Strategy the key to getting things done on a firm retreat

  • April 20, 2017
  • Carolynne Burkholder-James

RetreatLaw firm retreats should be about more than just golf, experts say. With some preparation, a clear goal and agenda, these retreats can be a good opportunity for team building and strategic planning.

Sandra Bekhor is the president of Bekhor Management, a Toronto-based consulting firm that provides marketing and strategic planning services to professional practices and small to mid-sized businesses. She says that law firm retreats can be a chance for lawyers to get out of the day-to-day practise of law and focus on the bigger picture.

“Every law firm has higher-level objectives that they can’t get to during the week because they’re busy running their practice,” Bekhor says. “And if you don’t carve out that time outside of the office, outside of meeting with clients and managing your staff, you just never get to it.”

Lynn Foley, a partner of fSquared Marketing, a consulting firm that helps law firms with strategic planning, marketing and business and client development, says that improving workplace culture and teamwork is the goal at many law firm retreats.

“Depending on the size of the firm, the lawyers may not even know each other,” she says. “They may only see each other at firm functions or in the hallways.”

Getting away from the office can be a good way for lawyers to get to know each other and develop those relationships, says Foley, who is based in West Vancouver, B.C.

“Usually when people are in the office they’re focused on work,” she says. “A retreat is an atmosphere where people can let loose a little bit.”

When law firms are planning a retreat, however, Foley says it is important that they consider what they are trying to achieve instead of just having a retreat because the firm always has a retreat.

“Once you have that down, actually sit down and make a formal agenda,” she recommends, but be sure to leave time for team-building and socializing.

Bekhor agrees, recommending that law firms take the time to identify what they want to accomplish at a retreat.

“I think that the most important way to make law firm retreats effective is the pre-retreat work,” she says. “Once you figure out what is the point of this specific retreat, there is often a lot of homework to be done before you go into the retreat. You need to pull out some data, do a survey, do interviews either within the firm or with clients. You need to check out some information on trends in the sector.”

Bekhor says that it is important to put all that information together before the retreat begins “so you’re not all just staring at each other and blank walls.”

“My recommendation is that law firms allocate time towards some kind of strategic goal that the firm is trying to work toward,” says Foley. “For example, if the strategic goal is to improve the business development culture among the firm’s junior lawyers, we could put together a presentation from an external speaker about the different tools that they can use for business development and how they can be implemented. And then my recommendation is to use real life examples, so if there are partners who are rainmakers, they could talk about what works for them.”

As well, Foley recommends that the retreat agenda make use of breakout groups.

“Then the associates and the partners can get together as teams and start talking about real examples – target clients, target industries – based on those strategic goals,” she says.

The aim is for the lawyers to go back to work refreshed and ready to implement what they learned, adds Foley. “My recommendation is to make sure when a lawyer walks away from one of these retreats, they’ve walked away with tools, knowledge and momentum to go back to the office on Monday and say, ‘I know where my firm is trying to go. I know my role in it. I have the tools. I have the skills. This is what I can do’.”

Follow-up is also important, says Foley, who recommends checking in with the retreat participants to see how the strategic goal is being implemented about six weeks after the retreat.

“The retreat is meant to be the first step in the process to achieve those strategic goals,” she says. “If you are working towards that strategic goal at your firm retreat, at least on a quarterly basis you should evaluate how you are doing.”

The follow-through is just as important as the retreat itself, says Bekhor.

“There are three stages of a retreat,” she explains. “The first stage is before the retreat, the second is the retreat itself and the third is post-retreat. All three of them are equally important. The process should last the whole year. Either you’re planning for a retreat, you’re at a retreat or you’re implementing the action plan from the last one.”

Bekhor says the goal of the “post-retreat” is the implementation of action plans.

“Come up with a plan to manage the action plan so that it comes to fruition and fine tune as you go,” she recommends. “The action plans don’t need to stay with the people who are the participants of the retreat. Everyone at the firm can be involved in the action plan.”

Firms should also, where possible, track the return on investment.

“Retreats can take up a huge chunk of budget,” says Foley. “Look at what you allocated your time to at the retreat. For example, you discussed this industry, this client, this practice area. Then consider if you saw an uptick in that work.”

If law firm leaders do not think retreats are worth the money, Bekhor recommends considering if they have done retreats in the past and thinking critically about those experiences.

 “Understand what happened. Why did the retreats in the past go wrong?” she says. “Without doing the proper planning retreats can be a waste of time. Planning is key.”

Carolynne Burkholder-James is an associate lawyer with Heather Sadler Jenkins LLP.