Most law firms are contradictory when it comes to retreat philosophies. They want to ensure that a retreat isn’t a colossal waste of time and money; but they want everyone to have fun. They want to get substantial work done; but they want to focus on team building and the social aspect. They want attendees to be focussed; but they want the option of bringing spouses. They want the event to run smoothly and professionally; but they want someone in the firm with no experience to do most of the organizing in order to save money.

When I am asked to assist with retreat coordination, the first thing I ask is: what do you want the retreat to achieve? If I’m told “to build morale”, I suggest my client simply cut a $1,000 cheque for everyone as it’s a faster and cheaper way to try to achieve this.

But it does beg the question: what is the best purpose of a law firm retreat? I’ve helped to coordinate numerous retreats for community-based, regional and national law firms, or segments of firms (such as an office or a practice group). I can tell you that the most successful ones don’t all look the same. They’re different because they all serve the particular purposes of that firm at that time.   Unsuccessful retreats are not clear on their intent. Their agendas are arbitrary, their content unsubstantial, there is little opportunity for constructive discussion so lawyers feel talk at rather than engaged in the retreat, and the social component replicates whatever happens during a regular work week. In other words, nothing changes.   But if nothing is going to change, why spend all of that time and money?

On the whole, strong retreats are used as a streamlined method of imparting information, launching a new product or process, building consensus and planning, teaching, socializing, re-affirming team commitment, or a combination of any or all of the above.

Information Sharing: Partners forget that most of the firm hasn’t a clue how the firm is performing, what its long-term vision is or what it’s short-term business goals are. A retreat is a great time to demonstrate that the business of the firm is being well planned for, executed and monitored. Share, to the degree it is safe and appropriate to do so, you master plan, business plan, and accomplishments to date. Be honest about the firm’s challenges, and describe what’s being done to mitigate those. Demonstrate knowledge about the marketplace, your client base, and your competition. Don’t just tell them that the firm is being well managed…show them.

Another valuable but overused information sharing strategy is for each business unit of the firm to make a presentation. I’m all for this generally. We perform better as a group when we know that each of our components is well organized and thought through. It also assists with cross-selling when we know a bit more about our other practice areas. But this should not be the majority of your retreat content. Don’t let this become a brag fest, a grand stand for the presenter, and a bore for the listeners. Have a template for what is to be presented, and a timeline… 15 mins. max for each group.

Launching a New Product or Process: A retreat is also a great time to roll out any major new initiatives that require explanation, and an opportunity for open Q&A. A new brand or website, a new client service program, a new compensation system, a new training initiative, a new practice group or office – all of these are great fodder for an information session at a retreat.

Building Consensus Through Group Planning: If all you need to do is share information, you can probably do that through a series of meetings back home. Retreats, on the other hand, are a great venue in which to explore concepts and ideas with your lawyers. Has the partnership been working on a strategic plan? Outline it here, respond to questions and tweak it while simultaneously, getting buy-in for the firm’s future direction by the people who will most likely make it happen. Been working on a marketing plan, or a business plan for the firm? Unveil them here and discuss edits and tweaks that will make them stronger. Thinking about developing a new client service strategy or but unsure what it should look like? Use a portion of the retreat for open dialogue, then working groups to generate ideas on all or part of the concept. Why bother with group discussion and planning? Because successful firms have lawyers all rowing in the same direction. Some are on the left or right, some are in the front, middle or back. They may all have different perspectives but once shared, they better understand the big picture. And they’ll row with more accuracy, speed and commitment if they were part of the route planning process.

Teaching: Quite frankly, a retreat is too expensive in terms of both time and money to spend so much time on teaching. Further, the most critical teaching needed is probably practice area-focussed, best done in a practice group meeting back at home. However, it doesn’t hurt to have a small teaching section in your agenda, providing its content that’s valid for everyone. This could include a process or program relating to practice management, marketing or IT. And keep it short, or eyes will glaze over quickly. For this reason, this is a good time for an outside speaker. One of my retreats included a great speaker on how to do a PowerPoint presentation. The speaker was fabulous; his methodology was very sound, his tone was engaging, and his PowerPoint slides were great! Another teaching idea is to get everyone involved. I’ve successfully run teaching segments that had lawyers actually create work-flow charts for process re-engineering, or chart each other’s personality types when learning about how to deal with different personalities. It was hard to end both of those sessions as the lawyers wanted to keep going.

Socializing: There’s a tremendous difference between working with someone, and getting to know them socially. Great team members work well together in part because they have developed a deeper understanding of each other. And to get there, you need to socialize. But I don’t believe in completely unstructured socialization because we are creatures of habit. Left to our own devices, we’ll gravitate back to our comfort zone. I believe in more structured retreat socializing that force us a little bit out of that zone. What does this mean? Dinner table groups of people who don’t usually work together. Tasks required in a socializing event: get to know three people you don’t know well; or learn something new about five people you do know well.

