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Lawyers Get Away

Lawyers Weekly USA / November 27, 2000
By Michael M. Bowden

Twice a year, Jeff Keeter and Lee Crouch, partners in a five-lawyer firm in Wilmington, N.C., make the six-hour drive from the coast to Banner Elk.

Keeter has used retreats every six months since 1996 to cover a wide spectrum of needs and specific issues within the firm.

In one, they orchestrated a merger between two small firms. In another, they addressed a partner's retirement. In still another, they discussed the impact of a partner taking an extended leave to assist her husband, who'd been diagnosed with cancer.

But such major issues are only a small part of the story. In recent retreats, they've covered a personality clash between lawyers and staff members; simmering disagreements between partners on firm direction; promotions and compensation for associates; and a slew of office-procedure

At their final retreat of each year, they set goals for the coming year.

" We look at places where we may have splintered a little, we try to heal any fractures and wounds, and we work on our future budget and productivity, and how we want to grow as a firm."

Keeter and Crouch aren't alone. A growing number of lawyers have discovered the value of mixing work and play in at professionally-run retreats like that of Nancy Byerly Jones.

Nestled deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, the retreat bills itself as a calm oasis far from the demands of clients, staff, e-mail and voice mail. A place where they can sit back and concentrate on the health and future of their practice.

" We believe people focus better in an informal, mountain
environment like ours," she says. "It's kind of a package --resting and revitalizing and taking care of yourself, as well as taking care of business. We have meetings where everyone's focused on the issues, but we also want them to have time to play."

She says, the resort atmosphere is more than just window dressing. The mountain atmosphere -- with its whitewater rafting, ski resorts and hiking trails -- automatically shifts visitors into an "out-of-the-office," more relaxed, state of mind. This, she believes, fosters the kind creative thinking that produces results.

Still, the ultimate purpose of the retreat is to help lawyers practice law better.

"They're hiring me to do a job for them, for my experience and expertise as a consultant," Jones stresses. "The rest of it just sort of comes with the package."

Whether it's the mountain air, the concentrated focus on law firm well-being, or some combination of both, small-firm lawyers seem to agree on one thing: It works.

At first, Keeter's team held firm retreats at a local function hall with a nice river view.

But eventually they decided that they were still too close to the office. So now they drive across the state to Banner Elk, and they swear the inconvenience is worth it.

" Getting away is ideal," says Keeter. "It removes us from the stresses and pulls of the office, so we can really focus on the
tasks at hand -- whether that's planning for the future or addressing staffing needs. Removing ourselves from the battle gives us a better idea of what the battlefield is."

For each retreat, Keeter and Crouch meet with Jones to discuss the issues facing their firm. They're currently preparing for their next retreat, to take place later this month. Among the issues is associate advancement.

" We give her the topics we want to address at our retreat, and she does all of the homework and background to be able to effectively counsel us in those concerns," Keeter says.

For example, when high staff turn-over was a problem, Jones prepared anonymous questionnaires for existing staff members to help pinpoint any problems.

Because Jones has dealt with an array of law-firm management problems, she can focus discussions quickly and keep things moving so that they can hit every item on their agenda.

In addition to management issues, retreats can address personal challenges facing firm members. For instance, one retreat included a section that focused on a partner whose husband had terminal cancer. She wanted to stay at home with him for his final months.

" Thank goodness, we're all of the mindset in this firm that family comes first," Keeter says. "But there are a lot of practical issues to deal with when a partner says 'I'm going to be out of state for the next four or five months."

For instance, what cases could wait for her return? Which needed immediate attention? Who would be the most appropriate lawyer to continue work on each case? How would the lawyer's compensation be adjusted during
her absence?

When a retreat is held to address personality conflicts or policy disagreements between lawyers, Jones provides a third-party neutrality that keeps the discussion focused on problem solving.

Keeter acknowledges that it costs the firm time and productivity to take all of the lawyers out of town for a few days. But he says the results more than outweigh those costs.

"A two-day retreat, focusing on our long- and short-range problems and goals, makes us more effective and more efficient," he says. "The productivity we gain when we return is a lot more than the productivity we lost by missing two days at the office."

To ensure lawyers don't relapse into old habits, the retreat ends by formulating specific goals and deadlines. Reviewing these goals will be the first order of business at the next retreat, but progress is monitored at regular partner meetings.

"We don't wait until the next retreat to hold ourselves
accountable," Keeter says.

For example, in the case of the personality clash between a lawyer and a secretary, he repeatedly checks in with both parties about how much progress has been made in working through their differences.

Does it work? Keeter says the results speak for themselves. The interpersonal conflicts that lurk beneath the surface of almost any small firm are no longer much of an issue because most have been identified and ironed out. Which leaves Keeter's firm more time and energy to practice

A One-Third Law Firm Retreat?

Attorney Lucy McCarl practices in a three-lawyer firm in Lenoir, N.C. She's trying to transition her practice from predominantly domestic law to more estate work, and wanted to lay a firm groundwork for the change.

