In a recession, have tickets, will travel?

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Published on 9/14/09

When recession cuts revenue, cutting expenses is the most feasible way for law firms to preserve profitability. Some expenses are better targets than others.

Canceling meetings that bring people together for training, networking and personal contact is a risky way to save money. Yet just as law firms feel the need to placate their clients in so many other ways, they increasingly are taking (or feel they are forced to take) drastic action to curtail meetings and travel that focuses on internal firm needs, even legitimate education or governance, to demonstrate cost-cutting commitment.

Increasingly, the question posed regarding all firm meetings and educational programs is, "What is the return on investment?" In the past, the response has been that if a person takes away from a seminar or retreat one good idea that benefits the firm, the cost of attendance is justified.

Today the answer may not be so simple. The issue ultimately rests on the value of professional and organizational development. Can it be conducted only if it's local, or is there something to be said for travel and for meeting away from daily distractions? Technology — videoconferencing, webcasts, etc. — make it possible to absorb the content of a meeting without actually being there, but many organizations (like the National Speakers' Association) have found that live contact among people enhances and expands both learning (for educational programs) and decision-making (for governance meetings).

Consider education and training programs, which should not be just a function of CLE courses for lawyers. Giving staff the right training and support will give any lawyer enhanced confidence in the law office team. Training on business realities may be obtained at a local community college or in a nearby city. The worth of the program always has to be assessed, but if staff and administrators are expected to do more with less, the value of training becomes all the more important.

For lawyer CLE training, firms must differentiate between material-driven programs that could just as easily be experienced as a webinar and panel discussions or group learning experiences, in which personal presence makes all the difference.

When it comes to retreats and firm or group meetings, a given is that "firm culture" is a primary determinant of success. Camaraderie, the exchange of ideas, the education of one lawyer by another — these are all vital to the success of a firm, and an all-firm meeting or retreat off-site is the ideal mechanism to facilitate them. But do you need to go to a posh resort, or will a nearby Marriott or Hyatt suffice?

In today's business environment, it seems reasonable to suggest that education and conferences, including related travel, should be considered adjustable expenses. Dollars spent on them can be modified as budget and business requirements demand. But to eliminate them may be foolish.

Law firms that understand how the personal learning experience enhances their ability to provide value to clients will be the ones that survive today and thrive tomorrow when the economy improves, as it inevitably will.

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