Turning a Retreat into an Advance
A Guide for Creating a Killer Retreat

I always thought that the word “retreat” was a lousy moniker for what firms do to reconnect with colleagues, recharge their batteries and plot their next strategic moves. Dictionary.com defines “retreat” as:

  1. the forced or strategic withdrawal of an army or an armed force before an enemy, or the withdrawing of a naval force from action.
  2. the act of withdrawing, as into safety or privacy; retirement; seclusion.
  3. a place of refuge, seclusion, or privacy.


Instead, I’d like to see them referred to an “Advance“. The definition has a much more productive meaning:

  1. to move or bring forward: The general advanced his troops to the new position.
  2. to bring into consideration or notice; suggest; propose.
  3. to improve; further: to advance one’s interests.


As a former law firm CMO and consultant, I’ve planned dozens of retreats, from all-firm to partner retreats, practice and industry group retreats, associate retreats and marketing/business development team retreats. Here’s a guide for creating an effective and memorable “Advance.”

1. An “Advance” is a retreat with a purpose

Align your retreat objectives with one or more key firm goals for the year, such as increased business development, merger integration, client service focus, changing service delivery models, etc… Create a theme for the event and tie all elements (keynote, breakouts, recreational activities, dinner…) to the theme. (click below for more…)

For example, a firm that recently opened a Washington D.C. office, hiring a number of laterals from the administration, focused the substance of their retreat discussing politics, cross-selling opportunities and marketing ideas, which aligned with the firmwide goal of expanding their federal lobbying practice.

Another firm wanted to focus on client service. I connected with the local Association of Corporate Counsel chapter and arranged a “Non-Client Panel” of GC’s who had not hired the firm, but could have. The 90 minute discussion between panelists and the partners was remarkably frank and instructional on what GC’s expected in terms of client service, business development and pricing (as well as their perceptions of the firm!)

2. Set the right tone

Pay attention to the tone and messages communicated at the event. Even in challenging times, you don’t want people to get more depressed and anxious than when they left the office. Instead, chose a theme and messages that are forward-looking and visionary. Paint a clear and positive vision of the future that can be realized if the firm’s goals are met.

3. Provide a variety of opportunities for interaction

Retreats are often the only time some attorneys have to interact in person. Building trust among attorneys in different offices and practice areas is critical to cross-marketing. Go beyond cocktail parties and find creative ways to encourage meaningful interaction:

  • Early in the event, have assigned tables, forcing attorneys to sit with people who are from other offices and practice groups.
  • Use a creative icebreaker to get people talking about more than their name, practice area and city.
  • Consider a three hour service project for a local charity that all or some participants can volunteer. I’ve learned a lot about people by raking leaves, cleaning out storage sheds and painting houses.
  • If your theme is business-development related, consider a “verbal business card’ activity, where everyone at the table needs to practice their VBC and explain what type of clients are a best fit.
  • Make a special effort to introduce and connect new attorneys, laterals and key staff members.
  • Use name tags.
  • Don’t schedule content-delivery (speeches, reports, etc…) during prime interaction times like meals and cocktail parties.

4. Have fun

People are not going to come to next year’s retreat unless this year’s is fun and memorable. Do something different besides golf and tennis. Consider:

  • Outdoor “high-ropes” course with a trained facilitator (and a zipline!)
  • A wine tour and tasting
  • Evening Improv or comedy show (check out www.lawhumorist.com)


One of the best retreats I facilitated involved a half-day GPS-driven scavenger hunt in downtown Park City Utah. The scavenger hunt staff created mind-bending clues, requiring participants to track down and get directions from a six-foot man dressed in a bunny costume (we had to run to catch him) and a distraught and quixotic Alice (from Wonderland). The activity required teams of eight to work closely with one another, solve problems and stretch beyond their comfort zone. Serious fun. Great memory.

5. Inspire and build consensus

Retreats are a unique opportunity to inspire the firm to stretch to a new level of performance. Leaders – managing partners, practice and industry group leaders and staff directors – have a captive audience open to learning more about their vision and plan to realize it. Informal gatherings like retreats also provide leaders an opportunity to test new ideas, listen to feedback from others and build consensus for bold new initiatives.

6. Communicate

Many firms and groups use retreats as an opportunity for leaders to present a “State of the Firm” address, informing members about the strategic, financial, technological and marketing developments of the firm.

Retreats are also a great opportunity to communicate across boundaries, such as between offices, practice and industry groups. At one annual practice group retreat, industry sub-groups would compete in the annual “show and tell” part of the agenda, using creative (or not so…) posters, powerpoints, rap songs and client appearances to illustrate what is going on in their practice and how they can help clients in other areas of the firm.

7. Educate

Retreats can be an opportunity to give your attorneys a glimpse into the legal marketplace from an outside perspective. Find a keynote speaker and topic that underscores your theme and matches the culture of your firm. The most successful keynotes:

  • Open your eyes to new possibilities. They illustrate innovative ways to find new clients, serve clients, solve problems and save money.
  • Are fast-paced, fact-based (not just opinion) and practical.
  • Are entertaining. Find a keynoter that can tell a good story and make people laugh.
  • Are interactive. There is nothing worse than a 90 minute monologue, regardless of the pedigree. Find someone that integrates table discussions, competitions, learning activities and brainstorms. Make the attorneys get out of their chairs and interact with others.


I recently facilitated a retreat with a four-hour session on business development. We packed the morning with a mix of table discussions, a “GC Quiz Show” to illustrate changing expectations of in-house counsel (based on recent surveys) and one of my favorite leadership exercises, the Paper Tower competition. Groups of eight attorneys were given 20 sheets of paper, a roll of tape and 30 minutes to build the highest free-standing tower possible. Prizes (Itunes Gift Cards) were awarded to the winners. Attorneys dug deep into their competitive psyche and fought fiercely for the prize. Everyone had a great time, and learned a few things about business development and each other in the process. At the end of each exercise, remember to take time to debrief the activity so that everyone can benefit from other people’s insights.

8. Tradition and Ceremony

Finally, retreats are a time to reinforce what makes the firm special to its members. It is a time to thank leaders for their service, recognize individual and group contributions and welcome new attorneys and key staff members. It is a time to restate shared values and purpose. Some firms have grand traditions of songs, skits and award presentations that have special meaning.

I once spoke at a firm retreat in Honolulu Hawaii. The firm started every retreat with a recognition of its leaders and key contributors (and the keynote speaker, btw) by presenting them with a lovely and fragrant flower lei, which they wore with pride throughout the retreat.

At a practice group retreat, it was tradition to introduce new attorneys to the group by the attorney who recruited them to the firm, often using colorful, amusing and sometimes embarrassing stories at dinner on the first night. We would often invite a few clients to the retreat, who felt ‘part of the family’ after that dinner. The meal, extended by these introductions, would often last late into the night.

As a CMO, we had annual marketing/business development team retreats. One of our traditions was cooking dinner together. Everyone brought a part of the meal and we worked together to prepare, drink wine, cook, drink some more wine… you get the idea. The meal was iconic of the teamwork, intimacy and combination of individual talents we continually needed to meet our goals and expectations of our internal ‘clients’.

Planning your next “Advance”

Approach the planning of your next “Advance” strategically. How can you best use the event to further the firm’s strategic goals? What will be your theme, tone and key messages? How will you facilitate meaningful interaction? In what ways will you use the retreat to cast your vision, inform, get feedback and build consensus? How will you make it fun and memorable? Will your keynote speaker hit it out of the park? Finally, have you created and maintained traditions that hold emotional significance to the group?

If so, you’ll be sure to have a memorable, fun and effective retreat.