Putting Relaxation Back Into Firm Retreats: Loosening Up the Lawyer Mind

By Janet Ellen Raasch

Progressive law firms are making their annual retreats more engaging and productive through creative use of relaxation in a wide range of modalities. From talent shows and spas to paintball and horse whispering, play and leisure can foster collaboration, strategic thinking and problem-solving skills. Shouldn't more law firms be following this path?

In too many law firm retreats, contemplation and relaxation fall by the wayside because the firms limit the focus to business-only agendas. "In my experience, this has become more common over the past five years," says Katie Herzog, president of Eastern Point Consulting Group in Newton, Massachusetts. "Budgets are tighter and retreats are less lavish; relaxation-type activities are the first to be cut."

Cutting back on relaxation, however, might not be the best idea. "Play makes us far better at problem solving," says Nancy Byerly Jones, a lawyer, mediator and law firm retreat facilitator in North Carolina. "I facilitate both business-only and business-plus-relaxation retreats for law firms, and there is no question in my mind that the ones that include group or individual relaxation activities are far more successful at reaching their goals and objectives—making these activities well worth the added expense."

Stephanie West Allen, who is a lawyer and principal of Allen&Nichols Productions in Denver, agrees. "Play, fun and leisure should not be perceived merely as rewards for work well done. They can be an important part of the process—adding value to a law firm's problem-solving and consensus-building retreat agenda."

Matching the Matter to the Mind-set

What types of relaxation activities can promote a retreat's agenda? It depends on the purpose of the retreat, the culture of the firm and, in no small part, the mind-set of the lawyers.

"The most successful retreats involve at least one of five basic purposes," according to Patrick McKenna, a Canada-based partner of consultancy Edge International. "The most common objective is to develop a consensus of the lawyers about a specific plan or activity. A second reason is to create a strategic direction for the firm. Another is to hold an expanded annual meeting and conduct internal business. A fourth is educational—to learn professional and personal skills. The fifth purpose is to create an opportunity for lawyers to get to know one another in a relaxed setting.

"Most firms combine more than one objective into a single retreat," says McKenna. "A common allocation of time is one-third consensus building, one-third education and one-third relationship building."

Retreats for any purpose, however, are far from universally popular with lawyers, although younger lawyers seem to be the bigger fans. "Most associates love retreats because they get to schmooze with partners and they get some time away from the grind," says Andy Havens, a strategic consultant with Sanestorm Marketing. But established practitioners can actually resent the downtime. "Many partners hate retreats because they have to schmooze with associates and they have to be away from the grind."

Why is this? The thought processes that facilitate consensus building, learning and relationship building in a retreat setting do not come naturally to most lawyers. As a personality type, most lawyers are highly analytical. They are extremely autonomous—more resentful of direction and less likely to collaborate than people in other occupations. They are also critical—much more likely to point out flaws than merits. And they are highly competitive.

"For the typical lawyer personality, a certain level of stress is ‘facilitating' rather than debilitating," says Larry Richard, a consultant with Hildebrandt International. "When a person is doing something that he or she loves, stress can be invigorating. Doing things at a fast pace is comfortable for them. A relaxed pace can be downright painful."

"The term I use with lawyers is not ‘relaxation,' which makes them uncomfortable," says Susan Daicoff, author of Lawyer, Know Thyself, "but ‘optimal functioning,' which they can understand and appreciate. They all want to function better."

Everyone Can Use a Change of Scenery

The bottom line is that if a firm retreat is to be successful, leading the lawyers and the firm to function better, the lawyers must be helped to shift gears—to see the value of thinking creatively as well as analytically, to work collaboratively and to see the big picture. When lawyers loosen up intellectually, emotionally, physically and socially, there is room for a new kind of thinking to take place.

"Over many years of practicing law, our minds get stuck in ruts and patterns—patterns that can impede progress and hamper innovation," says Allen. "Activities that break the routine and shake up our regular patterns can be productive."

Breaking up the routine is why many firms prefer to hold their annual retreats off site. An excellent way to reduce the tension of entrenched work habits is to take a retreat to a new environment, preferably far removed from daily distractions. "Relaxation is all about changing your perspective," says Bryan Schwartz, chair of Chicago-based law firm Levenfeld Pearlstein, "and the best way to do this is to leave the office environment behind.

