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The Bottom Line
The newsletter of the ISBA's Standing Committee on Law Office Management and Economics

March 2005, vol. 26, no. 3

Social events-Planning the small office party

The holidays are past! The New Year dawns and it's time to get back to work. One last niggling thought for 2004, though; how did the office year-end party go? Was it a success? In a cost comparison between the entertainment and food expense with percentage of 'good will' restored, did the latter surpass the former? If it was successful, does someone get the credit; and if it was another fiasco, is there no one to blame?

There is an obscure but well-intentioned psychology behind the office party beyond mere tokenism from management to staff. The practice of law is stressful: relations with staff and between partners and associates are subject to daily onslaught of legal deadlines, courtroom drama and harsh repercussions. The question is whether any real purpose can be served by spending more time with these same people and dedicating a few hours to shoring up the 'walls of civility' that one inadvertently or otherwise, spent approximately 254 days tearing down.

The answer is "yes," if we accept the fact that merely wishing for auld lang syne, won't make it so. If the 2005 overview of last year's social event is rife with criticism and anecdotal observations of social faux pas, the party wasn't worth the expense and the firm will be paying long-term in loss of morale and unity. Successful 'cost-effective' social events should foster unity, a common purpose, and even pride in the firm, while unsuccessful events even in a small office are divisive along economic, gender and age lines.

Personal relationships with family and friends require time and effort to create and maintain. Professional relationships get less time but require more forethought and concerted effort to build and maintain. Absent a psychology degree, whether they volunteered for the position or 'got stuck with it,' planners of small office social events need a primer on 'how to avoid the pitfalls, whirlpools and undertows of the office party.'

In a small firm where everyone knows day-to-day everyone else's business, it's an easy mistake to group individuals together and make unilateral decisions out of habit. If the tradition has been for a casual in-house party where the same clique of people sub-divide, the planner can consider making arrangements at a public restaurant with a similar casual atmosphere. Removing all parties from the home turf places everyone on even footing with no one person--newly hired versus near-retirement--having an advantage.

Planners in a small firm should take the demographics of staff into consideration: young singles may relish the night life and take an evening social event in their stride, while married personnel with children may have a hard time finding an available baby sitter and regret the additional expense. In planning a social event you don't want to create a schism. Closing the office early and hosting the event during regular office hours may be a great solution.

If sitting around a table of food and beverage and just talking with the 'same old' people isn't anybody's idea of festivities, group participation at an organized event will get everybody into an outgoing social mode. Holiday 'white elephant' gift exchanges and all the permutations of an 'exchange' are another way to level the field among staff and attorneys since everyone gets a chance to laugh at themselves and their co-workers at no expense. Doing something different with the same people can provide a different perspective of everybody's particular foibles as well as appreciation of their individual strengths.

If turn-over of personnel is low, year-after-year the same scapegoats usually emerge at the annual party and such character assassinations become toxic to the firm in the long run. Whether the light, casual atmosphere provided by the social event remains 'light' depends on the makeup of the personalities involved. An observation that may begin in a light, bantering tone may turn into a free-for-all character assassination similar to the current television reality shows. The planner in charge needs to reshuffle the group dynamics to prevent that annual holiday 'bash.' If you're uncomfortable in formally designating a host, you should designate a 'ghost' to do the same thing.

This is where the analogy of a canoe trip is useful. You don't paddle the canoe filled with passengers to the middle of the river, pull up your oars and sit back secure in the knowledge that at some point you'll get downstream. The manner in which you get down stream and the shape you're in when you get there can't be left to the current. Someone has to have an oar in the water to facilitate and guide the canoe down the current to the shore. Everyone then has a good time and wants to do it again. Carrying the analogy further, a bath in a cold stream with scrapes and a bruise from 'upfront and personal' contact with the river bed is nobody's idea of entertainment. Everyone should come away from an office social event in anticipation--not dread--of the next one.

It's very important to remember that unless the party is an award banquet or other socially significant event, it should be relaxing. This is a chance to mingle with people you may see everyday but with whom you don't work directly. While it's true that musical chairs at a formal dinner table isn't advisable because it upsets the waitress who just got everybody's dinner order figured out--not to mention what it does to used place settings and water glasses, a buffet arrangement is perfect to facilitate just the kind of mingling that's comfortable for everyone. Each person is responsible for his own dinnerware and is free and expected to get up, move around, or stay situated as they wish. And finally, remember to have fun--at no one's expense. You'll be seeing them again on Monday.