It is particularly important for Partners to take the lead as hosts at all social functions in a retreat. You will be watched similarly to how we carefully observe flight attendants when there is a bit of turbulence. Are you comfortable or looking awkward and out of place? Are you speaking with the same old Partners, Associates or staff that you always do, or are you branching out and taking the time to get to know others? Set the tone. Act the way you would like everyone else to act. Take advantage of this rare opportunity to get to know a little bit better the members of this larger team called a firm.

Re-Affirming Team Commitment: I’ve sat through a few time share presentations but I’ve left without owning one. Attending an event doesn’t mean you’ve bought into the results of that event. Re-affirming team commitment isn’t an agenda item. Rather, it’s a series of actions taken throughout the retreat. Great retreats have a purpose, are structured to meet that intent, engage participants so they feel they are helping to shape the outcome and decisions, and take the time to re-enforce those decisions and ask attendees for commitment and action in moving forward. This last item occurs in the final address of the retreat, and ideally includes the outline of an accountability process. This allows the firm to show that the occurrence of the retreat wasn’t just a check box. Decisions were made, actions have been planned and are expected to be taken, and reporting will be done back to the full firm.

Other Tips for Successful Retreats:

  • Timing/Duration: Retreats needn’t happen at (fiscal or calendar) year end, but they should occur at the end of a quarter so reporting can be done, and discussions can include an accurate and timely summery of what’s occurred to date, and what’s planned for the future. If the purpose of a retreat is to do strategic or business planning for the following year, they should occur within three months of the end of the current year to ensure that finalized plans can be in place when the new year starts. Retreats should have enough content to last at least one business day. Ideally, they would last 1/5 or 2.5 days, depending on the size of the firm and the number of items on the agenda. The .5 allows for travel time at the end. The evenings in between allow for some socializing. In my opinion, a one-day retreat works best on a Friday. A two-day or more retreat starts on a Friday and goes into the weekend. While associates might not be happy to have to give up some or all of their weekend, a fulsome retreat with clear accomplishments on the other side feels worth it. It enables them to feel part of the forward direction of the firm, and gives them a taste for what it’s like to be a Partner in that firm. That’s time well-spent, on all sides.
  • Location: Don’t hold your retreat at or near the office. If you don’t have the budget to go out of the city, pick a venue in the city but awkward for a return to the office at any time.   The intent of a retreat is to get attendees out of their regular state of mind so they can consider and see things differently. They can’t do that effectively if they still feel connected to the office.
  • Ground Rules: Some lawyers like to believe that they can’t possible stay away from the office and their client base for two days in a row. In my experience, given enough time and provided a lawyer doesn’t have a trial or their client doesn’t get hit with an injunction the day of the retreat, most matters can sit on ice for eight hours and be dealt with in the evenings. This means no iPhones except in breaks. This means no long absences from the retreat to take a call or respond to an email. Retreats work because we are all learning and discussing together. If we aren’t together, it can’t work properly.
  • Attendees: This is of course up to each firm and their purpose. Some retreats are appropriately just for Partners, especially if confidential and critical information will be shared and discussed (although this can also be dealt with in an executive session in a larger retreat). Otherwise, I encourage firms to invite ALL lawyers. I’d all encourage them to invite their key staff members – usually management level (Administrator for sure and for larger firms, also the heads of accounting, marketing, HR, office services, IT, etc.) Smaller firms may extend invitations to paralegals, or even all staff. Again, it depends on the purpose of the retreat, its content and its structure. I’ve seen successful retreats that had some split programs, for example.
  • Spouses/Family Members: There is no doubt that the addition of spouses completely changes the tone of a retreat. My advice is that if you want any substantive work done at a retreat, don’t invite spouses unless it’s a Partner-only retreat for a very small firm. I’m not suggesting that the firm ignore spouses. There’s tremendous benefit to spouses meeting each other, and the people that their lawyer spouse talk about all of the time. Have summer parties, Christmas parties, new Partner dinners, etc. But retreats are too expensive and important to place the emphasis on socializing spouses.
  • Coordination: And finally, don’t try to do this completely on your own.  Coordinating successful retreats is not your core competency.  Nor is it the core competency of your assistant.  Engage someone to help with the big picture planning, agenda development, site securement, etc.  It’s helpful to have someone on the inside available to help with communication and logistics, but don’t rely on them to create a successful retreat.  Some things are too important to fudge through. Spend a bit of money (probably not as costly as you think) and ensure this is well-planned.

Is it possible to get all of the above done in the firm within the course of a typical business year without the need for a retreat? Possibly. However, there is a magic to holding a structured event away from the firm. Attendees feel predisposed to exploring new ground, getting to know their team members better, and considering ideas from a different perspective. This is why retreats are an ideal time in which to discuss change.

And if some kind of change is not on the agenda, then perhaps this is not the best year for a retreat.

Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms and lawyers. She can be reached at heather@heathergraygrant.com