Editor’s Note: The author is a consultant to law firms and a former practice leader of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius.
James D. Pagliaro, Partner, Bernero & Press, LLC
For most law firms, the annual partners meeting (or retreat) is a time for law firm partners to socialize, take stock, benchmark against peers, celebrate successes, and set goals. Most importantly, the meeting should be used by firm management to galvanize the partners and rally support for new initiatives in an effort to advance and improve the firm and its practices. With that in mind, I have gathered some of my thoughts on assembling the ingredients for a successful annual partners meeting, and, more importantly, one that has a lasting impact. According to lessons learned from experience, here are seven steps that law firm leaders should find useful in considering the ubiquitous annual partners meeting:
- Select a Compelling Theme, and Stick to It
Selecting a key business theme beforehand focuses efforts on choosing speakers, planning sessions, messaging the meeting, and developing follow-up steps in a disciplined and organized manner. Mixed messages, confused and conflicting themes, or disorganized, unfocused sessions are a recipe for failure. If, for example, a firm is struggling with financial hygiene, it should pull out the stops and address the topic head-on and from every angle at its annual meeting, and not confuse the meeting with sessions on marketing or the website.
A theme may encompass related subthemes as well. If the firm wants partners to focus on new business, for example, the overarching business developoment theme can be enhanced by sessions on developing industry expertise, or recruiting partners with new clients or practice lines. The point is that the theme not only sets the tone, but helps contribute substance to thesessions. Most importantly, a compelling theme enables firm management to develop a set of agreed-upon next steps to ensure that important points of consensus become baked into the firm’s goals for the new year. The theme should be well publicized before the meeting, and clearly linked to the leadership’s overall strategic vision for the firm’s future.
- Sweat the Small Stuff
Everyone has been there: a conference where the rooms are too small, there are not enough chairs, the speaker is late, the technology is not working, or there is no microphone for the speaker. It is hard to inspire confidence in firm leadership and its vision for a “first in class” law firm when the annual partners retreat becomes a logistical laughingstock. The best law firm managing partners select a committee to coordinate logistics: Ensure that there are enough hotel rooms, proper facilities, planning for sessions, appropriate technology, etc. There should be clear lines of authority, and most importantly, the MP should oversee every aspect well in advance of the meeting, in order to satisfy her/himself that everything is arranged and set to run smoothly and professionally. The partners meeting represents the business work product of a law firm, every bit as much as its website, marketing materials, and long-term financial planning.
- Find a Killer Keynote Speaker
Law firm managing partners need to address the partners at their annual meeting. Partners want and expect to hear from their leadership on the economic performance, the budget for the next year, and the leadership’s vision for growing and improving the firm and its practice. But law firm leaders shouldn’t fall into the trap of assuming that the MP’s “state of the firm speech” is a substitute for a killer keynote speaker at a retreat.
Once the firm has identified its retreat theme, the best way to communicate that theme is to find a compelling, dynamic, and credible outside speaker to bring home the key message. Often the outside expert adds ballast to the firm leadership’s message, and gives the partners comfort that the theme is one that has traction, and has generated results for other or competing professional services firms. One final note: Doyour research before you settle on a speaker. When selecting an outside speaker, don’t settle on someone without an interview, and without seeing evidence of dynamic speaking abilities. In selecting speakers, look for credible outsiders with a track record of professional successes and real-life experience. The best keynote speakers should be able to relate to a roomful of very sophisticated lawyers, most of whom have devoted their careers to developing significant oral advocacy skills. Satisfy yourself that the person can deliver something substantive and pithy, with humor, energy, and solid takeaways that will advance the meeting theme.
Let me share an example. At my prior law firm’s annual meeting, many years ago, we publicized the goal of increasing partner pro bono commitment as the key theme for our retreat. As MP, I was provided names and credentials from many of the firm’s traditional pro bono organizations showcasing their leaders as candidates for a keynote speaker. The suggested speakers were clearly qualified and committed to their causes, but they were the same people that our partners knew well and worked with every day. Likewise, some thought that as the managing partner for the litigation group, I should deliver a talk on the benefits of and need for increased pro bono commitment from the partners. I decided to go in a different direction. On the basis of a video I had watched on the internet, I selected instead a young lawyer working on the front lines of the Juvenile Death Penalty Initiative in a poor, rural area in the South This dynamic, compelling 30-something lawyer was dealing with life and death issues and enormous resource challenges every day. He was also managing to achieve some pretty amazing results for juveniles sitting on death row. He gave the most moving, thought-provoking talk I have ever witnessed at a firm meeting. At the conclusion, he had the partners on their feet applauding with great emotion, and pledging commitment and support to his initiative. They were also charged with enthusiasm for the firm’s commitment to pro bono work. I am certain that no one in the firm could have generated the same level of enthusiasm or moved the partners so effectively to action. I have witnessed similarly positive, if less emotional, responses to the kind of insightful and forceful keynote speeches that outline the business imperatives for survival and success in the current legal market.
