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December 2017

Is your firm retreat a waste of time or an effective planning tool?

Done right, firm retreats are “enormously powerful tools” to build teamwork, resolve issues, improve morale and forge strategic plans.

That’s the assessment of Ellen Freedman, a certified legal manager, law practice coordinator of the Pennsylvania Bar Association and president of Freedman Consulting in Lansdale, Penn., in “Making Your Firm Retreat a Success,” in the November-December issue of Law Practice Magazine.

But particularly for small and midsized firms, she writes, “retreats are too often amateurishly handled, resulting in frustrating and expensive exercises in futility.”

So, to avoid having your firm retreat be considered a waste of time and a detriment to attorney morale, Freedman offers these tips:

Use a facilitator. The more difficult the issues to discuss and the bigger the personalities involved, the more your firm needs to use a facilitator at the retreat, writes Freedman. A neutral presence, “the facilitator will help the firm bring difficult issues to the table while maintaining a safe environment,” she writes.

“The facilitator can provide insights and suggestions as to how other firms are handling the issues being discussed, based on experience garnered by working with many firms on a variety of assignments,” she writes.

Making sure all voices are heard and freeing attorneys in management positions to participate like everyone else, the facilitator can also use her experience to inform the group on how other firms handle the same issues.

Address the elephant in the room. “Firms become dysfunctional when there is no perceived outlet to air issues,” Freedman writes, comparing it to “emotional constipation.” Let the facilitator raise those issues that some partners might be thinking but are reluctant to voice.

Focus on long-term strategic planning. Look down the horizon, Freedman advises, and focus on such strategic issues as:

  • itemizing the firm’s strengths and weaknesses
  • the firm’s position relative to the competition
  • current and future opportunities for expansion
  • the firm’s “brand”
  • everyone’s commitment to the firm’s success
  • client satisfaction
  • succession planning.

Build in casual face time. Freedman believes retreats are for work, and writes that she “limit[s] the amount of play time at the retreats I facilitate.” Still, she values cocktail hours that allow smaller groups to extend conversations started at the meeting. “Experience shows that often the most creative ideas are formed in this atmosphere,” she writes.

Create an action plan. Freedman’s experience tells her that most firms are “dismal” at following up on what was decided at a retreat, which makes it not worth it. “Better not to stir up the creative juices at all than to do so and then let them dry up from lack of action,” she writes.

In order to ensure follow-up, Freedman advises breaking down “lofty goals into incremental objectives before moving to the next idea.”  To do that:

  • Figure out what steps are needed to accomplish the goal
  • Assign who/what/by when for each task
  • Be realistic about what can be done given everyone’s work load
  • Commit to which resources are needed to get it done
  • Agree on the expected results
  • Decide if you need help from outside the firm to make this happen.

The ideas that come out of the retreat need to be recorded, and those to be followed-up on need to be committed to an action plan. Freedman recommends treating the action plan as a “living document that is continually updated and republished for review.”

She advocates for applauding the commitments that are achieved, and concludes, “Progress is a process, not an event!”

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