“Let me assert my belief that the only thing that we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror that paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Inaugural address, March 4, 1933

Do law firm retreats still provide value?

Do law firm retreats still provide value?

On Thursday and Friday this week, the State Bar Board of Governors and senior staff are in Prescott, engaged in their annual retreat. There, they will examine a range of topics, reassess their mission for the coming year and, we must suppose, wrestle with Great Big Ideas.

That leaves all of us chickens to not retreat (and to, I guess, advance) here in Phoenix.

On this Change of Venue Friday, that fact leads me to wonder about the continued vitality (or its opposite) of the law firm retreat. Is that former staple of the white-shoe firm still a valued part of a vaunted profession? Or has it diminished in frequency or perceived value?

Years ago, I had the (gulp) privilege to work at three large national firms, two in Chicago (before I was a lawyer) and one in Orange County, Calif. (after I graduated). Each firm prided itself on the team-building and idea-generating that came from a retreat (primarily of the partners).

Years later, when we assess the state of law firms generally and review the number of them that simply are no more, you have to wonder: What were they all discussing at those retreats? Clearly, high-level kibitzing proved to be no inoculation against a legal-market downturn. Many firms came into a recession ill prepared, and paid the price—retreat or no retreat.

So as I advance rather than retreat here at work (thanks to Mark Beese for that contrasting thought!), I ask you, whether or not you participate in retreats:

  • What is the highest value in a retreat?
  • What questions and topics should be taken up at a law firm annually (whether at a retreat or not)?
  • What are the biggest obstacles for progress at a law firm, and how could they be confronted in a retreat atmosphere?

Have a great weekend.

Mark Beese at Legal Marketing Association event, at the State Bar of Arizona, Sept. 16, 2010

I have attended meetings in boardrooms, big and small, many times. And the size of the room never guarantees that the words spoken will be insightful or compelling. That’s why last Thursday’s event at the State Bar of Arizona was such a pleasure.

The host was the Southwest Chapter of the Legal Marketing Association. Their monthly lunchtime speakers series has always been a good one, but recently that group has delivered the complete package on a pretty regular basis (I’m sure she would give credit to a cast of thousands,  but kudos definitely go to chapter President Nathalie Daum, at Lewis and Roca).

Thursday was right in that tradition of quality. Speaking was Mark Beese, of Leadership for Lawyers LLC.

He spoke to the group for a whirlwind hour on the topic of “Being the Leader You Would Want To Follow.” It gave everyone quite a bit to think about.

Col. Joshua Chamberlain

Beese is a former CMO for law firm Holland & Hart and past president of the Rocky Mountain LMA. So he’s had ample experience toiling alongside lawyers. When he talked about herding cats, the group listened.

Here are a few highlights of what he covered.

Beese opened by engaging the group in examining a few questions:

  • What is the difference between projects and organizations that take off, and those that flounder?
  • Why do some organizations evolve, and others have the same marketing plan year after year?

For those of you who are not interested in the marketing side of practice, you could ask the previous question and omit the “M” word—the question is just as valuable for most all your endeavors.

Beese dotted his conversation with anecdotes from law practice. They all revealed one thing: The cost of bad leadership can be massive.

He also entertained the group with his examination of why it may be difficult to lead lawyers and law firms. Smart and driven people that we are, we often can be an obstacle to our own success. Beese showed where lawyers are on a variety of broad scales. For example, on a ranking of skepticism, lawyers come in at the 90 percent mark. Autonomy—89 percent. Urgency—71 percent.

Two scales were particularly painful for me to hear.

The resilience scale reveals how much a person rolls with the punches and tries again. But when lawyers try a marketing plan, and it does not instantly yield results, they give up on it and on marketing generally. On that scale, lawyers come in at a measly 30 percent.

And on sociability—Lawyers rank at 8 percent. Ouch.

Beese rounded out his hour by talking about what works to change behavior in law firms. And the only thing that works is to change the entire culture. That change includes fostering a shared vision, innovating, and fostering a spirit of intimacy—not where people share too much, but where they feel free to share ideas and to experiment with outside-the-box ideas.

His example of a leader surprised me. Beese looked not to a contemporary lawyer, but to a historic figure.

Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was a professor at Bowdoin College in the 19th century. When the Civil War erupted, he sought a leave of absence to fight to maintain the Union. When he was denied by his university president, he quit and enlisted.

So well did he lead his men at Gettysburg, Beese said, that President Abraham Lincoln asked him to command the Union troops at Appomattox, where the South was to lay down its weapons and surrender.

On Chamberlain’s orders, the assembled Union soldiers saluted their defeated enemy. Though the bitterness of Reconstruction was to follow, that small act of courtesy and respect signaled the wisdom of a true leader.

As Beese said of Chamberlain, “He did not have to go to war. But he woke up one morning and said, ‘My role is a leader.””

(Chamberlain later became a Governor of Maine, and served as president of Bowdoin College—the same position that had denied his request to serve years before.)

Beese urged all in the room to ask themselves a similar question every morning: “How can I effect change?” That, he said, is an essential question of identity.

And if you’re in an inquisitive mood, Beese said you might ask the Twelve Questions of Engagement about your own workplace. The questions originally were posed by Marcus Buckingham in his book First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently. You can read them here.

Start asking.

And be sure to read Mark’s blog, and follow him on Twitter.

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