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Setting Your Objectives for 2014

A process for planning an enjoyable and effective firm retreat

settingyourobjectives

Managing partners in many of the more financially successful, progressively managed firms have planned or are in the process of planning partner retreats to develop their firms’ professional and economic objectives for 2014, and to outline strategies for achieving those goals.

Partners in many firms retain consultants to plan and facilitate retreats that are specially designed to assess partners’ perceptions about how well the combination of their firm’s leadership and governance, policy determination and implementation, cultures, strategic planning process, partner compensation system and client base, brings out the energies and talents of their attorneys. Other issues of significant importance are discussed concerning the future of the firm and then, together with partners, recommendations are developed about how to deal with these issues.

Retreat Objectives

The retreat should be viewed as a practical management tool that can be wielded in a variety of ways to assist the firm in achieving its objectives. The structure, discussion format and duration of the retreat will invariably be determined by what the firm wants to achieve.

Below is a list of representative discussion topics that have been addressed during retreats that we have planned and facilitated:

  • Identification of opportunities that will enhance the bottom line;
  • Practice areas to invest in, maintain or de-emphasize;
  • Internal and external trends the firm should take advantage of in the next three to five years and geographic expansion;
  • Enhancing relations with existing clients and developing relationships with potential clients;
  • Improving service by broadening or narrowing the firm’s focus;
  • Proposing alternative fee arrangements (i.e., other than hourly billing);
  • Dealing with under-utilized attorneys and staff;
  • The feasibility of retooling/reassigning partners, associates and staff from underutilized practice areasto different practice areas instead of terminating personnel;
  • Changes in compensation—partners and associates—to include providing financial incentives to motivate partners to cross-sell legal services to existing clients and cultivate new prospects within the current and potential marketplace; changing associate pay structures to reward performance and changing partner draw schedules to preserve cash; and
  • Increasing lateral recruitment and merging to upgrade and expand the firm’s expertise to better serve existing and potential clients.

The Planners

The retreat planners should be selected by the firm’s management after considering the objectives of the retreat. A smaller firm may assign the planning function to one or two partners. Larger firms usually designate a committee of partners assisted by the office administrator.

By involving a diverse representation of partners in the planning process, lawyer management can reaffirm its credibility and establish a basis for consensus. In many instances, this mixture of partners is politically expedient and ultimately critical to the success of the retreat. By drawing the various factors into the planning process at the initial stage, the firm begins to acknowledge the importance of issues that may be disrupting its unity.

At this juncture, the firm should determine whether the use of an outside consultant would be beneficial. If the subjects to be addressed are of a highly sensitive nature, or are subjects which the firm’s partners have limited or no experience addressing, an experienced law firm consultant may indeed be essential. A consultant is particularly beneficial in instances where a firm may wish to address such topics as organization, profit distribution, long-term strategic planning, approaches for retiring unfunded pension obligations, reductions in staff or potential mergers.

The consultant can function as a leader, lecturer, adviser, facilitator and resource on specific topics. He or she also can assist in the planning process, and in gathering and analyzing firm financial data and providing background on subjects for educational purposes.

The next phase in planning involves interviewing the firm’s managing partner and members of the executive committee and surveying by personal interview or questionnaire all or a representative number of the partners. The number of partners to be surveyed is frequently determined by the objectives of the retreat. The more sensitive the issues to be discussed, the more important it is that all of the partners be surveyed through interviews and/or questionnaires to obtain their perceptions about which subjects should be discussed during the retreat. Partners may be more willing to open up to an outside consultant than to discuss sensitive issues with another partner.

It will be especially beneficial to cross-tabulate and analyze the  results of the interviews/questionnaires by age of the partners; whether the partners are lateral hires or have progressed through the firm’s career development program; primary practice areas; and office location. These results, when analyzed in relation to other partners’ responses, usually provide valuable insights about the attitudes of partners.

Admittedly, the interview/questionnaire survey process is time consuming, but we have found it to be a particularly effective method of drawing all the partners into the planning process. Interestingly enough, we have discovered that responses to the questionnaires/interviews reveal that there is more common ground among firm members than may be apparent at the beginning of the retreat planning process.

