Practice Management

Partner retreats

The early bird catches the worm is another way of saying that those who plan today will benefit tomorrow. This is true of law firms that actively plan their future and set firm-wide goals to be achieved within a defined timeframe and executed from partner level down to support staff. Weekend planning retreats offer an opportunity for the firm and the firm's management team to plan and agree on a committed strategy that will act as the practice's corporate compass for a few months or years, and gives the firm and its employees a sense of direction and growth into the future. A successful retreat can also have a positive spin on the mood of individual partners and a collective commitment of the employees of the practice to the future success of the firm. By the same token, a poorly planned partner retreat can be boring, expensive and seen as nothing more than a weekend of good food and drink charged to the corporate account. This article looks at a few key factors that will help you to ensure effective retreat planning and a catalyst to your firm's future success.

The planning partner
The pressure on today's legal practitioner means that most law firm management duties are ones that take precedence when "time permits" and then only when it does not detract from limited family time. The person chosen to manage the process should be someone who is naturally inclined to planning and is meticulous at organising. A dedicated person to this process leaves fellow partners to carry on with the day-to-day duties of their practice knowing full well that matters are in hand by the retreat planning partner for the upcoming weekend.

The appointed person, either working alone or with a committee (no more than four people), will be responsible for developing the agenda, preparing the material, managing logistics, organising financing and co-ordinating outside assistance. It is not a task for the faint-hearted, so choose your planner with care.


Timing
The retreat planner needs to tackle the timing issue as the first order of business. Any weekend retreat that is worth its weight in gold needs enough time to allow for the planning process to be completed prior to the start of the actual weekend retreat. The planning is dependent on several factors such as budget; preparatory research and information-gathering; logistics; invitees and participation of third parties; briefing and debriefing of invitees.

As a rule of thumb, partner planning retreats require about 2 to 3 months to prepare. This time will be spent by the retreat planner gathering information, developing the agenda, communicating the roles to the respective participants and invitees, logistics, transportation, material distribution and preparation of briefing documents. While this is ongoing, the retreat planner will, no doubt, still be required to run his or her own practice and, as such, time-planning is of the essence.

Invitees
This is dependent on the issues to be discussed and debated at the working sessions of the weekend retreat. If the issues are purely managerial and strategic, it then revolves around the partners. If the issues deal with aspects of implementation and monitoring of the firm-wide strategy, then invite both partners and professional staff. Perhaps the retreat is premised on training, in which case, all or certain key staff members will be invited to participate.

In larger law firms, trends are developing where professional managers such as accountants, HR practitioners and marketing managers are employed to manage the business side of the practice. It is vitally important, therefore, that these personnel be included at the planning retreat as they are integral members of the business team. The partners will look to them to execute and monitor the strategy and plans agreed upon at the planning sessions.

To ensure that the weekend retreat, and especially the working sessions, are kept energised, it is recommended that you planto include a short address by an outside guest speaker on an appropriate topic. The "break" in formal proceedings will give invitees a rest from proceedings and will re-focus them on the sessions to follow.

Conference facilitator
While the retreat planner is actively involved and responsible for putting together the weekend planning retreat, it is suggested that the actual working sessions of the retreat be handled by an independent facilitator. The facilitator assumes the role as "chairman" and ensures that all invitees stick to the planned agenda, have the opportunity to be heard and participate freely in debates and discussion points during the working sessions. The facilitator also allows the retreat planner, who is a member of the firm, to participate fully and equally in discussions without worrying about how the sessions are progressing and whether or not to take notes or act as mediator in times of heated debate.

The choice of a facilitator is very important and must be decided with care. The retreat planner should meet with the facilitator several weeks before the weekend session to plan and agree on the outcomes to be achieved. The facilitator should assist the planner in the development of the agenda and the time frame in which actions must be achieved. The facilitator should be a person of strong character in order to control debates and discussions when they become heated as well as someone who, besides from facilitation, can add value to the weekend by contributing to discussions or by giving a small talk/workshop to the invitees.

Locations and activities
Again, depending on the type of retreat you are planning, the location and social activities will be a complement to your agenda and focus for the weekend. Where possible and budget permitting, it is always a good idea to get away from the office environment, and preferably out of town. A change of environment will lead to a sense of "change" which helps with the planning process and will energise the invitees. Without derogating from the work to be achieved and the agenda items, it may be a good idea to include a few social activities as well. This, again, is dependent on the time available, the budget and the type of retreat you are holding. What is an absolute no-no is that the weekend turns into a party weekend or drinking session, especially if you still have further working sessions to complete the following day.

