A lawyer recently said to me, “If I found out that I only had two days left to live, I’d want to spend it at my law firm’s partner retreat.  It’s always the longest 48 hours of my life.”

Unfortunately law firms spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on retreats that many partners find to be a boring waste of time.  The purpose for most firms’ retreats is a combination of fulfilling their partnership agreements requirement for an annual meeting, providing an opportunity for lawyers in disparate practices and offices the chance to get to know each other and to provide training.  There is no reason those objectives can’t be met while holding a retreat that partners’ view as a “must attend” event.

Here are some tips I’ve picked up as retreat best practices:

  1. Cut the annual meeting to 15 minutes.  Get rid of the reports of the audit committee and the loss prevention officer.  Unless there is some big contentious issue, just vote on the new partners and the executive committee slate and move on to more worthwhile things.
  2. Get rid of the State of the Firm address.  Give partners a briefing book to read on the way to the retreat covering all the presentations that would have been made by committee chairs, practice group chairs, industry teams and the Managing Partner.   Everyone in attendance can read faster than they can listen.  Don’t worry; the same partners who don’t read the materials in advance would have dozed through the presentations.
  3. Put partners together into small discussion groups.  Replace presentations with randomly selected small group breakouts on strategic topics.  That helps partners get to know each other and actively participate in the firm.  But don’t have the groups report back orally.  Have a recorder write a couple paragraph report and post it on the firm’s intranet.
  4. Do something memorable.  For not much more than the cost of a golf tournament you could bring in a big name speaker — a news anchor, famous author, government official, corporate CEO or futurist.  Give partners something memorable to tell their spouses and friends about.  If the speaker has written a book, make sure to buy copies and give them out to partners.  Just assure that the speaker is interesting and can build enthusiasm.
  5. Ditch the golf tournament.  No one is a more avid golfer than me, but for dollars spent, golf is a lousy retreat event.  It takes up five valuable hours and is limited to just four people getting to know each other.  Heck, most of the time partners end up self-selecting their teams to play with people they work with every day.  Organize an outing for golfers who want to stay an extra day but find a better recreational event for the retreat.

There’s nothing magic here.   Just follow the simple golden rule: “design an event that you would actually like to attend.”