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- Results Oriented Retreat Design and Facilitation -

We hate to call this periodic rite a “retreat.” We prefer to think of it as an Advance! Many firms hold retreats because they are an expected social event or because they are an opportunity to communicate from on high. Coburn Consulting believes that putting all the firm’s valuable talent in one room is an opportunity to move toward a better future.

But most retreats are exercises in frustration because there are no clear goals or outcomes the participants can focus on. Coburn Consulting is very adept in both the preparation stages and the actual facilitation of the retreat. We understand law firm cultures and norms and are attuned to shifting cultural dynamics. Our goal is to make all participants feel that they have had a chance to be heard and to contribute. The end result is a defined plan of action with clear, measurable commitments.

Our beliefs about law firm retreats
In working with law firms over the past twenty years, we have developed a number of best practices about the design and execution of a successful law firm retreat. A few of these are outlined below:

  1. Set clear goals and desired outcomes A two day retreat cannot adequately deal with a dozen different issues. It is important to focus the agenda on the truly important key issues and avoid the issues that are not essential to the firm’s current or future success. Over the years, we have found that the most successful partnership retreats are those in which the firm’s leadership has agreed in advance about what it hopes to accomplish - and has designed the retreat format and agenda around these ends. The use of a specially appointed Retreat Design Team, working closely with the consultant, greatly facilitates this advance planning process. The use of a Partner Survey can be of great benefit in identifying and shaping partnership consensus both prior to and during the retreat.

  2. Focus the agenda on external issues A retreat represents a unique opportunity to develop partnership consensus around some of the larger and longer-term issues and opportunities facing the firm. All too often, law firm retreats get mired in internal firm issues such as compensation, governance, partnership, and cultural or “quality of life” issues. While these issues can be important, they usually pale in comparison to the external / strategic issues such as clarifying the firm’s long-term vision and goals, enhancing firm growth and profitability; capturing greater market share; enhancing client satisfaction and service value-added, focusing the firm’s investment resources by practice specialty; achieving greater market differentiation and brand equity; and strengthening the firm’s overall competitive advantage in the legal marketplace. The use of a Client Survey and/or client presentations at the retreat can help keep the agenda more externally-focused.

  3. Produce a product A frustration often expressed by law firms about their retreats is that they end up with a set of broad, conceptual ideas - but little that is concrete or actionable. Another common problem is that lawyers spend much of the retreat defining, prioritizing, and debating the issues - rather than actually resolving them. In our retreats, we try as much as possible to “move the ball” on the key issues by forcing the discussion beyond broad, generalized strategies and into concrete action plans that can be executed. We believe that our action planning process makes a big difference between retreats that end up “in a notebook” and those that actually result in change.

Defining the key issues
Although we prefer that firms spend their retreat time thinking about how to strategically position and strengthen the firm, there are times when internal issues are significant enough to warrant attention at a retreat. Listed below are a variety of issues and opportunities on both internal and external topics that could be good material for retreat agendas.

External / Strategic Issues:

What are we particularly known for / known as in the local, regional, or national legal market? What is our perception within the business community?

In what ways are we truly unique and different from other law firms in our market? In what specific ways are we better? Not as good? How can we differentiate ourselves more clearly from our competitors? How can we become more than “just another full-service firm” in the market’s eyes?

How do we feel about the issue of depth of specialization vs. being broader and more diversified? Should we attempt to become more or less focused / specialized in our practice offerings over the next several years? Which legal or industry specialty practices represent the most attractive investment opportunities over the next 3-5 years? Are there any practices we may want to de-emphasize?

What is our feeling about the issue of growth? To what extent do we believe we can realize our aspirations for the firm at our present size – or do we think we must get significantly larger, deeper, broader, more diversified, or more geographically dispersed? If we believe growth would be a desirable goal, how would this growth best be achieved – internally through organic growth or externally by means of lateral hires, acquisitions of smaller groups or firms, or a merger-of-equals with another similarly-sized firm either inside our outside our region?

Internal / Operating Issues

How are we doing as a firm relative to how we think we should be doing on a number of key performance benchmarks:

a. Average revenue per lawyer
b. Average profit per partner
c. Profit margin (net profit as percentage of revenue)’
d. Revenue growth
e. Ratio of partners, associates, and paralegals
f. Distribution of revenue by largest clients
g. Cost and investment ratios as percentage of revenue

Is our governance arrangement working effectively? Does our governance deal effectively with both day-to-day management issues as well as with longer-term strategic issues?

Does our partner compensation system encourage behavior that is in the firm’s best interests, such as teamwork, marketing, client service, and associate development? 

Are our practice specialties organized clearly and logically? Do we manage our practice teams effectively? Do practice groups have effective leadership, sufficient accountability, and adequate long-range planning?

Is our technology sufficient to meet the needs of our clients, our attorneys, and our firm? Are we using our existing technology to its greatest advantage?

Avoid these pitfalls
Most law firm retreats suffer from one or more of the following deficiencies:

  • Lack of adequate planning
  • Insufficient lead time to hand out and digest materials
  • Confusion between business and social agendas
  • Ineffective facilitation
  • Inadequate summarization of retreat agreements and results
  • Poor post-retreat action implementation and follow-up

If properly planned and executed, a law firm retreat can be a milestone event in a firm’s historic evolution. Over the years, a number of Coburn Consulting retreats have represented a turning point in the firm’s history.

Related Articles:
“How to Make an Ordinary Retreat Exceed Expectations,” Massachusetts Lawyer (April 3, 1995)


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