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The Law Firm Retreat:  Ho-Hum or Yee-Haw? - (San Antonio Lawyer Magazine).  
Do you react to the announcement of the yearly firm retreat with less than excitement?

Kind of like, “Oh no, not another one!”  Worse still, do you usually leave the retreat feeling that you’ve just wasted a perfectly good day or two?

Or perhaps you’ve had a different experience: You enjoyed yourself, had some pleasant down-time with your colleagues, ate some good food (probably too much!)—maybe even came away with a few good ideas.  But reality hit when you walked into your office the next day to a full in-basket and poof!—all those good ideas were put aside for “when I have some time to do something with them.”  Then a few months later, the materials covered with the dust of benign neglect, you searched for something you vaguely remembered, but couldn’t find it.  If you did find it, you looked at those great notes you wrote next to the major points but couldn’t read your own writing.

Sound familiar?  Unfortunately, many retreats bring about these unimpressive results.  But the planners certainly didn’t intend it that way; they wanted the retreat to accomplish something that will result in positive change(s) for the firm.

So how do you make your firm retreat what it is meant to be: a great catalyst for an ongoing process toward success?

At The Practice Advisor, we find that a first critical step is to do a “retreat diagnostic.”  Rather than just guessing about what would make the retreat meaningful, the diagnostic is a brief survey that the managing partner(s) can quickly fill out.    Each section asks key questions about an area of the firm’s operation such as future planning (vision/mission), staffing systems and capacity issues, productivity systems, client selection, client development and marketing, and financial systems.

Once the diagnostic is completed, the retreat content can then be built around the critical topic(s). The diagnostic will also give a good idea of the amount of time to allot for the retreat—for example, should it be a half day, one day or two?   And it can help you decide if you will invite only the attorneys or the entire firm.  Or have a half-day for each group.

A second important strategy is for the retreat facilitator and the firm’s retreat planner determine what “pre-work” (if necessary) is needed. Would it be helpful to have an updated accounts receivable statement broken down by clients?  Perhaps a survey of the support staff to “take their pulse”?  Maybe a practice diagnostic on the managing partners and/or the associates?  A list of referral sources for the past year or two?
Having these tools in advance, retreat time is not wasted with comments like “We really need to know who is referring to us” or “We need to find out why employee morale is so low right now”.  Getting necessary data ahead of time means that the content of the retreat can have real substance.

Based on the retreat diagnostic, a meaningful agenda can be planned.  Perhaps there will be an educational/training aspect (Time management?  How to ask for—and get—referrals?).  Maybe what is needed is discussion by the participants on targeted issues (as opposed to a presentation).

Perhaps there will be some teambuilding or communication exercises.  Maybe all of the above.

And let’s not forget that frequently at least one goal of a retreat is to have some fun—to build congeniality and esprit de corps.  This can be accomplished by having some planned recreational activity (a volleyball game, a horseback ride, a scavenger hunt, a ropes course, a talent contest, etc.) that will be appropriate for the setting.  Or you might consider giving out some employee awards—humorous or serious.

Whatever the content of the retreat, it is critical that attendees leave with concrete action plans. The action plans will tell who is to do what by when.  Rather than an “action item” that reads “Will increase morale among staff”, it will list specific steps for building that morale (Ex: Mary, John and Sam will meet as a committee in two weeks to come up with an incentive program for our support staff).  Rather than “We will revise our policies and procedures manual,” the action item will read “Ted and Sally will review our policies and procedures manual and present their revisions at next month’s Partner Meeting”.

The final critical factor in having a successful firm retreat is to determine a method of accountability.  That may mean quarterly meetings to check progress on goals, weekly or monthly coaching calls with groups or individuals to check on progress, another retreat in six months, scheduling appropriate training, hiring a human resources professional, etc.   It is those clearly defined methods of accountability that will ensure the participants’ commitment to those action plans.

With a little up-front diagnosis and planning, you can have a working retreat that addresses important issues, builds morale and leaves the participants with a feeling that—this time—they also accomplished something.  Nothing ho-hum about that!

Judi Craig, Ph.D., MCC   13620 NW Military Hwy., Ste. 202-2   San Antonio, TX  78231.   210-824-3391

Email: jcraig@coachsquared.com