Opening Statements

No Retreat?

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If the party’s not over at many law firms, it’s turning into a more serious soiree—if firm retreats are any indication.

Retreats have become the most widely used forum for facilitating long-range strategic planning, ac­cording to St. Louis law firm management consultant John Olmstead.

At least, that was true before law firms got the wind knocked out of them in late 2008. But because of the economy, many firms are rethinking whether retreats are worth the expense.

Law firm management consultants say that retreats can cost as little as $100 per person per day for a no-frills event to, well, the sky’s the limit.

“I had one lawyer tell me her firm’s budget for a full retreat was more than $10 million,” says Edward Poll, a consultant who is based in Venice, Calif.

Some law firms are now dispensing with retreats altogether. More are dialing them back—way back.

Philadelphia-based Blank Rome traditionally held its annual partner retreat at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. But last year the law firm sent its managers to three of its largest offices to meet with partners.

“The leadership team came and discussed the year, goals and the strategic plan. We followed that with a cocktail hour. The savings were significant,” says firm spokes­man Topper Ray.

Drew Berry, however, wouldn’t cancel his firm’s retreat for anything. “The existence of these meetings continues to be really important—maybe even more important—in tougher times,” says Berry, who is chairman of Newark, N.J.-based McCarter & English. The firm typically spends about $100,000 on its annual retreat. “We all talk about cross-marketing, but the opportu­nities for face-to-face communica­tion are relatively limited if you want to sweep in all the partners.”

Olmstead also believes retreats are critical in a down economy. “In the recession of the early 1990s, many firms cut costs too far and found themselves at a disadvantage when the economy turned around,” he explains.

“Firms are asking what costs can be cut. There are certain investments that if you don’t do them, it will hurt you. Retreats can be one of those investments if they’re used for productive purposes.”

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