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Among other responses to economic woes of the past two years, many firms cut down on or cancelled the usual social events for firm members and employees. Now, firm leaders are facing the question of whether, or how, to reinstitute these events
While the recession’s impact on firms has varied, most have stayed focused on tightening the bottom line. As part of that, I’m guessing your firm’s entertainment bill for 2009 was much lower than in previous years and the annual partners’ retreat was also a far lesser thing. However, from partners’ retreats on to larger firm get-togethers, such as annual summer and holiday parties and welcoming receptions for new classes of associates, intra-firm events are key to building cohesiveness. So, as your firm’s economic performance improves over the coming year and beyond, will you go back to the big events of the past or find new ways of getting your people together? This is an opportunity to rethink your traditions.
Firmwide social events. While it’s great to have at least one annual event for everyone in the firm, you may be wondering if it’s worth the price. This is especially true for firms that have grown significantly over the years. The restaurant party that once included all the lawyers and staff, as well as their significant others, was a real morale-booster when total attendance was 80 people. But when it involves 300 people assembling from various offices, the cost is stupendous, the size of the crowd dispiriting, and the impact on morale much diminished, with attendees huddling in cliques of friends instead of connecting with others in the firm. If this sounds familiar, you are probably considering just canceling the darn thing.
But you might consider alternatives. Remember, these get-togethers are important to building loyalty and social capital among your lawyers and staff—and, when properly sized and organized, they won’t cost you a small fortune, either.
One alternative is to hold the event by office or practice group, getting it down to smaller groups so you can have the events at smaller (and less lavish) venues. For groups of 25 to 30 people it can even be catered at a partner’s house. This has some important advantages over the monster event in a restaurant: (1) the cost will be significantly less and can be budgeted on a per capita basis; (2) the organizational details are borne by the offices or practice groups, so as managing partner, you simply provide the budget approval and attend to show your support; (3) there is intimacy so lead partners can personally thank associates and staff for their hard work; and (4) associates and staff will appreciate being invited into the partners’ homes, building a feeling of inclusion and connection.
As another alternative, some firms are having events from 3 to 5 p.m. in the office. This allows a small celebration with co-workers, while saving them the personal costs of a nighttime baby-sitter and an evening party outfit they might never wear again.
Partners’ retreats. Even greater attention must be paid to building integration at the partner level. While their primary loyalty may be to the members of their office or practice group, it is critical they also have close relations with the other partners, both to deal cohesively with firmwide issues and to maximize effective cross-selling and overall camaraderie.
An annual meeting of all the partners is necessary for the proper administration of the partnership, but it doesn’t need to be a weeklong trip to a resort. How about a shorter retreat closer to home, combining the necessary business sessions with some social time? And you can schedule the events in a way that gets the partners home for Saturday night dinner with their families. Everyone will appreciate it.
Think also about smaller events where partners can gather with others they normally don’t see. These can be based on common interests, such as sporting or community-related events. Consider giving several of your more imaginative partners
a small budget to put together occasions like these. The only rule needs to be that those attending come from different practice groups or offices.
In short, it’s time to think out of the box and find new ways to provide the occasions that can be the glue that binds your firm, while keeping costs under control.
Edward H. Flitton is former Managing Partner and now Of Counsel to Holland & Hart LLP. He is a member of the ABA Law Practice Management Section Council