The People and Places Have Changed
Despite the uncertainty swirling around us, many law firms have seen significant sea changes in personnel over the last few years. Individual attorneys, entire practice groups and whole firms have packed up and moved to new digs (and ideally greener pastures). What this means is that many attorneys—whether it is a dozen of you in one office location, or hundreds (maybe thousands)—are spread out in dozens of cities and possibly a handful of continents.
The bottom line is that if you thought you didn’t know your fellow attorneys before, they are practically total strangers now.
An attorney recently lamented to me that she went out to a company on a pitch with a handful of attorneys from her firm— from multiple offices, most of whom she had never actually met before. Yes, they had planning meetings and got together for dinner before the presentation—but it’s like any team sport, getting that chemistry is a bit tougher. She said it was clear to those pitching and on the receiving end that the camaraderie was forced. This is really where a great retreat becomes invaluable. Forget the formalities, focus on the personalities.
Trusting You With My Clients
Over the years, I’m still amazed how many of us don’t trust colleagues within the law firm with our clients. Granted, in some cases, you do know your colleagues in another practice group down the hall—and you think they are terrible employment lawyers, litigators, tax attorneys or fill in the blank. You know much better counsel for the client—and it isn’t here.
But more times than not, you simply don’t know those attorneys in other practices and other offices. We all send work to those who are good at what they do, but just as important—we like them. And if you don’t know them or have an opinion, it stifles cross-marketing. The retreat is often the bastion for building the comfort zone and the relationship.
General Law Firm Retreat Planning
There are retreats that are partner-only, attorney-only, attorney and C-suite staff. Personally, I’ve never attended one that invites the entire staff. None of those invitation lists are right or wrong, they just lead to different outcomes and results. Most true retreats don’t include significant others. But other more celebratory ones do.
We pick a venue, speakers and/or facilitators, team-building exercises, social events and learning. We might succession-plan, consensus-build, strategic-plan and hand out some cool swag (you’ll see me on almost every flight with the best backpack given to me at a law firm retreat—from more than 10 years ago). The ROI on a retreat may or may not be quantifiable. It might be follow-up and marching orders or be simply successful because we now know each other a whole lot better.
In my younger days, I often found the “Olympics,” icebreakers, comedy shows and improv exercises sort of hokey. But looking back, you see where these often pushed reluctant participants into the fire. I’m still amazed how shy a hardened litigator can be outside of the courtroom. Whether networking inside or outside the law firm, it takes putting people in the right place and frame of mind.
When I questioned a managing partner about the viability of a beach resort for one retreat, he asked me, “Do you want to go to Puerto Rico or not?” And I nodded my head, yeah, I want to go to Puerto Rico. And I did. And it was a blast. It wasn’t a bad thing—because one of the goals was to have fun. Now I’m no CPA or IRS auditor, but I do realize there are components to a law firm retreat needed to fulfill the requirements for an all-important tax deduction. I’d be remiss not to throw that little reminder out there. For goodness’ sake, don’t just have fun.
There are great retreats that take the time to really clue attorneys in on what goes on in those management committee meetings. Some law firms are comfortable drilling down on financials—this is where our money comes from, and this is where we spend it. Other firms reveal that sort of data on a need-to-know basis.
A complaint of many retreats is that you don’t need to hear war stories from the elders at the firm (in which the audience knows they are more like fables: Joe got handed that book of business from Sam when he retired, he did not “develop business”). However, hearing about what a practice group is doing, the big wins, what they are doing to be successful is often a core component of retreat success.
I’m often the “outside speaker” and/or facilitator, so don’t think I’m going to suggest anything but how important that third-party voice is. I mean, seriously. But all those elements of cross-selling, who your clients are (some might even be invited to attend), communication, consensus, education and brainstorming are melded into a day or two—perhaps on a business day, but more likely on a weekend. So, if you steal a weekend from your people, make darn sure it is worth everyone’s time and money.
The New-Look Retreat
Of course, I would be irresponsible in 2022 if I didn't acknowledge that heavy alcohol consumption and the stuff that sometimes comes along with it are often minefields. Don’t let the well-intentioned retreat lead to the type of litigation later that none of us ever want to see (unless you are the outside counsel hired to clean it up).
Some activities from retreats I attended in the 1990s simply are unacceptable today. I don’t need to write it out. You know what I’m talking about. So don’t ruin all that effort with a bit of stupidity.
I pushed back hard on a law firm retreat where I was scheduled to present when it was suggested that perhaps we go virtual. The idea of presenting a three-hour business development workshop to 100 attorneys watching (or not watching or paying attention) on a crisp fall Saturday morning sounded horrific to me—and I was getting paid to present. I’m sure it would’ve been well-received by those tuning in on an iPad from their kitchen. While you might now put a name with a face, developing that chemistry and camaraderie should be a central focus for today’s law firm retreat. Thinking back to how a short weekend away would kick a relationship to the next level (or ruin it, but stick with me)—that is at the core of your next law firm retreat. Here’s to getting together and meeting, in person—if not in Puerto Rico, somewhere nice. It’s central to your law firm’s business development efforts. And it should be something enjoyed, not dreaded.