Make Partners Face Up to Each Other at a Firm Retreat

  • January 07, 2014
  • Edward Poll

the nearly 20 years since the 1989 Supreme Court of Canada ruling in Black et al v. Law Society of Alberta, which opened the door to interprovincial law firm mergers, there has been a steady stream of law firm combinations in Canada .

The activity has not been as extreme as in the United States, where there were more than 70 law firm mergers in 2007 and well over 400 since the start of this decade. But the global competitive forces that created megafirms on the order of the “Seven Sisters” in Canada, the “Magic Circle” in the U.K. and the “AmLaw Top 20” in the U.S. are likely to continue.

The question is, does combining law firms to make them bigger actually make them better? Often the answer depends on whether the combination is a merger or an acquisition. In the former there by definition is some accommodation and agreement that the parties approach on the basis of equality. In the latter, the acquirer has control over the arrangements and the integration process, as it is generally the larger party and has the most financial clout. Either way, the business combination can only be successful if the parties systematically develop communication and integration strategies.

When combining law firms, or seeking greater cohesiveness within any firm, no tool is more effective than face to face communication among lawyers in an all-firm meeting.

The Importance of Culture and Communication

Firm culture is a primary determinant of law firm success. People must like the work they do and those with whom they do it. Lawyers who are members of the same firm should share a camaraderie that shapes the development of a shared firm culture. Many factors come into play, including the exchange of ideas and the education of one lawyer by another. These are vital to a successful law firm, and to successful lawyers.

In many of today’s geographically diverse firms built by merger, partners are that in name only. The governance of these large firms has fallen to a very few in the organization (the management committee). The remaining partners often have little interaction outside their own practice areas.

Unless there is continuous open and candid communication among equity partners in the merged firms, and acceptance and buy-in for the business plan by which the firms are combined, sooner or later the firm will dissolve, whether by withdrawal of individual partners or wholesale departure and formal liquidation. The end result will be the same. Communication is a continuous requirement to ensure that individual agendas do not subvert the plan.

Meetings Build Communication

Once the marketing and financial plans of newly merged firms are developed through discussion and analysis to reflect the partners’ agreed-upon goals, an all-firm meeting or retreat is the ideal mechanism to generate buy-in by all lawyers.

All-firm retreats get everyone together in the same room where concepts can be discussed, ideas and questions raised, and acceptance established. While this will not be the only communication needed for success, a physical show of hands can be a powerful validation of the firm’s new direction. The all-firm meeting symbolizes the communication that is essential to making a merger or acquisition succeed. Without ongoing communication, the original dream of harmonious and collegial growth for the new firm will come to an end.

The most important function of all law firm leadership is to facilitate continuous communication, ensuring that individual agendas continue to be attuned with one another. In divorce practice, lawyers frequently hear the client’s complaint that “we (the spouses) grew apart.” This results from the failure to keep communications open and candid as time passes. When law firms are combined, they are subject to the same need to keep the communication process open, candid and frequent.

The primary rainmakers of the new firm, the management and the partners – all must be in concert, and all members of the firm must buy in. That is the true challenge of leadership, and an all-firm meeting is the ideal tool for leadership to enhance that communication.

10 Steps to a Successful All-Firm Retreat

Law firm meetings are unique opportunities for partners, many of whom may be unfamiliar with each other, to confront tough issues, change the firm's direction, focus on a strategic plan, and develop a consensus.

A successfully custom-designed retreat can achieve more in several days than any number of long, drawn-out communication efforts. But success doesn’t just happen. The devil is in the details so far as crafting an effective meeting. An effective meeting checklist should include these ten planning steps:

  1. Make sure you understand how all the purposes of the meeting interact. To ratify a merger or create a bonding experience requires social activities, strategic planning breakout sessions, plenary sessions of all attendees, and more. Allow time for each.

  2. Create a meeting committee that has full responsibility and authority from firm management to undertake all planning and organizing steps. Committee representation should include partners, other lawyers and staff.