"We schedule firmwide stress-reduction activities on site, but some lawyers will just close their doors and refuse to participate. And yet," says Schwartz, "these same lawyers will enthusiastically participate in similar activities at an offsite venue or retreat. They are completely different people when they are not surrounded by work."

Some firms intentionally select a remote site with a lack of access to communications technology. "Our Natural Resources departmental retreat is held at a remote Colorado dude ranch," says Lawrence Wolfe, department head at Holland & Hart. "There is neither cell phone nor BlackBerry reception—which we consider a definite plus."

Without client calls and electronic gadgets to distract them, lawyers are freed up to engage in a range of beneficial retreat activities. However, different personality types—even among lawyers—relax in different ways. The choices a firm makes for its retreat activities should, again, depend on the strategic agenda as well as the unique culture of the firm and its lawyers. Here are some of the concepts that firms are putting to use.

Where Education Meets Entertainment

"Believe it or not, lawyers are not like everyone else," says Hildebrandt's Richard. "Many of them find cerebral things more relaxing than spas or massages." They appreciate the opportunity to learn new things that will help them succeed professionally and personally. At a retreat, however, they expect that their educational experiences will be lighter in tone.

"A straight lecture format rarely works at a retreat," says Ross Fishman, a lawyer and principal of Ross Fishman Marketing. "I have spoken on site at hundreds of law firms and also at nearly 50 law firm retreats over the past few years, and there is a big difference between the two venues. Content and style that works well in a law firm setting can fall flat at a retreat—unless it is tweaked to make it interactive and fun.

"After all, you are asking lawyers to ‘retreat' from the office and other obligations, and often from their families. In addition, lawyers are a highly critical audience, even when it comes to fun. I've seen successful presenters be heckled and booed by law firms. The presentation must engage and resonate with lawyers—but not turn them off."

Keynote speakers are common at retreats, giving talks that are often inspirational, emphasizing obstacles that the speaker has overcome on the road to success. Such speakers include sports figures, entertainment figures, adventurers (like mountain climbers, bike racers and astronauts), business icons, politicians and other public figures.

Comedians can also add value to a retreat. "Scientific research demonstrates that humor has a positive effect on solving problems that require a creative solution," says Allen. "Humor frees us up to question assumptions. In one study, for example, a group of people was shown a humorous video, another was shown a serious video, and a third was asked to exercise. Then, all three groups were asked to solve the same puzzle that required creative thinking. The group that had seen the humorous video excelled."

Sometimes, interactive formats can involve the lawyers themselves in the entertainment. "The best activity I ever did with lawyers took place at a bar association annual conference," Allen says. "Lawyers were brought up on stage for an improvisation exercise and put into teams—because lawyers love to compete.

"One person on each team was given an innocuous subject (like paper clips) to speak about and, at a signal, the next person on the team had to take over the narrative." As she explains, "To be successful at this, the participant can't be analytically planning ahead—like a lawyer. He or she must be ‘in the moment' and listening intently—good skills for the creative thought and collaborative tasks of a retreat."

Other firms have had success using hypnotists to help volunteer lawyers "relax" on stage or having an all-lawyer talent show. Some have had success with a game-show format. (See the sidebar about Morgan, Lewis & Bockius on page 46.) And some have even incorporated skits that lampoon the firm—although this has been known to result in bad feelings when the performers are not careful.

Getting Physical about Team Building

Everyone knows that physical exercise can get the endorphins flowing. Hence, it's not uncommon for activities such as rafting, tennis, rock climbing, golf and biking to be scheduled at retreats.

"Even something as simple as taking a 20-minute walk with the whole group in the middle of a working session helps facilitate the creative process," says Amiram Elwork, director of the Law-Psychology Graduate Program of the Institute for Graduate Clinical Psychology at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania. "Walking and talking" to foster creativity is a recurring theme among consultants who plan law firm retreats.

Physical activity is often a part of team-building exercises. The important thing to remember is that lawyers love to compete. Many would much rather compete against each other in (strategically mixed) teams for symbolic prizes than do a ropes course or close their eyes and fall backward into the arms of their teammates. "As far as I am concerned," says Fishman, "there are more ways to go wrong than to go right."

