial. If the firm's current method of governance is generally viewed as less than open and fair-minded, a consultant may indeed be essential. The consultant is particularly beneficial in instances where a firm may wish to address such topics as organization, profit distribution, or long-term strategic planning, approaches for retiring unfunded pension obligations, etc. The consultant can function as a leader, lecturer, adviser, facilitator, and resource on specific topics. He or she also can assist in the planning process, and in gathering and analyzing firm financial data and providing background on subjects for educational purposes.

Surveying Partners:
The next phase in planning involves interviewing/surveying by questionnaire the firm's management or executive committee and all or a representative number of the partners. The number of partners to be surveyed is frequently determined by the number of partners to be interviewed and the objectives of the retreat. The more sensitive the issues to be discussed, the more important that all of the partners be surveyed by interviews/questionnaire to obtain their perceptions about which subjects should be discussed during the retreat. Partners may be more willing to "open-up" and confide in an outside consultant than to discuss sensitive issues with another partner, especially if the former has a different opnion than the latter on proposed discussion issues.

Hence, maintaining the confidentiality of individual partners responses when conducting interviews/tabulating questionnaire results are a significant benefit to be inured as the result of retaining an outside law firm consultant.

While working with larger law firms, it has been especially beneficial to cross-tabulate and analyze the results of interviews/questionnaires by (1) ages of the partners, (2) whether the partners are lateral hires or have progressed through the firm's career development program, (3) primary practice area(s), (4) office location, etc. These results, when analyzed in relation to other partners' responses, usually provide valuable insights about the attitudes of partners.

Admittedly, the interview/questionnaire survey process is time consuming. But we have found it to be a particularly effective method of drawing all the partners into the planning process. Interestingly enough, we have discovered that responses to the questionnaires/ interviews reveal that there is more ground in common among firm members than may be apparent at the beginning of the retreat planning process.

Developing the Agenda:
Once the issues raised by the partners in the interview/questionnaire are reviewed against the proposals submitted by the planning committee, the planners should have adequate information to use in developing an agenda for the retreat. For example, discussion topics at recent retreat have included several of the following topics.

  1. Compensating partners for originating and retaining clients; nonbillable activities;

  2. Approaches for allocating business origination credit for client origination, inheriting clients, business development efforts (as opposed to bringing a client through the door), managing the firm and its practice areas, training of associates, etc.

  3. Planning the orderly succession of clients;

  4. Transitioning clients from the senior to other partners;

  5. Strategic planning for the next three to five years, including the feasibility of:

    1. Joining with a larger, peer size or acquiring a smaller firm, and/or groups of attorneys, or "growing on our own"; firm size; changing criteria for the progression of associates to partner status, etc;

    2. Approaches for enhancing profitability; and

    3. Comparing the firm's financial data with comparable law firms.

The format of the retreat should be determined by the retreat's primary objectives, the participants attending the various discussion topics, i.e., partners only, partners and associates, or a combination. We frequently suggest that the retreat be held at a facility away from the office. Such a facility usually offers participants with the opportunity to socialize to a greater extent than they otherwise would in the office, and to personalize relationships and gain greater appreciation of each other.

From a planning perspective, the agenda should: include dates, times, location(s), description of the meeting format(s) [i.e., meeting of the whole, workshops, or a combination], retreat discussion leaders, participants attending the discussion sessions [i.e., partners only, associates only, partners and associates, etc.].

Economic data and other background information pertinent to the issues that will be discussed should be available to participants prior to the retreat. If the acquisition of new equipment, additional space, a possible merger with another firm, or lateral hires are to be subjects for discussion, it is recommended that pro forma financial statements be prepared and distributed to the partners in advance of the retreat showing the likely impact of the implementation of these plans on the firm.

A retreat workbook should be published and distributed to all participants prior to the retreat. It should include the overall agenda and discussion outlines or background information about each of the selected topics, the firm's financial data and analysis, survey results and other pertinent data. This handout material serves a dual purpose. It helps prepare all participants, both leaders and partners, for their roles at the retreat and the economic data included in the workbook is beneficial in establishing a springboard for future planning.

Selecting Leaders:
Retreat leaders should be selected on the basis of their leadership and communications skills, knowledge and insights about the firm, objectivity, and ability to generate and control discussions on specific topics. Generally, partners representing various age groups and practice areas may be selected to serve as discussion leaders. Many firms intentionally assign responsibility for discussion to younger or mid-level partners to expose them to their colleagues and encourage greater participation in firm administration.

Conducting the Retreat:
The retreat leaders should understand the objectives of the retreat and be responsible for stimulating and controlling the discussions. The leaders must make every effort to insure that all partners participate and be adept at eliciting responses from any hesitant participants. If the retreat topics include sensitive issues, the planners may wish to articulate specific ground rules that set forth methods for dealing with those subjects in a manner that fosters diplomacy. We encourage having open and reasonably candid, yet respectful discussions about each retreat topic, but are proponents of the theory that any comment or criticism with a negative shading should be balanced by a suggestion for improvement.

Post Retreat Activities:
The final phase of the retreat should emphasize the follow-up of action plans agreed upon during the retreat. The retreat planning committee should assume the role of overseer to make certain that a written summary of the proceedings is prepared which identifies action plans agreed upon, the partner responsible for implementation or status reporting to the partners and the date for implementation of status reporting. The committee should also arrange for publication and distribution of the notes to the partners, establish follow-up procedures for reporting on the status of those action plans upon which a consensus was reached during the retreat.

©1999-2015 Joel A. Rose & Associates