Getting away from it, getting away with it.

The idea of "getting away from it all so we can think" is a reasonably well established wrench in the law practice developer's toolbox. Retreats are events and as such usually have some ritual (casual clothing - slightly nicer than necessary location) attached to them. They are events that justify a deviation from the firm's usual cost / benefit considerations and provide the focus that consultants drool for. As a result, they are usually promoted. Like any tool, the utility and benefit of a firm retreat are dependent upon the task at hand and the skill with which it is used.

Retreats can be both expensive and risky.
The expense is relatively easy to calculate. Even when scheduled on a weekend, the retreat is 'company time'. Unless your firm vision and mission declare that the firm has first dibs on the souls of its members and that time taken away from personal and family life is infinitely elastic, the retreat will have an economic cost to consider against its economic benefit. It may be hard to distinguish the economic benefits of a retreat from those of other administrative and management programs, but cost / benefit considerations should always be part of the decision process involving retreats. For retreats conducted during normal business hours, a retreat reduces income in an amount equal to the time spent multiplied by each attendee's fee realization rate plus collateral losses in staff productivity. For weekend retreats, we've found that income reduction of about 50% compared to weekday retreats. To this loss of income must be added the program costs of the retreat. This includes the special costs such as renting an out of office facility, the preparation time of administration staff, any facilitator or consultant's fees, etc.*

Applying the economic theory of marginal utility (Since you can spend each dollar only once, you'll exchange them for goods and services in a descending order of importance.) to law practice planning, consider the time and expense of the retreat at the time it is proposed. If a retreat is a necessary because it appears to be the only way to get everyone's undivided attention simultaneously, consider what this means in terms of practice management and development.

The principle risk to a firm from a retreat is summarized in the colloquialism, 'same old, same old'. Retreats are usually positioned as major events in the firm's practice development or management process. They carry with them the expectation of impact and change. If that expectation is not met, faith in the dynamism of the firm's future can be shaken.

Firm retreats provide unique benefits to the firm when properly fit into the practice development planning process, when they are properly executed and when the proper follow-up occurs. They are not a substitute for leadership, even in a firm that considers itself a democracy.


Different firm stakeholders, each in good faith, will give a different meaning of the concept of a retreat - and thus come to different value judgments when asked to apply it to a particular situation. Retreats are another concept that can be placed on a continuum. If we define a retreat as a scheduled meeting protected from interruptions, we see that the continuum has regularly scheduled office meetings on one end and four days at the Ritz Carlton on the other. To most attorneys, 'retreat' implies an informal gathering of all essential personnel with time to reflect in an out-of-office location. There is little conceptual commonality on such issues as whether it has an agenda or is free form, whether it is conducted by an appointed leader, whether the hierarchical rules of the firm are set aside or whether the group is to reach a conclusion or just 'let it be'. If you are going to propose a retreat, the specifics of the form of the retreat (who, when, where, why, how) together with the specific topics and issues to be decided should be part of the initial proposal. To minimize the 'same old - same old' risk, define what will make the retreat a success in the retreat proposal itself. If the purpose of the risk is to reconsider the firm's vision and mission statements, define success as consensus on those statements. If the purpose is to consider a merger with another firm or a major shift in practice emphasis, define the decision that will justify the retreat. Be very careful in designing the retreat not to put forth a purpose or a question and then go into the retreat with insufficient data. If you are considering a merger, first have the client research on both firms done. If you're considering a change in practice emphasis, the market research data should be at hand.

You don't conduct retreats to formulate questions, that's the job of firm management / leadership. The purpose of retreats is to make decisions on vision, mission, strategy, tactics and programs.

Retreats generally fall into one of two categories, organizational and developmental.

Organizational retreats are those where the participants come together to identify, develop, refine or revise their collective vision and mission. At organizational retreats the firm might consider issues dealing with its dissolution, reorganization, merger or anything else that has to do with the member's relations each to the others and their individual relationship to the group. These are the kinds of retreats where members can ask and examine what they are professionally all about and why they continue to do what they do every day and the value systems that makes it worthwhile. The benefits from this kind of retreat come from the open interaction of the participants. Often topics discussed in an organizational retreat are of a nature that would not be a comfortable subject at a meeting in a different setting. If the firm is lead by one or more dominant personalities, regardless of whether or not they are 'good guys', the retreat should have a facilitator or moderator from outside the firm. The moderator meets the dominant participants in advance. This helps avoid the 'same old, same old' problem without such milk curdling phrases as "Come on, Bob: shut up and let him talk".

Developmental retreats are those where the participants come together to consider issues involving the firm's practice environment, (strategy) its practice market (tactics) and the programs that deal with them. A developmental retreat might, for example, consider expanding the firm's practice area to something new, a change in marketing or positioning, changes in personnel or staffing policy, application of data base practice development principles to the firms administration and the like.

The purposes of developmental retreats call for the involvement of more, if not all, the firm's stakeholders. These retreats tend to be shorter and have a more structured agenda. The accouterments of a retreat including lower level stakeholders are important. These non-verbal signals plan an important in the participation of lower ranking stakeholders. It is important that supervisory personnel not conduct developmental retreats. One place where organizational and developmental retreats cross with practice development seminars and workshops is where the group gets together to improve professional skills and interpersonal communications. These sessions will often include presentations or workshops by skill specific consultants. Retreats are times of introspection and decision while workshops are times of education. It is uneconomic to try to combine the two.

The firm's realized benefit from a retreat is directly proportional to the amount of preparation and the 'match' between the application of the retreat as a practice development tool and the issues to be addressed.


A retreat is not the place to start organizing. If there is a sense of disorganization within the firm, a gathering called a retreat will not likely result in the spontaneous bloom of organization that has not occurred in the groups day to day professional interaction.

In planning a retreat, keep in mind the firm's prime directive. In an 'eat what you kill' firm, the retreat can devolve into a 'get out of my line of fire so I can kill something,' discussions.

Publish a retreat report to the stakeholders who did not or were not invited to attend. A retreat is usually regarded as a big deal, and big deals are big because they mean something. Knowing there will be a report will be valuable to those who attend, it will answer 'what were they up to' questions for those who did not. The benefits of a retreat can be reduced or undone if lack of communication with the non-attending stakeholders degrades the firm's focus, communication and cooperation.

Use a retreat agenda and timetable to limit the scope of discussion. Brainstorming is not Freudian free association. Another way to stay on task is to have someone take 'retreat minutes' for the report.

* [We recently calculated the cost including lost billing for a 9 attorney firm to have a Friday - Saturday morning retreat at a resort hotel an hour's drive from their principle office. Spouses were invited to join for Friday evening and to stay till the retreat concluded at noon Saturday. The firm engaged a facilitator to stay on agenda and the program was generally all business. The total cost to the firm exceeded $13,500.00.]

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Advocates Management, Inc.
1332 South 26th Street
Manitowoc, WI 54220
Voice: (877) ADVOCATES (toll free)
Fax: (920) 684-4414

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