RETREATING IN ORDER TO ADVANCE

by Joel A. Rose
 

Law firms are increasingly turning to retreats to help solve their management problems, improve personal relationships, and increase team spirit. But, a retreat will not succeed unless adequate time and effort have gone into the planning process. A major portion of the work involved must be done before the retreat is actually held.

The retreat cannot be viewed as a panacea, but as a practical management tool. Its structure will be determined by what the firm wants to achieve. For example, the meeting might involve a review of the firm’s ability to take advantage of new trends and developments in major practice areas. Some firms may use the retreat as an opportunity to present their future goals and long-term strategic plans. Often, an economic crisis in the law firm dictates the agenda.

Potential drawbacks must also be considered. The time involved in planning and attending the retreat can reduce billable hours. If the retreat involves open discussions, some partners may object to the diffusion of firm decision making. And open discussion of such topics as individual commitment to pro bono issues or other personal philosophies can become volatile and fuel dissent.

Despite these and other potential mishaps, with proper planning, guidance, and establishment of ground rules, the benefits to be derived do outweigh the risks. Because the process is an effective method of identifying objectives, appraising results, and addressing 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, based in part on the objectives to be achieved. A smaller firm may assign the planning function to one or more partners. Larger firms usually designate a committee of partners to be assisted by the office administrator. The planning committee should consist of partners who represent the firm’s major practice areas, branch offices, and age groups. By drawing the various factions into the planning process at the initial stages, the firm can begin to acknowledge the importance of the issues that may be disrupting its unity.

At this juncture, the firm may also have to determine whether a consultant is necessary. If the firm’s current method of governance is generally viewed as less than open and fair-minded, a consultant may be essential. The consultant may be particularly beneficial when a firm wishes to address such topics as firm governance, profit distribution, practice development, or long-term strategic planning.

The outside consultant can function as a leader, lecturer, or resource on specific topics. The consultant’s experience can be used in sharing ideas that have been implemented with success in other organizations. The consultant can also assist in gathering and analyzing firm financial data.

Finally, the planning committee should consist of people who are well-organized, respected by all the partners, and committed to devoting the necessary time and attention.

Determining the Agenda

To develop an agenda for the retreat, the members of the planning committee must first agree on its objectives. For example, if the retreat is to be devoted to long-range planning, consideration should be given to such issues as firm governance, business development and client relations, financial management, career development and training, branch office operations, firm growth or contraction, and the like. The committee may also want to take the opportunity to permit partners to relate to one another on a more personal basis (to improve the overall level of firm communications) and include social activities.

During the course of our work with planning committees in developing retreat agendas, we generally interview the members to identify the issues that must be dealt with at the retreat. The final selection of topics is achieved with the consensus of the committee. It may include such broad areas as: (1) methods of enhancing firm revenue and profitability, (2) the feasibility of developing personal business and practice development plans for partners and associates, (3) the organization and management of practice groups and teams, (4) lawyer recruitment, including recruiting and retaining lateral hires and attracting recent law school graduates, and (5) developing plans for marketing.

Surveying Lawyers

The next phase involves surveying the executive committee, partners, and/or associates to obtain ideas on specific subjects for discussion at the retreat. This can be done in personal interviews or by written questionnaire. The questionnaire should be designed to elicit the attorneys’ opinions and assessment of the current state of the firm.

Admittedly, a survey process is more time-consuming than personal interviews. But for particular kinds of assignments, especially when many issues must be considered, we have found questionnaires to be a particularly effective method of drawing all the partners into the planning process. Typically, the respondents are requested to identify general firm goals, suggest steps the firm might take to influence its future, discuss personal and professional objectives, and describe their feelings and complaints about the firm.

We also survey the partners’ views about the methods used for determining and implementing firm policy and the present form of governance. This includes evaluating the effectiveness of the committees and individuals charged with management. Other areas may include partner/associate relationships, firm economics, practice management, marketing and development.

Once the completed questionnaires have been tabulated and edited, the next stage of the process begins. In our experience, we have learned that follow-up interviews with selected partner are of considerable value. Interviews are important in establishing management’s commitment to include attorneys in the planning process. Despite the cost in time, interviews should be conducted. It is vital to stress the confidentiality of the interviews. Here again, an objective outsider such as a consultant might be useful in obtaining information that will supplement and elaborate the responses to the questionnaire.

In our experience, we have discovered that responses to the questionnaires and personal interviews reveal that there is more ground in common between firm members than may be apparent at the beginning of the retreat planning process. We make a point of requesting the partners to state a purpose for the retreat. Invariably, the answers fall in line with the initial proposals submitted by the retreat planning committee.

The following goals are typical: (1) to establish open and honest communications among the members of the management committee, department heads, partners, and associates, (2) to provide an objective opinion about the firm’s management, financial assets and operations, (3) to encourage partners to integrate their activities in an effort to build unity and improve morale, (4) to establish a structure for the departments and sections that will produce work more efficiently and alleviate imbalances in the workload, and (5) to determine long-range goals and develop plans for growth.

