Partner retreats – valuable for any partnership…

by Andrew Otterburn

Partner retreats or conferences are a great management tool – an ideal vehicle for making tricky decisions, for building cohesion and for bringing on the next generation.  It is easy to see the retreat as end in itself and, whilst simply going away does bring benefits, careful planning can yield very much more.   A retreat or partner conference is really part of a process and to gain maximum benefit it is necessary to invest time in preparation, for the retreat itself and for successful follow up afterwards. 

Partner retreats or conferences are a great management tool – an ideal vehicle for making tricky decisions, for building cohesion and for bringing on the next generation.

Planning for the Retreat

It can be hugely beneficial for the partners (and very often also the professional managers) in a firm to periodically go away and spend time together.  Normally once a year and typically for 24 hours.  Friday lunchtime to Saturday lunchtime often works well.  There is something about being off site, having time and enjoying the company of your colleagues that is very good for a partnership.  

Such events have become especially important as firms have grown in size and have become more departmentalised, with partners on different floors, often in different buildings, sometimes in different cities and towns.  In many firms partners only meet each other at partner meetings and these can be infrequent and relatively formal, seated around a table.  The topics can also often be tricky and the format is rarely conducive for a proper discussion.  It can be especially difficult for junior partners to contribute.  Very occasionally firms have food after partner meetings however they are the minority – and not everyone stays!  The result can be partnerships drifting apart and tricky issues becoming more difficult to resolve.

It does wonders for the health of a partnership and can be a key part of the process of developing strategy and introducing change in a firm.

A retreat provides a great opportunity to spend time with each other and represent an excellent opportunity to discuss difficult subjects.  There is something about having dinner together, having a drink together and then having breakfast together that on a human level is very powerful.  It is great to see the normally reserved finance partner making his colleagues laugh at his stories and inspiring to hear the contributions of younger partners.  It can remind partners why they are in partnership together and that they like each other. 

I was really pleased last year to be told at breakfast on Saturday that the hotel had asked my client to leave the private dining room we had used for dinner and move to the bar as it was getting late and they were disturbing the guests above.  Great that they were so enjoying being with each other!  As I say, it does wonders for the health of a partnership and can be a key part of the process of developing strategy and introducing change in a firm.

You do not have to use an external facilitator but in my experience it can make a retreat far more successful.   It enables the managing partner to relax and contribute and also means you obtain an external view, which can be very useful as many partnerships can be insular, with many of the partners not having worked anywhere else.  I believe it is always better to use someone with experience of the legal sector or of partnerships – and there are several good people around with strong experience of law firms.  Don’t use a generic facilitator as law firms are different, or rather partnerships are different!   You need someone who understands the culture.

Get the date in everyone’s diary well in advance

I find the best retreats are those where the partners are given several months notice – at least five or six months.  This means it can be put in everyone’s diaries at an early stage (especially important if it is to include a Saturday) and also gives the firm plenty of time to prepare.

Sometimes firms approach me about a retreat in say four or five weeks time – sometimes they work, but invariably the whole process becomes rushed.  It is much better to plan ahead.

Establish your objectives and what you hope to achieve

Some firms have an annual partner retreat or conference and they are an established part of the firm’s calendar. This is especially the case for Top 100 and larger Top 200 firms.  Many Top 200 firms and most smaller firms do not have one every year and generally there is a reason for holding one, so make sure you understand the rationale and why you are holding it. 

To take two recent clients – in one case it was all about succession and identifying the next managing partner, for the other firm it was mainly about strategy and agreeing an overall vision for the firm, something that will influence its development over the next ten to fifteen years.  For a third client it was primarily about bonding as a partnership.  Some important decisions were taken but they were not the main driver, which had been boosting partner morale.

Invest time in planning and preparing for the retreat

This needs to be done internally by the partners involved organising it, but also by anyone external facilitating it.  They need time to meet  the key people, understand the issues and get to know the personalities.

For one of my recent clients the retreat was in September and the first planning meeting was in February when I met with the managing partner and his team.  A very well managed Top 200 firm he had already established three working groups looking at governance, the role of partners, and strategy.  These comprised most of the salaried and more junior equity partners together with the firm’s professional managers and had already been working on the issues for three or four months by the time I had my first meeting.  I met up with these groups once a month for the following six months.  There were many objectives behind the working group approach but they included devoting time to working through some complicated key issues, exposing younger partners to management problems and providing these newer partners with a voice.

With most of my clients I also meet many of the staff, especially the associates in the firm, and invite all staff to contribute to a confidential survey.  This enables me, as someone from outside, to pick up the mood within the firm and to benchmark it with others on areas such as communications and staff motivation.