" Also, I was tired of being a lawyer who reacted instead of being more pro-active in my practice," she says. "I wanted to practice law in a revolutionary way; to be more selective about clients; to be more service-oriented; to get out of the small-town, small-firm habit of practicing law the same way it's been practiced for three or four generations."

McCarl gave them articles to read on the benefits of retreats, but no dice -- her partners insisted they could do it themselves.

McCarl disagreed. But was it possible for a three-lawyer firm to have an effective retreat with only one lawyer?

She decided it was. McCarl says the lawyers in her firm function pretty independently; most of her daily work is done with her paralegal, Carole Walker. So she and her paralegal headed off to Banner Elk alone.

To narrow her issues, McCarl and Walker got together in the office and brainstormed. They came up with several broad items about her practice transition; office procedures; time, billing and fee structures; and a couple of private concerns.

" We were going to accomplish a whole, whole lot," says McCarl.

They handed the list over to Jones, who followed up with a telephone conference and several suggestions about how to narrow the issues even more and maximize the productivity of the retreat.

The final list still left them plenty to deal with Ð they sampled case management programs, discussed a wide range of possible approaches to paper flow in the office, and drafted a new policy for screening potential clients.

McCarl and Walker left the retreat with a list of simple action plans -- including a vow to screen clients more carefully and automate case management. But Walker feared the changes wouldn't stick in an office environment that was, at best, indifferent to their innovations.

For example, she returned to an office where the other partners still operated on the age-old assumption that any client is a good client, and relied on a paper filing system. Walker feared the gravitational pull towards the old ways would prove irresistible.

So McCarl made herself accountable.

" I told Carole, look, I'm not coming up here and spending a
thousand bucks of my own money for everything to be the same!" McCarl says. "I'm authorizing you to say, 'Lucy, we're getting off track here!"

Within a couple of weeks after the retreat, her will for change was tested when a major case reached trial. Both McCarl and Walker were so busy for several weeks that their resolutions to use a computerized case management system fell by the wayside, and they began to fall back on using the old client intake forms.

When the smoke cleared, it would have been easy to say, "Oh well, we tried," and give up. But McCarl and Walker went through their backlog of work and painstakingly re-processed it through the new system. Several months later, they're still on the wagon, and both constantly check the other to ensure that they stay that way.

Jones notes that the fact McCarl invited her paralegal along for the retreat illustrates how good their relationship is, and how likely they are to succeed in their efforts. A possible follow-up retreat is in the offing for next year, but for now, "We've got enough on our plate!" McCarl says.

For solos and small-firm lawyers considering a retreat, McCarl has just two words: "Do it."

A Family Affair

Al Kirby's Clinton, N.C., firm consists of three lawyers and
five support staff. Last summer, Kirby took the whole crew along with their spouses and children Ð to Banner Elk for two days in the mountains, as a morale booster and a "thank-you gift."

It was a non-threatening approach to a serious problem. Despite good lawyering in the office, Kirby was concerned that unreliable office procedures were creating a malpractice risk. He needed to create a more reliable system for getting telephone messages to lawyers, getting deadlines and court dates properly calendared; in general, getting his lawyers and staff in sync.

These concerns were addressed in a tightly paced half-day session, in which lawyers and staff were able to freely explain the problems from their respective points of view, and come up with some tentative action plans to make the office run more smoothly.

" It was pure democracy," Kirby says." This is a time
that we do away with our different positions and authority -- we're all equal, head partner or receptionist."

Also, Kirby's decision to make the retreat primarily "fun"
and to invite families ensured that the meeting didn't feel
"threatening." And Jones' moderation helped keep office
procedures the subject of criticism -- not people.

"Even the non-work portions of the weekend helped achieve that overall goal of communication and camaraderie," Kirby says.

" We get so bogged down in day-to-day business, we never have a chance to really talk about the quality of office life; things that can make the office run better," he explains. "I wanted a chance to get away from it all, and just deal with what's going on with the firm itself, and come up with ideas and solutions."

After the formal meeting, the firm members and families engaged in some planned activities together, and also enjoyed time by themselves; but everyone ate dinner together at a cookout each night.

" I wanted it to be fun," Kirby says. "We did a lot of things together because I wanted each member of the firm to see their neighbor in a different setting, other than sitting in front of a computer terminal."

Back at the office, the focus has been on follow-through, with frequent meetings to check on individuals' progress toward stated goals. Kirby says lawyer-staff relations are much friendlier, and there's less fear of offering constructive criticism.

" We haven't done everything like we should have, but we're working on it," Kirby says.

" Ninety percent of it, we're doing."

Whatever's left over will certainly be dealt with next summer when the firm heads to Banner Elk again.

" We're going to make it a yearly event," Kirby says.

© 2000 Lawyers Weekly Inc., All Rights Reserved.

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