Once the issues raised by the partners in the interview/questionnaire are reviewed against the proposals submitted by the managing partner, the planners should have adequate information to use in developing an agenda for the retreat.

The format of the retreat should be determined by the retreat’s primary objectives, the participants attending the various discussions, partners only, partners and associates, or a combination. I frequently suggest that the retreat be held at a facility away from the office. Such a facility usually offers participants the opportunity to socialize to a greater extent than they otherwise would in the office, and to personalize relationships and gain greater appreciation of each other.

From a planning perspective, the agenda should: include dates, times, locations, description of the meeting formats (i.e., meeting of the whole, workshops or a combination), retreat discussion leaders and participants attending the discussion sessions (i.e., partners only, associates only, or both partners and associates).

Economic data and other background information pertinent to the issues that will be discussed should be available to participants prior to the retreat. If a possible merger with another firm or lateral hires are to be subjects for discussion, it is recommended that pro forma financial statements be prepared and distributed to the partners in advance of the retreat, showing the likely impact of the implementation of these plans.

A retreat workbook should be published and distributed to all participants prior to the retreat. It should include the overall agenda and discussion outlines or background information about each of the selected topics, the firm’s financial data and analysis, survey results and other pertinent data. This handout material serves a dual purpose. It helps prepare all participants, both leaders and partners, for their roles at the retreat and the economic data included in the workbook is beneficial in establishing a springboard for future planning.

The Leaders

Retreat leaders should be selected on the basis of their leadership and communications skills, knowledge and insights about the firm, objectivity, and ability to generate and control discussions on specific topics. Generally, partners representing various age groups and practice areas may be selected to serve as discussion leaders. Many firms intentionally assign responsibility for discussion to younger or midlevel partners to expose them to their colleagues and encourage greater participation in firm administration.

The retreat leaders should understand the objectives of the retreat and be responsible for stimulating and controlling the discussions. The leaders must make every effort to insure that all partners participate and are adept at eliciting responses from any hesitant participants. If the retreat topics include sensitive issues, the planners may wish to articulate specific ground rules that set forth methods for dealing with those subjects in a manner that fosters diplomacy.

We encourage having open and reasonably candid, yet respectful discussions about each retreat topic, but are proponents of the theory that any comment or criticism with a negative shading should be balanced by a suggestion for improvement.

The final phase of the retreat should emphasize the follow-up of action plans agreed upon during the retreat.

The executive committee or the retreat planning committee should assume the role of overseer to make certain that a written summary of the proceedings is prepared which identifies action plans agreed upon, the partner responsible for implementation or status reporting to the partners and the date for implementation of status reporting. The committee should also arrange for publication and distribution of the notes to the partners, and establish follow-up procedures for reporting on the status of those action plans.

The extent to which the partners are willing and able to implement policies and programs agreed upon at the retreat will determine their level of commitment to the firm for the future.

Joel A. Rose

Joel A. Rose is a certified management consultant and president of Joel A. Rose & Associates Inc., management consultants to law firms based in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. He has extensive experience consulting with private law firms, and performs and directs consulting assignments in law firm management and organization, strategic and financial planning, lawyer compensation, the feasibility of mergers and acquisitions, and the marketing of legal services. He may be contacted at jrose63827@aol.com; Telephone: (856) 427-0050 or (800) 381-1645, Fax: (856) 429-0073.

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Filed Under: Featured StoriesPractice Management

About the Author: Joel A. Rose is a certified management consultant and president of Joel A. Rose & Associates Inc., management consultants to law firms based in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. He has extensive experience consulting with private law firms, and performs and directs consulting assignments in law firm management and organization, strategic and financial planning, lawyer compensation, the feasibility of mergers and acquisitions, and the marketing of legal services. He may be contacted at jrose63827@aol.com; Telephone: (856) 427-0050 or (800) 381-1645, Fax: (856) 429-0073.

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