Five Steps for Planning a Successful Firm Retreat
by Marcia Watson Wainess
(County Bar Update, April 2001, Vol. 21, No. 4)

 

Five Steps for Planning a Successful Firm Retreat

By Marcia Watson Wainess, Law Practice Management Section Executive Committee. Wainess is director of Client Advisory Services with Green Hasson & Janks, LLP, business advisors and CPAs. She can be contacted at mwwainess@ghjadvisors.com. She welcomes your questions and participation. The views expressed are her own.

Anticipation of firm retreats may conjure up visions of social activities and resort-style relaxation. Although a retreat can live up to this image, it can be an excellent communication and planning tool, given proper preparation. Effective retreats take significant time to plan, and a retreat committee should be selected approximately six months prior to the event.

The first step for the committee is to determine the purpose of the retreat.

Should it be purely social to encourage teambuilding and camaraderie among the firm's lawyers? Should it be a mix of business and social activities to allow for both fun activities and business planning? Or should it be exclusively a business meeting?

In my experience facilitating retreats, the second type of retreat usually achieves the best results, particularly when it is held away from the office over a weekend.

Mixing teambuilding activities (even if that means tennis or golf) and a social dinner with spouses amidst the business agenda enables the lawyers to relax in between what can sometimes be heated discussions.

Once the purpose is determined, the second planning step involves selecting a location for the retreat.

Resorts that are suitable for retreats book many months in advance of the event. The best choice for a retreat is a location away from the office but no more than a three-hour drive away.

Popular locations used by Los Angeles law firms are La Quinta and other Palm Springs resorts (depending, of course, on the time of year), the Ojai Valley Inn, the Alisal Ranch and the Santa Barbara Biltmore.

The ambiance of the resort shouldn't interfere with what the firm wants to accomplish. Make sure that the meeting room has windows, but that there aren't too many external distractions outside the meeting room to interrupt the meeting, such as ducks quacking in an adjacent pond!

The third step is deciding who should attend the retreat.

Should it be partners only? Partners and spouses? Children? Of counsels? Associates?

Who should attend should be determined by the purpose of the retreat, as well as how often retreats are held.

If they are held infrequently (less than every year or two), it is probably a good idea to limit attendance to the partners (and possibly their spouses).

If they are held annually, then the mix of attendees can be determined by the agenda and what the firm wants to accomplish.

The fourth -- and probably the most critical step in planning a retreat -- is deciding what should be on the agenda.

One way to determine what the lawyers perceive as important issues for discussion at the retreat is to circulate an internal questionnaire that covers such areas as internal firm strengths and weaknesses, external threats and opportunities, firm culture, personal goals, firm goals, and firm governance and leadership.

Or, if the agenda is more limited, merely ask the partners what are the three most important topics they feel should be discussed at the retreat. Then, synthesize the results, rank the topics and select an agenda.

It's important not to make the agenda overly ambitious. There should be one topic per each session.

If strategic planning is the purpose of the retreat, then going through the process rather than jumping to conclusions is imperative. The agenda needs to walk the attendees through who and where we are today, where we want to go, what to do when we get there, and deciding how to get there. This type of retreat is not about making final decisions but determining a process for making those decisions one at a time.

The fifth and final step in planning a retreat is setting in place a mechanism for implementing any decisions made at the retreat.

The final session of the retreat should be used to summarize what was agreed upon and make assignments to individuals/committees with due dates.

A few weeks after the retreat, the retreat committee should issue and distribute a summary of what was agreed to, where there was consensus, and areas that require more study that have been assigned to individuals/committees with due dates.

Without follow-up and accountability, the work done at the retreat will be forgotten -- until the next time someone suggests it's time for another retreat.

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