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The Firm Retreat: How to Make It an Advance

A law firm client once asked me to facilitate their retreat—with two weeks’ notice. Gulp. 

At the hastily called planning meeting, I asked the crucial question: why were they having the retreat? From my knowledge of their situation, I could have anticipated any one of several answers—except for the one I got. The managing partner first looked puzzled by the question and then said, “Well, we always go away somewhere!”

OK, so maybe I should have asked what they wanted to achieve, or what their goal was, or what they saw as the theme…but actually, I’d rather have an honest answer. Here’s the thing: if you’re having a retreat just because the firm expects to “go away somewhere” and you can afford to do that, then just do it. If all you want to achieve is that people have a good time and get to know each other a little better, choose a venue with something people like to do and maybe hire an inspiring keynote speaker. But don’t fill every moment with “Now listen to this” sessions or worse still, “team-building” exercises that build nothing more than dislike and frustration.

The annual law firm retreat used to be somewhat like the annual holiday party—an indulgence that was supposed to compensate for the long hours and the missed social life. It didn’t, of course, and as times got tough, people started asking, “Why are we doing this?” Retreats became more specific in their purpose, especially as firms got bigger. There were post-merger retreats, strategic planning retreats, business development retreats, and practice management retreats. Surprise, surprise: the more specific the purpose and the better the preparation, the more successful the retreat.

So in the interests of holding more successful retreats, let’s look at what retreats do best.

Educate everyone (yes, everyone) about the firm 

At my first law firm client, I attended a planning meeting for a pitch to an important prospective client. The convenor of the meeting was the firm’s rainmaker, a partner with excellent connections outside the firm. New privacy legislation had just come into force and the prospective client was worried about compliance. “We don’t have anyone involved in privacy, do we?” mused the rainmaker. Now, I was sitting between him and a young partner who had just published a book on privacy matters. I knew that because I had just interviewed her as part of my research on the firm. No prizes for guessing my top conclusion: they needed waaaaaay better internal communications!

Many law firms later, I’m sad to say I’ve learned that’s the rule, not the exception. Most busy lawyers get to know those they work with directly and those on the same floor. The bigger the firm, the bigger the challenge: if they don’t know their colleagues on the floor below, your lawyers are not likely to know their colleagues in other offices. You want them to come back from a retreat saying, “Hey, did you know that we…” to those who didn’t go. Better still, you want them talking to each other at the retreat: “Hey, I didn’t know you were experienced in that field. I have a client with that problem, would you come and talk to them?” The agenda should be planned to give them both the information and the time to discuss it.

Educate everyone about the firm’s clients

Could you, off the top of your head, name your firm’s top five clients? If you’re a large firm with legacy institutional clients, it may not be that hard. The 80/20 rule says that 80% of your business comes from 20% of your clients, but in many firms, few lawyers would be able to name that 20%.

Why is it important that everyone in the firm know who its top clients are? First of all, those are the people who are keeping the firm going. Secondly, the number one thing clients want from their law firms is to understand their business. That’s more likely to happen if it’s made clear who the firm’s clients are. Obviously, confidentiality must be respected, but law firms too often use confidentiality as an excuse for lack of communication.

Educate everyone about the firm’s referral sources

Quick now, who sends you the most work? Everyone thinks they know (“Oh, most of our work comes from client referrals—you know, word of mouth”) but it’s often a big surprise when you do actually do the research. One of my clients commented at his firm’s retreat, “You know, we always refer to Law Firm X as our main competitor, yet when you look at our referral sources, who sends us the most work? Law Firm X.”

Another reality check is to see how many referral sources are unknown. If you don’t know where the work is coming from, how can you keep it coming? The file opening procedure is the ideal place to note the origin of the file—and the firm retreat is the ideal place to discover which referral sources you can improve upon.

Educate everyone about the firm’s goals

Of course, if you want to educate your people about the firm’s goals, you first have to decide what those goals are. Maybe the firm wants more work from existing clients, maybe even to see a different set of clients in that top 20%. Maybe you want to grow a specific area of the firm and need new recruits. Perhaps you want to take the firm to the next level in the use of technology for client service. Whatever your goals are, you’re more likely to meet them if the whole firm is aware of them.

Educate firm management 

Retreats should be a two-way communication process. Within the normal bounds of civility and common sense, everyone should be given the latitude to speak their minds at a retreat. If you encourage open communications, you’ll get ideas, not just griping.

Key factors for successful retreats:

  • Start planning at least three months ahead. Ideally, start planning next year’s retreat as soon as this year’s is finished.
  • Clarify the purpose. What do you want to have happen as a result of the retreat? Create an agenda that can fulfil the purpose.
  • Research the key issues. Give participants the information you want them to digest ahead of time, so that they can come prepared for input.
  • Give participants some responsibility for the agenda. Whether it’s organizing an activity or presenting information, having involvement creates buy-in.
  • Create accountability. The worst thing to have happen after a retreat is nothing. Put in place a reporting mechanism so that everyone can see what did and didn’t get done.
  • Follow up. Whatever your goal was for the retreat, set an appropriate date for follow-up sessions. And remember that your staff probably burnt a lot of midnight oil getting materials ready for the retreat: let them know what the results were. Here’s a radical idea: why not ask them for their two cents worth of input for the next retreat?
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