Taking the Lead: The Benefits of a Retreat

In Taking the Lead, Law Practice Editorial Board member Karen MacKay together with guest authors, tackle the ins and outs of running a law firm, providing expert guidance that every managing partner can use.

There are four core human drives identified by Harvard professors Paul R. Lawrence and Nitin Nohria in Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices:

  1. The drive to acquire stems from the basic human instinct to survive. It can be seen in our efforts to gather food, status and power.

  2. The drive to bond is based on our need to connect with others for reproduction, social interaction, sharing/trading and protection from predators.

  3. The drive to learn allows us to accumulate and transmit knowledge from generation to generation. This is where we develop our beliefs about how the world works or ought to work—in other words, ideologies (which distinguishes humans from animals).

Karen MacKay

by Karen MacKay, MBA, CHIC

  1. The drive to defend protects us from environmental risks by encouraging us toward fight or flight. In many ways, it takes into account all the other drives because we are called to defend not only our bodies but also our possessions, power, relationships, knowledge and ideologies.

Leaders should leverage these natural human drives by revisiting the purpose of off-site retreats.


Lawyers all too often have their heads down, focused on client service, hitting metrics and carving out family time. They also have a strong need to learn. Create the opportunity to provide solid educational content that raises the collective knowledge of the group on realities that are impacting the profession, the firm and the individuals who will need to embrace change to thrive in the future.

Educate your colleagues on the new financial realities of the firm. Many senior lawyers still hope that things will go “back to normal.” But there’s a “new normal” that involves new competitors with different profit models. The new normal has more sophisticated clients, large and small, who have new demands in terms of solutions, service and cost. The new normal will require fee-based staffing where matters are handled profitably.

A complete financial analysis of your firm, combined with raising awareness about how the organization stacks up against its competitors, can powerfully refocus the collective energy on creation of a unique new normal.


You can’t pass law school with a team, and you can’t pass business school without one. Law of the past has created highly independent, competitive and autonomous solo players in many firms. Often, the smaller the firm, the more independent its lawyers are. To win the competition for clients in the future, teamwork is your first and best defense. Teamwork enables leaders to know that the right work is getting to the right desk and at the right cost to the client. Teamwork enables leaders to know that talent is being developed and stretched. Teamwork, when done right is more profitable—period.

To win the competition for talent in the future, teamwork can be your best advantage. Teamwork, however, often requires new awareness of self and the needs of others. For many, it requires a new set of skills. When a client requires use of a project management methodology, the law firm must invest in skill building. A retreat is a place to get people out of the office and give them an opportunity to build collaboration skills. When done well, a retreat is an opportunity to reengage your colleagues in the business of the firm.


Astute leaders plan retreats to create opportunities that wake people up, engage them in new ideas and encourage full participation. Leaders of the future will ask more questions and do more listening. At an off-site meeting, leaders can listen to what is being said, to what is not being said and gauge the emotional temperature of the firm.

When well facilitated and with the opportunity to work “on the business” of the firm, the social bonding that is so important to a retreat is more meaningful. Colleagues see each other in new ways when they have worked together, and become armed with raised self-awareness and the experience of collaboration.

The Reasons for Retreats

The retreat of the future is not a boondoggle. Retreats are important to winning the competition for talent and for clients; they’re an opportunity to be creative, collaborative and innovative. Leaders who leverage these opportunities go beyond defense of the status quo, inspire new thinking, and create the space for colleagues and the firm to achieve more than ever imagined.

phoenix logo - Legal Consulting




This article originally appeared in the July/August 2012 edition of Law Practice magazine, a publication of the American Bar Association. Copyright © Phoenix Legal