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
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
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,'
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
* [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
Please call, mail, or e-mail
with your comments or for more information.
Advocates Management, Inc.
1332 South 26th Street
Manitowoc, WI 54220
Voice: (877) ADVOCATES (toll free)
Fax: (920) 684-4414
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