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Phyllis weiss haserot
Phyllis weiss haserot

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Assuring That Your Retreat Moves Forward

The fall law firm retreat season will soon be upon us. Firm's should be planning now to get the most out of the opportunity for intense, focused discussion and collaborative thinking as well as valuable informal camaraderie and trust-building. Retreats are a valuable investment with potentially large pay-offs if firms are careful to anticipate and to avoid the pitfalls that can derail the best intentions.

Given an accumulation of experience with retreats as well as economic and time constraints, firms are getting smarter about their use. For most firms with more than 20 partners, even the informal social aspects are enough of a benefit to warrant a retreat once a year. But retreats are becoming more serious and more productive, as partners recognize that they are both an important management function and a valuable investment in education and human resources.

Any downsides of holding a retreat come not from the retreat concept itself, but rather from inadequate execution. For example, insufficient planning, Many retreats should have at least three months of advance planning time in order to take care of all planning, meetings, information gathering and analysis, buy-in by partners, discussion group leader briefing, and logistics. Depending on the theme, size of firm and intensity of planning time, two months might be sufficient. However, even if the date is set six months or a year in advance, some firms don't focus on the planning and lining up of outside speakers until a few weeks or a month before the event. That such a retreat is a success can only be a happy accident.

Retreats should not be wasted on topics that can be addressed in the office without interrupting normal routines and requiring elaborate planning. When the subject is one in which the information flow goes primarily one way – from management to partners and staff – but doesn't necessarily require their input for decision making and planning, an off-site is not needed. For example, a discussion of purchase of new technology or adoption of new malpractice insurance policies usually can be handled adequately at a partner or all-lawyer meeting.

Here are the main things to watch out for in the planning and execution.

Burning Issues. There may be “burning issues” in the firm that need to be dealt with if a retreat is to be viable. Eruption of these hot issues gets a meeting off track. Anticipate them in advance and plan how to handle them. Perhaps better, get agreement in advance that the burning issues be put aside until another, more appropriate, time in favor of the planned agenda.

The retreat planners should surface the issues that generate emotional heat through preparatory interviews or a partner survey. Even if they are irrelevant to the retreat theme, it is important to prepare either to deal with them or to arrange to address them at another more suitable time. Otherwise they may be raised, catch fire, and throw the main retreat purpose out the window. If the firm is willing to at least air some of the burning issues at the retreat, confine them to a specified place on the agenda, announced in advance, and structure the discussion and next steps to make it constructive.

Gaining Cooperation of Skeptics. Serious skeptics can be the most difficult to deal with, but if won over to be open-minded and cooperate, they can be your greatest allies. To prevent them from hindering progress and building an opposing faction, try putting the skeptics on the planning committee or giving them roles as discussion leaders. As part of the team, they will have an opportunity to air their views and find a constructive way to work with the majority.

The worst strategy is to isolate the skeptics. They can refuse to participate at all and render the retreat less than a firmwide effort. If they do participate, they may try to undermine the possibilities for success.

Dominant Personalities. Keep heavy-weight partners from dominating or inhibiting the expression of views by others. Set ground rules that clearly convey that all views are welcome and are to be treated equally for purposes of discussion. Ideas should not be judged too early. Get many ideas on the table before evaluating or “putting down” any of them. The discussion leader must act to prevent domination and protect the equal opportunity ground rule. Often an outside facilitator – as a neutral third party – can do this more effectively than someone from the firm.

One general counsel who highly favored the value of retreats cautioned against letting athletic games turn into another form of competition “in which the pathologies of the office are played out.”

No Level of Closure. Retreat discussions are intended as more in-depth exploration and problem-solving experiences than routinely scheduled meetings in the office. As such they must reach some agreed upon level of closure, some point of accomplishment or decision-making that justifies the large expenditure of time of many people. To end with an airing of grievances is not sufficient. A presentation is not sufficient. A plan, problem-solving, practicing of skills, identification of client service principles, preliminary (if not final) development of a firm vision, or significant milestones in strategic planning – these are among the possible kinds of closure.

This is not to say that objectives such as better communication, building camaraderie, raising morale and getting to know one another are not valid retreat objectives. In fact, they are objectives of almost any retreat.

Logistics Slip-Ups. A retreat will not go smoothly unless one person takes responsibility for all the logistics and begins planning long in advance. Details such as transportation, lodging, food, break, equipment, adequately laid-out rooms, lighting, temperature control, recreation facilities, reproduction of retreat materials and more are vital factors to the success of the event. Participants can have the whole experience spoiled by poor food, stuffy rooms or malfunctioning audio-visual equipment. Everything desired should be listed when arrangements are being made; and everything should be checked out, in person, before the event.

Engaging Guests. When spouses and guests are invited, thought must be given to ways to keep them entertained, stimulated and happy. If they do not enjoy the event, it will cast a shadow on the lawyers' positive experience and minimize the guests' value as supporters and referral sources for the firm.

Other pitfalls and danger signals are: lack of firm management's full support belief in the usefulness; too high or unrealistic expectations; situations in which discussion is rowdy or unfocused. The factor that most often detracts from the ultimate value of the retreats is lack of follow up on issues surfaced and plans generated. Follow up is critical in order for the lawyers to perceive the time to be well spent.

It is important that the participants have a clear idea of next steps and know what they, personally, and as team members, are responsible for and when. A “reporter” should recap the highlights and assignments in a memo to be circulated shortly after returning to the office.

Time must be left in the retreat agenda and schedule for outlining of next steps and assignments. Since people will be looking forward to recreation or leaving for home as the working part of the retreat comes to an end, it is crucial to set aside this time so that all that went before comes together and is assured of continued attention.

Retreats provide opportunities for constructive discussion without distraction, addressing vital issues that otherwise would not be discussed by every partner or every lawyer in a firm at the same time. Sometimes these are sensitive issues, such as compensation and what to do about unproductive partners. Often they are fundamental, strategic issues central to a firm's success, such as firm identity and future direction, managing client relationships and quality improvement, mergers and affiliations, restructuring management of the firm, teamwork and internal communication. While a retreat may not (and may not be expected to) totally solve a problem or complete a plan, the attorneys should walk away with some level of closure and an outline of follow up steps, assignments and schedules.

The benefits are: intensive attention to a problem or issue that results in positive change or a plan for how to achieve it; creation of an environment in which trust and connectedness can build; better feelings about the firm as an institution, a place to work, and an important part of attorney's and staff's lives.

© Phyllis Weiss Haserot, 2000


This article appeared in The New York Law Journal, Tuesday, August 8, 2000.