Lee Watts learned three lessons when she went $50,000 over budget on an event. The first was to get budget approval from the correct partner; the second was to always pad the budget.

The third, she says was, “if the event accomplished the goal, such as client development or firm branding, the partners are more tolerant if you go over budget.”

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Watts, director of marketing and business development for Smith, Gambrell & Russell, concedes that $50,000 pushed the limits of that theory. “I was sure I was going to get fired.”

From client meetings, to partner dinners, to professional development seminars to weekend retreats, meetings are an integral part of a law firm’s marketing, branding and professional development goals. Regardless of the event, the meeting must meet the strategic goals and, as Watts learned, stay within the budget.

Over at Morris, Manning & Martin, the theme is “everything in moderation,” says managing partner Louise Wells. “You can still have a wonderful time on a budget, and while we’re very mindful on how the money is spent, it still must accomplish our goals.”

Still, she admits to an occasional splurge. “I do look at previous years and I’ll speak with our CFO about how the firm is doing. If we’re doing great, maybe we’ll have better wine than the year before.”

Brook W. Redmond, director of business development of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, says the budget discussion has changed over the past several years. “It used to be that there wasn’t a budget,” she says. “The partner would say, ‘How much is this going to cost?’ Now it’s “What can we do with this amount?’”

Meeting planners should counter that question with one of their own: What are you trying to accomplish? “That is the first question that needs to be answered,” says Mira Leonard, a business consultant with iStile, a business development firm. “You have to be very clear on the strategic objectives. It makes a lot of difference and those fundamental questions drive where we spend our money and how.”

Ward Bower, a principal of Altman Weil, puts it succinctly. “Are you gathering information or sharing information? That will structure the meeting and budget.”

The next step is to look at the historical data. Find out how much was spent, what was done, how was it structured, attendee feedback, and most importantly, did it meet the objectives.

For instance, if the objective is new business, a firm can spend the same amount of money on a fancy event or a series of less expensive ones, such as wine tastings. “Doing a one-time event doesn’t give the attorneys enough face time with perspective clients,” Leonard says. “But if you create a theme, like seasonal wines, and have four wine-tasting events, you can maintain and build on relationships. You can blow the budget on one event or you can decide if you will increase your chances with several smaller events—using the same budget.”

The overall impression also drives the budget. “If you want to reward top performers, then you might have more decadent aspects to it,” says Redmond. “If it’s an internal training retreat for senior associates, then you want them to meet and enjoy a camaraderie without breaking the bank. Maybe go to a local craft brewery instead of a steak house.”

John Remsen Jr., founder of The Remsen Group, an Atlanta company that develops marketing programs for law firms, put on an event for a Salt Lake City law firm that wanted to brand itself as a family-friendly firm that valued a work/life balance. They rented out a restaurant and invited families. “There were kids all over the place, but they wanted to emphasize that it was part of their tradition and culture.”

Location, Location, Location

Once a budget is established, where to put the dollars is the next decision. Try to keep it within driving distance, but travel costs, especially for multi-office firms, may take a lead in the decision-making process. “We wanted to have a meeting in Memphis,” says Redmond. “But plane tickets from Atlanta were $1,000.”

Increasingly, law firm event planners are using hotel brokers to get the best price. “We’re doing an event in Ireland and I don’t have a sense of the location so I hired a broker who knew what I wanted and at what price. They put out an RFP that did all the research I didn’t have time for,” says Watts.

Sometimes in an effort to save money, you spend more.

One year Watts used an upscale hotel rather than a luxury hotel. “The service was not up to par and I had to depend on my team to work harder because the hotel staff didn’t support me the way the higher quality hotel did. It cost me more money but in a different way.”

Next comes choosing a hotel, food and drink.

“The vendors you choose make a statement,” says Remsen. “You don’t want to be cheap but there are some things where you can save yourself money.”

How upscale the location depends on the attendees, he says. “How discerning is the group? If they aren’t used to the finest hotels, wines and food, you can go to a nice hotel and give them a good dinner and they’ll be thrilled. If you’re dealing with folks with more expensive tastes, you can’t give them a cheap meal. People will remember the food more often than what was discussed in the meeting.”

Another budget buster is clients attending. “We treat our clients better than ourselves,” says Brian Santa Barbara, chief marketing officer for Morris, Manning & Martin.

Clients attending a meeting are like company coming over to the house, says Redmond. “At home, you may use dishes that are scratched. But if you have company, you put out the fine china and polish things up. We make sure clients feel comfortable and we are careful of crossing that line and being ostentatious.”

A client gift is usually warranted. “Tiffany,” Watts says simply. As a budget saver, Baker Donelson gives food made by a local minority-owned business, such as macaroons, as the thank-you gift.

The type of client attending may also affect the budget. “You don’t want clients to think that you’re making so much money off of their fee that you can afford to put out a very fancy event,” says Remsen. “But it depends. If your clients are insurance companies that are really watching every nickel, they want their law firms to be equally cost-conscious and efficient. An opulent spread would be a real turnoff. But if you have high-flying clients that operate in the upper stratosphere, they may want to see lawyers at that same level.”

“It’s important to remember that the event is to drive revenue and the meeting has to bring that value,” says Watts. “And everything is negotiable.”