YOUR LEGAL WRITES: Retreats, rapport and relationships

By Kathryn E. Brown | Jun 7, 2007


CHARLESTON -- Summer months usually are reserved for client appreciation functions, which stem from traditional golf tournaments to old-fashioned pig roasts.

The purpose is to thank clients for their work while becoming more acquainted with those individuals who aren't as well known.

Ironically, those are the same reasons why law firm retreats are planned. Mixing business with pleasure, firm managers and practice area leaders invite everyone to congregate under one roof to celebrate the past and plan the future.

Part business meeting and part firm reunion, management retreats require a substantial amount of time, energy, and financial resources to be successful. Even when everyone has an enjoyable time and accomplishes a few things during the course of the retreat, one question looms: Was all of this really necessary?

Kevin DiGregorio, Ph.D., is the president of Impact Professional Services, a business coaching and consulting firm located in Cross Lanes. DiGregorio believes that company retreats serve a valuable purpose, if the event is practical in nature and filled with information that people can use to be more productive.

Discovering what everyone else in the firm is doing and thinking can be the best utilization of time.

"In general, larger companies have executives who can take a really broad, high-level view and concentrate on long-term strategy, but many executives are too involved with the day-to-day operation of their business to do that," DiGregorio explained. "These executives use retreats once or twice a year to focus on longer-term thinking," he said.

DiGregorio stated that retreats are designed to make participants focus on a specific issue or opportunity. These types of structured meetings provide a platform for issues that aren't discussed on a regular basis, such as the development of communication strategies, new levels of leadership, and teamwork expansions.

For retreat planners, the hard part isn't sparking conversation. The challenge is making people want to attend a meeting that can last a few hours to a few days, when they're already behind in work. The idea of spending more time talking is not appealing to these individuals, who resent being pulled away from their families for yet another "thing" at the office. Some firm directors anticipate negative reactions to marathon meetings, so they eliminate the barrage of excuses by extending an open invitation to spouses and children.

However, that's just additional stress for planners, who have to think of additional ways to keep everyone happy. DiGregorio stated that he tends to steer clear of agendas that are filled with more social events than working sessions.

"I prefer to use the workplace to get to know each other," he said. "Most of our effective teambuilding comes in how we work together day in and day out. Teambuilding sessions should be used to help groups determine what their barriers are and how to overcome them."

If retreats are filled with work and no play, DiGregorio warns of other potential disasters.

"An overly aggressive agenda will often cause people to miss key points," he continued. "Too much stuff dilutes the main message. Too few breaks cause discomfort and sleepiness. Too many speakers can make a retreat seem disjointed."

To avoid meeting mishaps, DiGregorio suggested that organizers spend time developing a clear, flexible agenda. He recommended that companies and firms hire an outside facilitator, noting that most CEOs aren't able to function throughout the entire retreat as a leader and participant. DiGregorio asked that organizers keep the events professional in nature, avoiding silly games, exercises, and icebreakers.

An informal atmosphere should pertain to a relaxed dress code, comfortable meeting rooms, and casual dining. Humor must be a key component of lengthy meetings, but all laughing aside –- the goal is to end the retreat with concrete action plans and a list of "next steps."

Legal consultants argue that retreats are necessary to boost morale, improve working relationships among lawyers, and establish firm standards. If a law firm consists of more than one office, the only way to communicate unity is through regular get-togethers.

Used as a verb, the word retreat means to withdraw or retire. Fans of these particular functions would argue that the term also means to lead back. Critics may choose to use the word as a noun, defined by as an asylum –- as for the insane.

Brown is the managing member of The Write Word, LLC, a professional writing and editing agency based in Charleston.

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