On the Law Firm Retreat Blog, you’ll find insights, ideas and practical tools that help groups of lawyers meet together better.

If you’d like to talk about how to use these techniques in your next conference, retreat or meeting, drop me a line. I’d love to help!

Don’t Do It Yourself

Lots of firms want to have one of their lawyers — often a trial lawyer or rainmaker who’s “really good with people” — to facilitate their retreat.  Johnnie Moore and Viv McWaters, in a new eBook (.pdf)  on Creative Facilitation, explain why that’s not such a great idea:

Is it best to use an internal or external facilitator?

It can be hard work being an internal facilitator, especially in a specialized industry. If you are known to be a subject matter expert’ it’s hard for people to think of you as a facilitator. There may be more pressure on you to know the answers. You might also have a stake, or vested interest, in the outcome of a workshop and might subtly, even subconsciously, influence the thinking and decision-making to align with your views. 

Most lawyers have heard the old saying, “He who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client.”   I’d argue that the same is true for partners facilitating their own retreats.

Navigating the Exhibit Floor

Great visual about how people navigate the exhibit hall floor from Column Five.

Build Teams, don’t “Team Build”

Found an interesting article in The Telegraph about how ineffective “team building” actually is in most organizations.

Workers would much prefer being able to communicate with each other better at work rather than being forced to build rapport with their co-workers by sharing adrenaline experiences or performing ‘trust’ exercises….  While the majority of workers surveyed (66 per cent) have been made to do some form of team-building activity, more than half (54 per cent) don’t feel that doing more would help them work better with their colleagues.

I’m in complete agreement, and it is a problem I see at many law firm retreats.  Too often silly “team building” activities replace meaningful opportunities for people to think together and collaborate effectively.  It is far better to allow people to practice the actual teamwork, meeting and collaboration skills they’ll need back in the office instead of putting them up on a ropes course in the middle of the woods.

Great Brainstorming Tricks

Scott Berkun shares some great tips and tricks on How to Run a Brainstorming Meeting.  The entire article is worth a read, but I especially liked his tips to get a group unstuck:

What is the opposite of what we want? Get the group to describe, in detail, the opposite of what you want to have happen. What’s the worst web navigation design possible? This never fails to get people to smile, and dig in. It’s just so much fun to work the other way for once. The trick here is that before people know it, they’re sharing ideas, being clever, and communicating well. At the peak of momentum, shift gears the other way. “Ok. We have a horrible design. How do we achieve the opposite of this?” You’ll be surprised at how original some of the ideas that follow will be.

Random theme generators: (This works only for design related brainstorming) Before the meeting, make a big list of adjectives, colors, verbs, and attributes that might or might not apply to the project (20 or 30 of each). Write them on index cards, but keep them in stacks. Shuffle each stack. Then pick one from each, and try to design something for it. “Agile blue focused”. What features would a car/website/software/sneaker with these attributes have? Or go through the list of adjectives and verbs and get the group to pick the ones that are most interesting in relation to the problem at hand. Papernak’s Design for the real world has a set of these, but other there are similar kits you can buy (Anyone know of other kits? This was the only one I could find. Let me know if you recommend others.)

Rotate: Anyone, at any time, can call out “rotate” and everyone in the room has to get up from where they are sitting, and move to the chair to their left. I have no evidence to prove it, but I’m convinced moving around physically helps people to move around mentally. It’s usually the facilitator that calls this out when people get stuck, or the energy doesn’t feel right. Bonus points for getting people to do the hokie pokie (a stupid childhood dance) or something silly that makes them laugh and let down their guard.

Roadblock removal: Eliminate assumed constraints. Tell the group there is no limit on costs, or time, or other resources. They can think as big or expensive as their minds allow. Think of other constraints that the group is assuming. Business? Political? Customer? Take the biggest ones you can find and get rid of them. Removing a roadblock might free new directions of ideas that wouldn’t have been considered otherwise.

Roadblock introduction: Come up with some ridiculous new constraint to the problem. The goal isn’t to make it harder, just to force people’s creative muscles to work differently. Suggest that everyone that uses the product will be right handed, or that the website can only work in Arabic (or some other non-Western language). Make the problem as difficult as possible: pretend the budget for the project has to be $50 or less, or that instead of the 2 months to write specifications, there are only 2 days. Don’t let people cop-out: push them to work with the problem. This can often shake people up into action, challenged by the insanity of the problem, and protected by the feeling that since it’s a ridiculous situation, there are no bad answers. Guaranteed they be stretched creatively, find new ways of thinking about the work, and will be relieved or energized to return to the real constraints.

I’ve used many of these, but will add the rest to my toolkit.  What are your best brainstorming tips?

Simplify Your Evaluations

Next time you’re tempted to ask your attendees (whether at a CLE or Law Firm Retreat) to complete a lengthy, multi-page evaluation form, try something a bit different:  ask them for a one-sentence evaluation instead.

I’ve been doing this for a while and what I’ve found is the insights I get when I ask everyone in the room to give me a few words of  feedback is that I get much more insightful stuff from them that the “circle-a-number-between-one-and-five” evaluations lack.

In my last customer service retreat, done for a bar association’s entire staff (including lots of folks who never interact with customers), I had a tough audience.  About half of the audience didn’t want to take a day off from work to discuss things they felt weren’t relevant to their jobs.  However, after a pretty engaging day, my “one-sentence evaluations” included such honest gems as:

  • This actually wasn’t too bad.  Thanks!
  • Better than I thought it would be!
  • I didn’t fall asleep.

as well as:

  • I thought it was creative, thought provoking & encouraged forward thinking. Great job.
  • Many new ideas learned while creating whole-office camaraderie — realized we’re all working toward the same goal.
  • Thanks for helping people to think outside the box!