- The Managing Partner Sets the Tone: Coach, Don’t Preach
One of the most disastrous opening speeches that I have ever heard at a partners meeting was delivered by the chair of a very large, major global law firm. His “state of the firm” opening presentation came to be known throughout the firm as his “This would be a great law firm, except for the partners” speech. The leadership of the firm was actually making tremendous strides in addressing the firm’s fiscal hygiene and getting the partners to act as “owners” of the firm, but the chair was frustrated by his inability to move things along in a quicker fashion. His frustration manifested itself in an opening address to the partners that sounded more like a high school principal hectoring recalcitrant students than the motivational vision of a leader of a successful global business. Law firm goals aren’t advanced when the chair or MP browbeats and lectures partners at the annual meeting. The best law firm leaders set the tone at a firm retreat by: 1) articulating a clear vision for the firm’s future; 2) benchmarking and celebrating successes; and 3) motivating the partners by data, a clear pathway to success, peer pressure, and powers of persuasion. In other words, law firm MPs should strive to be the supportive and motivational coach, not the school disciplinarian.
- Don’t Overschedule Partners: Support Socialization and Collaboration
The same law firm chair who disparaged instead of encouraging his partners also felt strongly that the firm should get its full money’s worth from gathering partners together once a year from around the world. Obviously, this expenditure—the expenses incurred in travel and hotel facilities, not to mention the missed opportunity costs—means that law firms should carefully consider the content of the annual meeting, make the sessions meaningful, and ensure partner participation. The downside can be what I call the Overscheduled Partner Syndrome. The fact that everyone is together for two or three days does not mean that every second of every day from breakfast to after-dinner drinks should be structured with or around some formal activity. The firm chair that I mentioned had every partner committed at every moment to some meeting, plenary session, formal meal with speaker, etc. The result was not only that the partners returned to work exhausted, but more importantly, with legitimate complaints about missed opportunities. Although the firm had all of the partners together in one place only once a year, there was no time to socialize, to meet new partners, to discuss their practices, to plan events and business development activities outside of the heavy-handed oversight of management. If firm leadership wants partners to act as business owners, it should treat partners like adults. Adults are voluntary learners. They learn best by being active in the learning process. Structure the annual meeting with enough time for partners to get to know each other, to share experiences and best-practice information. Plan for opportunities and settings for new partners or recent laterals to explain what they do and explore ways to help them cross-service existing firm clients. Provide environments where partners can meet as client teams, or plan business development for the upcoming year. Let partners have the time and support to develop their own strategies for growing and improving the practice.
- The Outsider’s Perspective: Get Partners Out of Their Comfort Zones
This may be one of the most important goals for ensuring an impactful annual meeting. At the typical annual law firm retreat, partners tend to gather in affinity groups, by office, practice, or experience. While there are some benefits and a level of comfort in spending time with friends, there are downsides to not mixing it up. Nothing new is learned when the same partners who work together every day gather in groups and resist change or new ideas by responding in chorus: “This is how we always do it.” This is an area where an outside law firm business consultant can add the most value. I find that I am called in to help firm leadership in most situations because of perceived resistance by many very successful, often hardworking partners to new ideas or directions. Studying firm dynamics, identifying and speaking to the thought leaders, and understanding the best arguments against change before the meeting will enable an outside consultant to assist a law firm in designing presentations and exercises that will bring disparate positions into play, and enable partners to educate each other about the need and advantages of change. Credible outsiders often can provoke discussion, ask tough questions, and address sensitive issues in a way that firm leaders cannot. Exploring institutional barriers to change through collaborative discourse and challenging set opinions can later be used to build consensus. The careful design and implementation of meaningful discussion/break-out sessions, led by firm thought leaders and generating feasible, practical suggestions for management action, can go a long way to getting buy-in from a broad swath of the partnership for meaningful progress.
- Take Ownership and Promise Results
One final point to emphasize is that the annual partners meeting belongs to the managers of the firm. Firm leadership has control of the financing, planning, messaging, content, and execution of the final product. The partners will judge the leadership by the results. In my practice, I spend a great deal of time focusing break-out sessions of the partners on developing consensus around a few tangible, feasible, and practical suggestions designed to advance management strategy. The most critical outcome of these sessions is the belief that firm management is listening to what the partners themselves have come up with, and pledges, on the spot, to take action on some or all of the points. Studies of adult learning principles show that people forget 50 percent of new information presented within one hour, and 90 percent within a week of hearing it. That is why the combination of: 1) a strong theme; 2) structured discussions and work around the theme; 3) powerful, repeated messaging about the firm’s goals; and 4) most importantly, concrete steps to follow up on what comes out of the annual partners meeting are the key ingredients to produce lasting impact for the law firm.
Conclusion: The annual partners meeting can present challenges, but just as many opportunities to advance the strategic plan of a law firm. The expense and lost opportunity costs of these meetings only make sense when balanced by the discipline of careful planning, clear goals, and a vision for what leadership hopes to accomplish by bringing the partners together once a year. Many law firms benefit from the advice of an experienced and credible outsider who can help identify goals both in planning and execution to ensure a successful and impactful annual partners meeting.