Time and duration
With family time at a premium today, partner planning retreats must be organised to be no more than 2-3 days in duration. Once the duration of the retreat is agreed on, the working sessions must be planned. Again, this depends on the agenda and the duration of the retreat. However, any working session that exceeds sixhours is too long and most partners will begin to drift off to sleep if it's any longer. With proper planning and time management, 5-6 hours a day in working sessions is ample time.

The Agenda
The agenda is the most important document to draft as it sets the tone for the working sessions of the retreat. The agenda not only determines the time to be allocated to working sessions, but will also deal with the issues to be raised and agreed upon during the retreat. Depending on the type of retreat being planned, the agenda would follow suit.

If, for example, a firm-wide strategy development weekend was being planned, it would include several important agenda items for discussion such as:

* Marketing research
* Competitor analysis
* Industry and Sector analysis
* Financial information
* Profitability
* Future direction and growth

If the weekend was based on looking at ways of improving operational efficiency, the agenda would perhaps deal with matters such as:

* Value chain analysis
* 3rd party service providers and suppliers (Re-look at service level agreements)
* Joint venture initiatives
* Human resources and training
* Financial management
* Partner management

If the weekend was to consider image and visibility, the agenda may include:

* Brand audit (SWOT analysis)
* 3rd party service providers and service level agreements
* External marketing strategy(brochures, advertising, events)
* Internal marketing strategy (staff, partners)

Partner preparation
As critical as the preparation of the agenda is, the preparatory work to be done by individuals invited to the retreat is even more important. The success of the retreat and the limiting of time-wastage can all be achieved through proper preparation. Once the agenda is prepared and agreed on, the retreat planner needs to timeously (at least a month before the retreat) send to each invitee a written briefing document to:

* Introduce the weekend retreat
* Outline the aims and objectives to be achieved
* Set out the agenda for the working sessions
* Highlight which invitees will be participating and what they will be doing
* Delegate "homework" to each invitee to prepare for the working sessions

Most lawyers have difficulty finding time for lunch these days, so the retreat planner must aggressively remind invitees to prepare. The best way to achieve this is to ask that a summary of the homework set for them be handed in a week before the commencement of the weekend retreat.This will be in the form of an executive summary which can then be forwarded to the other invitees so that they are fully informed about what each participant has done in preparation for the working sessions.

Create a theme
The success of the retreat will be much greater if you add a little fun into the mix. Create a theme for the retreat that reflects the agenda topics or something you want to achieve. Create a buzz around the event by planning a teaser campaign a week beforehand by e-mail advertising to the invitees, small gifts and messages of encouragement to the invitees prior to them leaving for the retreat. . Have the managing partner send an e-mail encouraging the partners to attend and also to participate fully in the planned weekend events. Also, at the retreat, have a few give-aways, trinkets and prizes to hand out during the working sessions or during the social activities. Take photographs of the weekend and make sure you distribute them when you get back to the office as a reminder of the activities. This all bodes well for team building and helps to create a sense of energy and excitement.

Debrief
Once the weekend has come to a close, the retreat planner should collate the information, resolutions, plans, etc., from the working sessions and send a summary document incorporating what has been discussed, agreed and resolved to the invitees. The debrief document should include timetables in which to accomplish agreed projects as well as to attribute project ownership to specific people. These people will then be responsible for accomplishing the tasks within the defined time limits so as to ensure that the strategy moves forward off the planning document and into action plans within the firm. The debrief document then acts not only as a summary of the weekend but also as the measurement tool for the success of the plans and initiatives taken.

Conclusion
Partner retreat planning is not rocket science and is not meant for the purview of big law firms only. It is an integral business planning tool that all law firms can and should employ to ensure there is further growth and relevance. With proper planning, design and facilitation, the success of the retreat can create a competitive advantage for the future growth and direction of the firm. It also acts as a catalyst for partners and invitees to connect and re-commit themselves to a strategy where everyone is looking in the same direction.

Sean Bosse is an admitted and practicing attorney with Herold Gie Attorneys in Cape Town. Sean has a strong passion for what he calls "The Business of Law" and the marketing of law firms. Sean is a regular contributor of strategy and marketing articles for GhostDigest as well as for a UK legal publication. Prior to returning to practice, Sean completed an MBA and worked as a strategic business manager for an international Internet service provider. Please feel free to mail him using sbosse@heroldgie.co.za

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