But not everyone agrees. "When I was with Weiss Berzowski," says Amy Westrup of the Milwaukee Bar Association, "we did a paintball tournament and it was the best event we ever had. It released stress and pent-up aggression and it required high-level teamwork. You will want to mix up your teams, however. If you put partners versus associates, someone might end up dead—which does not further the retreat agenda."

Whether or not golf counts as a physical activity that leads to strategic thinking and collaboration depends on whom you talk to. Golf involves just four people spending hours of a short weekend together—which may not further the agenda of the retreat. On the other hand, it can function as a bonding exercise between the players, and make a lot of partners feel better about the requirement to attend as well.

Being physically pampered can also be relaxing—and productive. "At our retreat this past April," says Laura Hudson, director of marketing at Poyner & Spruill in Raleigh, "we had the usual golf and spa alternatives. As it turned out, the spa had a very nice ladies' lounge, and about a dozen attorneys ended up spending the afternoon together there après facial and après massage. They talked about life, personal issues and the firm. Several very good ideas came from this relaxed and impromptu ‘meeting' and the participants continue to actively network with each other via a lunch ladder."

Relaxing via Spirituality

For some lawyers, exploring spirituality —which harks back to the original, more religious definition of a retreat as time spent away from the world—is a preferred means to relax and restore. Influential in this area, the Comprehensive Law movement emphasizes the emotional, spiritual, psychological and social well-being of those who practice law. But while this movement is gaining momentum, and is now included in the curricula at some of the premier law schools, "the mere mention of these subjects is enough to clear the room at most law firms," says Hildebrandt's Richard.

A case in point: "A few years ago, we attempted ‘Quiet Time Tuesdays' at Levenfeld Pearlstein," says Schwartz, the firm chair. "I meditate, and understanding the power of the mind has been very valuable to my law practice, so I thought that others could benefit as well. At the sound of a cow bell, the lawyers were supposed to turn off all phones and electronics, close their doors and spend 20 minutes reflecting on their personal life plan," he says. "Well, only three of the 40 lawyers ever did it. So we gave up. It can be very stressful trying to get people to relieve their own stress!"

As a result, these subjects are more commonly covered as voluntary presentations at bar meetings and at free-standing retreats designed to attract lawyers who are interested in exploring spiritual matters—although they may start to appear as options at more law firm retreats as the Comprehensive Law movement gains momentum.

The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society holds an annual retreat focused on helping lawyers integrate their spiritual and religious practices into their legal lives. The Project for Integrating Spirituality, Law and Politics law task force at New College of California also hosts an annual retreat. And over the 2005 Labor Day weekend, lawyers Tama Kieves and J. Kim Wright conducted a retreat for women lawyers titled "Law or Something Else? Loving What You Do."

Kieves no longer practices law actively and, instead, is a creativity consultant and founder of Colorado-based Awakening Artistry. Wright practices comprehensive law and is the founder of one of the movement's cornerstone organizations, the Renaissance Lawyer Society. Their retreat was held at the Center for Massage and Natural Health near Asheville, North Carolina (now the Essence Recovery Center), and supplemented discussion of career plans with yoga and vegetarian cuisine.

There is also Jones's retreat center, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which offers a new program that is related to horse whispering. "Round-pen horse training is a great way to assess a person's supervisory strengths and weaknesses," says Jones.

"With the help of a trainer, a participant learns in just 30 minutes to use minimal body movements to control 1,200 pounds of equestrian muscle. Frustration and anger are soon evoked in those who are prone to this response. Sure enough, someone will say, ‘That's just what he's like in the office.'" Jones's business clients have realized value from this program, although she has yet to "sell" it to any of her law firm clients.

At least one firm has used the power of poetry to lift its lawyers' spirits. (See the Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher sidebar on page 49.) And some firms feed their spirits by including community service as part of their retreats. When the partners at Holland & Hart, for example, attend their annual retreat in Vail, community service is included as an alternative to recreational activities.

"Over the past few years," says Wolfe, "we have repaired tents for a nonprofit group that provides camping opportunities for disadvantaged children, painted equipment at an outdoor education center, and pulled weeds at the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens. Believe me when I tell you that gardening on your hands and knees together adds an entirely new perspective to the partner relationship."

Be it a form of interactive education, entertainment, physical activity or spirituality, there appear to be endless ways that law firms can format their retreats to help lawyers loose their tensions, open up their minds, and add value to problem-solving and consensus-building agendas.

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