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Firm retreats: Business over pleasure


It used to be that a traditional law firm retreat allowed attorneys the chance to soak up some camaraderie along with a little sunshine.

But times have changed, say industry experts, and cost-conscious firms are more focused on efficiency than on 12-foot birdie putts.

Milwaukee-based legal consultant Elizabeth Ferris said she is seeing firms concerned about “more substance than extravagance.”

“The emphasis I’m seeing is on accountability,” she said. “Retreats now result in some sort of purposeful change and firms are less excited about a cheerleading session.”

Helms Briscoe account executive Christopher Bragoni helps book hotel stays for law firm retreats. He has seen a decline in the last year in firms’ heading to luxurious locales, and was unaware of any 2010 retreats featuring the traditional combination of business and recreation.

“A lot of firms have said they want to save money by driving to somewhere local and cutting out airfare,” Bragoni said.

That was the case for Milwaukee-based Godfrey & Kahn SC which skipped its annual firm-wide retreat in 2009.

Managing partner Richard J. Bliss said the decision was a cost-cutting measure, but even in the past, the firm held modest retreats in-state.

“Our offices are here in Wisconsin, so we don’t need to go to some resort in the desert during winter,” he said.

Michael Best & Friedrich LLP historically avoids firm-wide retreats in favor of smaller, practice-group oriented sessions.

Since she started 11 years ago, Director of Client Development Jennifer R. Rupkey said individual groups have met internally, sometimes on a monthly basis, to discuss strategy and business development.

“It seems to work for us and we don’t need to spend a lot of money flying to another location to bring everyone together,” she said.

This is particularly feasible as more and more communication can be done “in the virtual world,” said Ralph M. Cagle, director of the University of Wisconsin Law School’s Lawyering Skills Program.

Cagle noted that historically, firms would rely on annual gatherings as exercises in culturebuilding. “I sense that is probably much less common today,” he said.

Rupkey noted that a lot of attorneys are more involved in the day-to-day business operations of their firms than in the past, and wouldn’t get as much value from multiple day retreats outside of the office.

A new tradition

Some firms still conduct traditional retreats.

But they typically have a defined agenda, said Ferris.

She recently worked with a firm that wanted to increase the income generated by its lower lever partners. Eighty percent of the business was being brought in by equity partners and the firm wanted to better market its income partners.

“What they did at a retreat is trained the income partners on how to grow their practices,” Ferris said.

Ferris noted that another change for retreats is more emphasis on actually implementing the ideas that are discussed.

It was common, she said, for attorneys to view an annual retreat as something to check off their calendar, then come back to the office and conduct business as usual.

Now, Ferris follows up with some firms on a quarterly basis to see how initiatives discussed at a retreat are being implemented.

“If lawyers are not meeting their target goals or billable hours, that has a significant impact on the profitability of a firm,” she said. “A big difference in retreats is that accountability factor.”

Bliss agreed that firms need to periodically track progress of designated goals set forth during a retreat and he sees value in annual gatherings.

While practice groups within Godfrey & Kahn hold regular planning sessions, Bliss said he hopes to schedule a firm-wide retreat in 2010.

“If we’re going to implement any initiatives, we need to have regular milestones and check progress against those milestones and we’re clearly doing that,” he said. “And it’s helpful to have an annual time where we can sort of stop everything and take a look back.”

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