  3. Create an agenda of topics to be discussed and social activities to be offered.

  4. Appoint subcommittees from the general committee members to be responsible for each agenda topic and prepare discussion materials on it.

  5. Select a leader (who may not have been on the original retreat committee, but can be added at this point) to ensure that the topic is adequately covered at the meeting.

  6. Decide what you want to accomplish and the type of location where you can accomplish it, then establish a budget.

  7. Ensure that the full planning committee has considered all the ramifications of “secondary” issues that can make or break the meeting such as the presence of spouses; how to deal with topics that are raised but not on the agenda; and what kind of record-keeping and follow-through will be done with regard to discussions and decisions made.

  8. Engage an outside consultant to help plan the arrangements, facilitate the discussions and engage the attendees. Pick someone who will help your firm achieve its strategic goals, be a good philosophical fit with your lawyers, and grasp their expectations.

  9. Bring committee, consultant and firm management together after the meeting for debriefing on and assessment of what was accomplished; set dates for further discussion on “reserved” topics of 7, above.

  10. Implement immediate firm-wide communication by the firm’s management about all decisions reached and consensus items achieved.

What Meetings Can Accomplish

My own experience as a meeting facilitator has shown time and again how much firms can accomplish when everyone is brought together to discuss problems and concerns as individuals with a common purpose. The results can be equally positive in established firms as well as newly merged ones. These two examples illustrate what can be accomplished.

Case Study #1: 8 Simple Challenges

Two newly merged firms chose to have a conference of all partners, and neither firm had conducted such a meeting in several years prior to the merger.

Firm leadership was concerned about making 15 hours of business discussions pertinent, focused and productive. The firm’s chairman engaged me to advise on pre-conference planning. Over a period of several months, we worked with the meeting committee to choose and best present the discussion topics, and suggested how to have the greatest numbers of partners engaged and proactive.

By actually attending the meeting, I was able to provide insights to how other firms handle some of the thorny issues discussed. By the end of the meeting, the firm’s partners had discovered why they would enjoy practicing with each other, and developed consensus and guidelines on eight different difficult issues facing the firm.

Case Study #2: Soothing the Startup Stress

A group of 20 lawyers split from a well established regional law firm after a 12-year affiliation to start their own business law firm.

When they engaged me to facilitate a firm meeting, the lawyers were still experiencing start-up stress. And in addition to the many challenges they faced in launching a new business, they had the added complexities of overcoming the ineffective status quo (policies, procedures, culture) of the former firm.

The lawyers asked me as a law firm consulting "generalist" to help guide their discussions. We used current knowledge of what other firms had done in similar situations to provide guidance on how to connect the separate parts of the new firm into a healthy whole.

As an outsider, I was able to accurately assess the firm's needs and suggest solutions that respected highly sensitive issues, both explicit and implicit, among the partners. Today the firm is an effective and cohesive whole, and continues to use firm meetings as a means to maintain consensus.

Unity of Focus and Purpose

Holding a firm retreat to create unity of focus and purpose is an often overlooked but helpful way to ensure the success of a merger. Mergers create a new, larger organization, likely spread out across the country or even the world.

Operating in the same consensus, collegial fashion that the separate firms may have had before their combination is a challenge. Yet failure to attain consensus and communication merely causes poor economic results and unhappy lawyers. If all members of the firm are not clear about the overall goals as well as specific objectives and strategies, there is no real firm leadership – and ultimately there may be no firm. A firm meeting is thus a small price to pay for the unity that is essential to an effective merger.

Edward Poll ( is a certified management consultant and coach in Los Angeles who coaches attorneys and law firms on how to deliver their services more profitably. He is the author of Attorney and Law Firm Guide to the Business of Law: Planning and Operating for Survival and Growth, 2nd ed. (ABA, 2002), Collecting Your Fee: Getting Paid from Intake to Invoice (ABA, 2003) and, most recently, Selling Your Law Practice: The Profitable Exit Strategy (LawBiz, 2005).