Q: I have always heard that law firm retreats are terrible. Is there any way to improve them?
A: Yes.   I’ve spoken at over 100 retreats in recent years and there seems to be a fairly consistent theme: they want enough substantive information to justify the get-together — but they want it to be fun.
The firm wants to impart good, useful, practical information, but since the lawyers are taking time away from either the office or their families, they don’t want it to be painful. So the best-organized retreats I’ve seen have a nice balance of both. There’s an agenda with specific goals to accomplish, and tangible action items that flow from the activities, but that’s often just undertaken in the morning sessions.
The afternoon and evening are dedicated to fun and relaxation, often with the spouses invited along. Golf tournaments, tennis, spas, shopping, baseball games, sight-seeing — I even spoke at a retreat where the entire firm, every single lawyer (and, yes, the consultant too…) went paragliding – i.e. jumping off a 10,000-foot mountain attached to a high-tech parachute.  I’ve seen firms hire hypnotists, comedians, politicians, artists, mountain-climbers, astronauts, quarterbacks and coaches – often very successfully.  Sometimes not.
I think the bonding that can occur in a relaxed environment outside of the office is important to solidify the firm’s culture and increase cross-selling — if you don’t have close friends in the other floors, offices, or practice groups, you’re not going to be willing to cross-sell their services.
I’m typically asked by the marketers or management to make my programs particularly “fun” — to keep them educational, but make sure they’re also entertaining. The firms want their people laughing, having a good time while they’re learning, because they want the lawyers to enjoy the retreat programs enough to be willing to do it again next time. And forcing the attorneys to sit through a dull lecture makes the marketers look bad, and reinforces the negatives that you mentioned.
In my experience, some of them might grumble a bit about time away from the home or office, but if the programs have been sufficiently useful, they don’t seem to really mean it. The retreats I’ve seen that are organized well by marketers who know the drill and the personalities of their lawyers have been very successful by all objective measures.
Oh, and there should be lots of free stuff too. Logo shirts, beach towels, jackets, etc.
Lawyers love getting free stuff.

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