Developing the Agenda

Once the issues raised by the partners are compared with the proposals submitted by the retreat planning committee, the planners should have adequate information to use in developing a retreat agenda. A typical agenda for a two-day retreat may be narrowed to the following topics: (1) a financial report on the firm’s economics, including long-range projections; (2) accountability and authority of the partners for firm administration and practice management (3) setting firm objectives for the next three years; and (4) determining and administering the partner compensation plan. The agenda should be organized so that conceptual issues are addressed before discussion of specific approaches for achieving results. The retreat should begin with general and informative subjects rather than emotional issues.

We suggest that the retreat be located away from the office. A site such as a resort with facilities for golf, tennis, boating, and the like will provide the partners with an opportunity to interact on a different level. The planning committee may feel that the opportunity for social activities will enable partners to get to know each other on a personal basis and appreciate one another in a more positive light.

Generally, most retreats are attended only by partners. Some firms include associates and may schedule separate as well as combined sessions to address issues of common interest. Depending on the objectives and location of the retreat, some firms may invite spouses and guests of the attorneys. The firm may include programs designed to educate them about the practical aspects of firm life.

Once all the information has been compiled, the planners should review, tabulate, and report their findings to the executive committee in order to set priorities. After the subjects are selected, a proposed agenda should be drafted that will include date, time, location, recommended retreat leaders, and participants.

A workbook and syllabus should be distributed to the attorneys before the retreat. It should include the agenda and discussion outlines on each of the selected topics, the firm’s financial data and analysis, the results of our survey, and case studies of practices followed by other firms in each of the major subject areas selected for discussion at the retreat.

The handout material serves a dual purpose. The economic data in the workbook is beneficial in establishing a springboard for planning purposes. The survey results also include a composite of the partners’ responses to the questionnaire, edited to preserve confidentiality. In addition to the obvious informational value, the handout material functions as a tool in preparing all participants for their roles at the retreat.

Selecting Leaders

The persons chosen as retreat leaders should be picked on the basis of their leadership and communications skills, knowledge and insight into the firm, understanding, objectivity, and ability to generate and control discussions on specific topics.

Generally, the senior or more influential partners should serve as discussion leaders. In many firms, the managing or administrative partner, or chair of the executive committee, will do so. This partners is usually knowledgeable about the firm and its members and has a broad perspective on firm economics, short and long-term financial obligations, personnel and operations.

However, there may be valid reasons for selecting other partners or outside consultants to serve as leaders. Other partners may be able to address issues with greater objectivity or knowledge. Also, choosing an outside consultant might heighten motivation and morale. Many firms intentionally assign responsibility to younger or mid-level partners to expose them to their colleagues and encourage greater participation in firm administration. The final decision should be based on the objectives of the retreat and the capabilities of these individuals.

Conducting the Retreat

The retreat leaders are responsible for stimulating and controlling the discussions. They should be thoroughly familiar with the objectives of the retreat. If the retreat topics include sensitive issues, the planners may wish to publish specific ground rules that set forth methods for dealing with these subjects in a manner that fosters diplomacy.

We propose that the entire session adhere to the proposition that any comment or criticism with a negative shading must be balanced by a suggestion for improvement.

In conducting retreat, the leaders must ensure that no personal agendas will be permitted to override the nature of the discussions. All responses should address the issue rather than the individual who is raising questions or expressing objections. The leaders should be aware of body language and skilled at maneuvering the discussion to keep the sessions moving smoothly and in a timely fashion. They should be able to stimulate discussions and adept at eliciting a response from the hesitant participant.

After arriving at the retreat site and before the first formal session, the participants should assemble for a preliminary meeting that might include a review and analysis of the firm’s current affairs. We often given an initial presentation that consists of a summary of the survey results and a review of case studies of other firms’ practices in the major subject areas.

We have often found it useful to divide the participants into workshops. The attorneys are assigned to the workshop groups prior to the retreat. In addition to pre-assigning the groups, the planning committee and consultant select a coordinator for each workshop. This person’s role is to stimulate the discussion, help the attorneys adhere to the topic and timetable, and maintain general order.

A second attorney in each group is asked to take notes and record the consensus reached by the attorneys on specific issues. After each workshop, the attorney regroup to discuss the results and their conclusions. This is followed by a general discussion of recommendations for action. While proposing solutions and alternatives, the partners should be charged with establishing timetables and assigning partner accountability for the work ahead.

The final phase of the retreat should emphasize follow-up. The post-retreat activities will generally reveal the truth of the process. The retreat planning committee, with or without the assistance of a consultant, must make certain that a transcript of the proceedings is prepared for review by the committee, arrange for publication and distribution of the notes to the partners, establish procedures for follow-up on the committees and individuals designated for specific assignments, determine the timetable for reporting on the status of action plans, implement programs, appraise results, and begin to consider the prospect of a retreat for the following year. The firm’s strength lies in its ability to retreat into the future!

©1999-2015 Joel A. Rose & Associates