Holding breakout sessions at retreats and workshops allows the management of law firms to maximize the input it receives from associates and partners on a range of topics. In the most recent issue of Edge International Communiqué, I offer a few guidelines that meeting facilitators can use to increase the effectiveness of these breakout groups.

Here is the article:

Guide to Breakout Facilitation

Following a few guidelines can increase the effectiveness of breakout groups at retreats and workshops

Riskin, Amazing Firms Amazing Practices, July 2013


Many law firm retreats and workshops include breakout groups for the purpose of acting as brain trusts for the firm, and conceiving options and alternatives that are actionable. The Achilles’ heel for many such breakout groups is that they may be led by a lawyer who has no idea as to the subtleties of facilitation.

The fundamental objective of the breakout group is to provide ideas back to the plenary that are capable of execution. It should be clearly understood that the senior leadership of the firm will be the final arbiter as to what actions are actually taken.
In meetings that I convene, I like to have 20 minutes to train the breakout leaders, but for those of you with whom I do not have the privilege of interacting, here’s a checklist of useful points:

  • The facilitator should not impart his or her own views and ideas, but rather should manage the process and track the outcomes.
  • The facilitator therefore need not be the most senior or prominent member of the group; one of the upcoming members may be better positioned to do a great job.
  • The facilitator can capture ideas by making his or her own notes, preferably on a flipchart; when the notes are his or her own, the facilitator is typically in a stronger position to report with confidence than if he or she is reading the notes of someone else
  • The breakout groups should be of a manageable size – let us say no more than 12 – and the facilitator should ensure maximum participation by as many of the individuals present as possible. One approach I frequently use is to ask each member of the breakout group to answer a simple question in a phrase or sentence on a piece of paper. Depending on the sensitivity of the topic, I may simply ask people to read their responses, or gather up the papers, shuffle to redistribute them, and have each read by someone else. This only takes a few moments and ensures diversity of opinion rather than the domination of a few.
  • Another way to get more people involved is simply to say something like, "John, you haven’t said much. What do you think about…?" This is especially helpful for those who may be quite introverted or who simply typically yield the floor to more senior or dominant members of the breakout group.
  • The most critical part of the facilitator’s role is to ensure that people describe options and alternatives that are specific enough that they could be delegated as actions should the firm endorse them. For example, discussions about abstract thoughts like, "We should get closer to our clients," are meaningless compared to ones like, "We should create a hierarchy of our most important clients and prioritize our efforts with them. We should start that process by taking our top ten percent and dividing them into three categories, A, B and C, based on the following criteria . . . ."
  • Reports back to the plenary from the facilitator should be strictly time-limited. Allowed to meander, reporters sometimes ramble and the report can go on endlessly. I strongly favor an enforced time-limited process, perhaps four minutes per reporter, with a timer in the audience who taps the table 30 seconds before time is up and then continuously taps when the time is up. The role of timekeeper is typically regarded as fun and the participants will enjoy it. In rare cases, you can give someone permission to go on for a couple of extra moments if that is your wisdom, but I have rarely found extensions of time to be useful.

I hope your next event which includes breakout groups will be more productive based on these ideas. As always, if you have questions or would like to discuss your event (off the meter) I would be delighted to speak with you.


I invite you to read two other interesting and informative articles in the July, 2013 issue of Edge International Communiqué.

I also invite you to subscribe to Edge International Communiqué (EIC) by clicking on the link at the bottom of this menu of archived issues. EIC is published once each month and features articles by Edge International partners from around the world on a variety of issues relating to law-office management and governance.