Not only did I get a very good sense of how the audience liked the presentation, but I also came home with 50+ “testimonials” I can use in my marketing materials.

Do you see a place for these one-sentence evaluations in your conferences?  Let me know if you try them.  I’d love to hear how they’ve worked for you.


Implement an Idea Lottery

At your next conference or firm retreat, don’t give out attendance prizes.  Give out idea prizes instead in an “Idea Lottery.”

From Creativity expert Michael Mihalko:

Have an “idea lottery,” using a roll of numbered tickets. Each time a person comes up with a creative idea, he or she receives a ticket. At the end of [the event], share the ideas … and then draw a number from a bowl. If the number on anyone’s ticket corresponds to the number drawn, he or she gets a prize.

This is an easy-to-implement idea that could add some fun and interest to your next firm retreat.  Just make certain you prepare your audience before the event so they can get their thinking caps on.

Cross-Selling Services in Firm Retreats

Every firm I know wishes they could encourage cross-selling by their lawyers — keeping business inside the firm that might otherwise go elsewhere.  Here’s a simple idea that will get lawyers talking about the kinds of work they can share within the firm:

1.  Each practice group delegates one lawyer to attend each of the other practice group meetings (whether they’re standalone meetings or part of a larger firm retreat).

2.  In a very short one-minute introduction, each outsider shares the kinds of clients their group serves and the types of work they do.

3.  Then, in a quick five-minute presentation, each practice group “outsider” presents a Letterman-esque Top Ten List, titled: “The Top Ten Ways Your Clients Could Use Us, But Probably Aren’t.”  The list should focus on new legal developments, common “gotcha’s” and non-obvious ways that the practice group’s lawyers could add value to existing relationships.

4.  Give an award for the best, funniest and/or most creative Top Ten List from all the Practice Groups.

5.  Distribute the Top Ten lists to every attorney in the firm.

The presentations can either be done in regular practice group meetings (as a monthly agenda item), or in a series of 5-10 rapid-fire presentations (one for each practice group, a la Ignite Law) that take place at the firm-wide retreat.

The unique format will capture the audience’s attention and, ultimately, keep more client business inside the firm.

Start from Scratch for Great Firm Retreats

If you begin your law firm retreat planning with last year’s agenda, you’re doing it wrong.

Instead of beginning your planning with the agenda from the year before, why not start with a blank sheet of paper and build a law firm retreat that delivers what your attorneys want and need?

Begin by asking your firm management and a representative group of the firm’s lawyers these three questions:

  1. What is a great outcome of the retreat for our attorneys?  What do they want to learn, see, do or accomplish that can only occur when they’re all together?  If collaboration and networking top the list, the retreat will look much different than one designed to deliver information and learning.
  2. What is a great outcome of the retreat for our firm?  What three things does the firm need from the retreat?  What does the firm want its lawyers to do, practice or learn?  What does the firm want to learn from its lawyers?
  3. What do we do at our retreats that we’ve always done?  Make a list of all the things that have become staples at your firm retreats, and then try to justify the reason those things remain on the agenda.  If there’s a reason, is there a way to make it better?  If there’s no reason, would anyone notice or complain if you eliminated it?  Can some of the things you’ve always done (giving information about firm finances, for example) be delivered better in an email or video-conference than in a speech?

Remember, the most significant cost of a retreat is the time and attention of the attendees.  Building your next retreat “from scratch” is a better way to deliver a more productive experience for your attendees and a better result for your firm.

Design for Your Ideal Average Customer

Here’s another exercise I recently used with the Tennessee Bar CLE Curriculum Committee at their strategy retreat.  We were focused on understanding their Ideal Average Customer and delivering the courses, content and information they needed most (and were most likely to pay for).

I asked the group to design a “personalized” web page for each type of customer, using a template I developed.  The template prompted them to answer questions about their target customer and, ultimately, build an “analog” web page that addressed the needs of that target customer.  Here’s part of the template each team of 4-6 completed:

Though we weren’t trying to develop a better website in the retreat, the website design format (and question prompts) really drew out some interesting answers and ideas that a pure “what courses should we offer our lawyers?” question wouldn’t have.  It was a great hour of creative thinking, and we all walked away inspired to try new things.

Here’s a snapshot of the version I completed to give the participants a sense of what they could do with their blank templates:

The full set of templates and my sample are here: Website Design Exercise.

Brainstorming Better CLE

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of facilitating a retreat for Mindy Thomas-Fulks’ Tennessee CLE Curriculum Committee.  For around six hours, we worked with around 25 practicing lawyers and her staff to discuss new curriculum ideas, different marketing channels and alternative formats for programming.

Part of our work was centered around small groups of attendees “solving” some novel CLE Challenges I created.  For each challenge, the groups had 20 minutes to agree upon 3 top suggestions.  Before group brainstorming began, everyone completed a “3 Minute Brain-Dump” to capture their individual ideas.

The first of our challenges focused on delivering “value” to lawyers instead of just credits:

Beginning January 1, 2013, there will no longer be “mandatory” CLE in your state.  

Instead, lawyers will have to take an annual test on the substantive laws and practical skills  such as client relations, trust account management, legal research, court rules, etc. that they’re likely to use in the areas in which they practice.

 Lawyers can prepare for the test any way they like, including self-study, online courses and even “traditional” CLE.

 How can you remain relevant to your state’s lawyers in a post-mandatory CLE world?

What skills should you teach?  What courses should you present?  What alternative ways could you deliver your content?

Discuss and be prepared to present your top three responses to this challenge.

All four of the challenges are here in this .pdf file: CLE Challenges  I’d love to know what you think.