The retreat itself

It is remarkable how quickly the retreat actually goes.  In practice there is just an afternoon – say four hours from 2.00pm to 6.00pm, the evening and the following morning – maybe another three or four hours, and the time will pass quickly.  That is why you need to do as much of the “real” work in advance as in reality there is very limited time at the retreat itself.

The main outcomes are likely to be reaching agreement on some of the proposals from working groups and having a great time together.  The value of the latter should not be understated – the benefits of harmony amongst the partner team are huge.

Go off site

A partner retreat can be run in house in one of the boardrooms, and this keeps the cost down, but in my experience it is much better to get everyone off site – a country hotel works well and puts everyone in the right frame of mind.

Make it residential

Once again there can be a temptation just to make it a day meeting, in part so as to keep the cost down, but it does make a difference staying away.  It is a great way to strengthen the bond between partners and boost morale.

Make the most of the people in the room and the setting

Retreats can be used as a highly effective way of promoting younger partners and giving them visibility. 

I always find sessions that can be led by the most junior partners and their input and ideas are always refreshing, sometimes eye openers!  I also use the dinner to continue the discussions.  With one of my recent clients I asked one of the junior partners, someone with the skills to be a future managing partner, to paint her ideas of what the firm and its markets might look like in 2030?  This led to a stimulating discussion of what the firm needed to do now to get there.

Retreats can be used as a highly effective way of promoting younger partners and giving them visibility. 

Country hotels and nice weather can provide great opportunities to work outside.  Break out groups outside are an excellent way of helping people relax and to really enjoy being with their colleagues.  Earlier this year during the amazing week of sunshine we had in late February I was facilitating a managing partner conference in the Cotswolds and one of the most valuable sessions was outside in the sun.  A group of fifteen managing partners of Top 100 and 200 firms standing for around twenty minutes.  It was both enjoyable and highly productive. 

After the retreat

Many retreats do not live up to expectations because of poor follow up.  As indicated earlier, the retreat is not normally an end in itself but part of a process and if you are to achieve the objectives identified at the outset you need effective follow up.

Issue follow up notes promptly

It is an obvious point, but it is important that someone is taking notes of points that are agreed and that an action plan is circulated promptly after the retreat.  I try and do them for my clients quite quickly afterwards so that they can be circulated by the end of the first working day back.  It just helps to confirm what was agreed.

Identify who will lead the follow up

The follow up will normally be led by the managing partner but often further work is required on some of the areas that have been discussed so more people need to be involved.  If you have used sub-groups before the retreat it may be appropriate for these to continue afterwards.

Update the rest of the firm

Once again it is an obvious point, but if the retreat has been a success share this with everyone else.  The staff will have known you were going away and some of them may have contributed to the preparation, and most will be interested in knowing how it went.

It also increases the chances that things will get done if you go public and share more widely the main points that have been agreed.  Many actions will require the wider input of the firm’s staff to make them happen so the more they are aware of what was agreed the more likely they are to happen.

In particular it may be useful to run a small number of internal briefing sessions, perhaps with senior fee earners who were not at the retreat, to share your thinking with them and to make them feel involved.  Retention of key fee earners and their motivation is an important issue for many firms and this is a very effective way of making them feel involved and valued for very little cost.  It is one of the ways better-run firms retain staff – by making them feel involved.

Meet again reasonably soon

The mistake some firms make is that they put lots of energy and effort into the retreat but then revert to the routine of regular monthly partner meetings without any meaningful follow up.  It is a good idea to meet again three or four months later to take stock, report progress, move the discussions forward and agree the next set of action points.  You don’t need to go off site, and an afternoon may be all it takes, but it works and helps to keep the ball rolling.

Just for larger firms?

Any firm with more than, say, ten partners will undoubtedly find a periodic partner retreat very useful.  Possibly hold them every two or three years?

Smaller firms will also find an opportunity for partners to spend time together away from the office incredibly useful.   One of the most successful firms I work with have just three equity partners and they go away for a weekend together each year – hugely valuable time together. 

Another client with five partners found that because they were a small group and all based in one office they knew each other well and therefore didn’t need a retreat from a bonding perspective, but did find it very useful to go off site a couple of times a year to focus on strategy.  In their case we made it a day meeting at a local hotel.  Another client with seven partners also found they did not need to go away but that an afternoon out of the office at a local conference centre, followed by dinner in the evening and a short session the following morning very helpful.  It gave them time to discuss issues that needed more than a short partner meeting.

Summary

Partner retreats or conferences are a great vehicle for achieving change in a firm but to derive real benefit time needs to be invested before during and after the event.  The retreat itself is only part of the process.  Typically, when I facilitate a retreat I may spend two days at the actual retreat but ten to fifteen days beforehand helping the firm prepare.  The time invested before and after will have a direct impact on its success.

This article was first published in the Solicitor’s Journal (May 2019).

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by Andrew Otterburn

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