This article is the third installment in a 3-part series on law firm staff coordination by Allison Shields, Esq. Read Part II here.
Continuing with my series of posts about communication with your small law firm, in this post we’ll talk about meetings. Internal law firm meetings can be important for communicating information or new policies to the firm, strategizing about how to handle a case, or reaching an agreement about how the firm will handle a project. But meetings can also become cumbersome, time-consuming and frustrating if not handled properly.
Before the Meeting: Make a Plan
Determine your purpose. The same way you think about the purpose for your communication [link to Improve Communication post], you need to think about the purpose of your meeting.
What are the meeting objectives? Is the meeting to educate or impart information, or is the goal of the meeting to come to a resolution of a problem or agree to a course of action? Are you seeking disparate opinions on an issue to help you make a decision or to gain insight into perspectives of others in the firm? Or is this a brainstorming session to uncover possible future causes of action?
What are the expected outcomes? What do you want to accomplish as a result of this meeting? How will you know whether the meeting has been successful?
Is a meeting really necessary? If you just need to give information, especially information that isn’t likely to be emotional or prompt questions, perhaps an email or memo is a better way to communicate that information than calling a meeting.
Decide who to include. Who needs to attend the meeting and why? Don’t waste time staff or attorneys could be using for productive (billable!) work attending a meeting they do not need to attend. On the other hand, don’t leave out key players who should be involved in order to meet your objectives.
Is this meeting voluntary or mandatory? Sometimes it is a good idea to hold a meeting, but the participants themselves are the only ones who can decide whether they want or need to attend. Examples might include a meeting for those interested in joining a committee or being involved in a firm project.
Create an agenda. Perhaps the most important planning step is to create an agenda for the meeting. The agenda should include the meeting’s purpose and expected outcomes, a starting and ending time and indicate who is responsible for each portion of the agenda. Send your agenda to the participants in advance of the meeting to give them time to prepare, let them know what to expect and how to plan around the meeting.
During the Meeting: Staying on Track
Designate a meeting facilitator. Even with an agenda, it is easy for meetings to get off track. It is a good idea to have one designated facilitator for the meeting, even if there will be multiple members of the firm participating or directing individual agenda items.
The facilitator can help direct the conversation, enforce rules about interrupting, and ensure that all participants have an opportunity to be heard. The facilitator can seek out opinions of those who don’t voluntarily contribute and prevent one person or group of people from hijacking the meeting, rambling too long, or intimidating others into keeping silent.
Keep in mind that the facilitator does not necessarily have to be the final word on decisions made during the meeting – the facilitator’s role is to ensure that you stick to the meeting agenda and accomplish the objective.
Watch the clock. One of the biggest complaints about meetings is that they are difficult to schedule around. Consistently starting and ending meetings on time shows that you respect everyone’s time, and participants are more likely to arrive on time if they know that they will not be waiting around for the meeting to begin.
Consistently ending on time gives participants a definite time when they will be able to get back to work. You may want to designate a timekeeper to help the facilitator ensure the meeting starts and ends timely and that you get through your agenda.
Where possible, keep meetings short. Try “stand-up” meetings where all participants are standing, rather than sitting. This may keep participants more alert and focused on the meeting subject.
Keep participants engaged. Consider shifting or sharing the duty of moderating or facilitating the meeting. Assign someone to take notes, capture action items and tabled topics for future discussion, and record the group’s agreements or conclusions.
Add something fun, creative or different to meetings to keep interest and foster teamwork and creativity; bring in an outside speaker, have a demonstration or activity, hold the meeting in a different place, or add a social element.
You may want to consider banning laptops, cell phones or tablets during meetings if they are not necessary to the work or objectives of the meeting. These tools can present a distraction, even in silent mode. It can be too tempting to text, check email or do other work during the meeting. When they are not present, it may force attendees to engage more with the meeting and other attendees.
Conclude the meeting actively. When you’ve reached the end of your agenda, don’t just allow attendees to run out of the room. Finish by summarizing the conclusions or decisions reached by the group during the meeting. Create action items based on your discussions and assign responsibility for each item, deadlines, and expected next steps. Decide whether another meeting is necessary and if so, when it should be held. Discuss how you will follow up.
After the meeting: Follow up and assess
Circulate the minutes. As soon as possible after the meeting, send notes or minutes to participants and to those who should have been participants but who were unable to attend the meeting. Be sure to include the conclusions, next steps, responsibilities, and deadlines that were agreed to at the end of the meeting.
Use your calendar. Add any agreed-upon deadlines to your calendar. Make a note to follow up with those responsible for the action steps and be sure to add your own action steps to your calendar or to-do list. Schedule the next meeting date.
Assess the meeting. Was it a success? Did you reach your objectives? Did you start and end on time? Were participants engaged? Why or why not? What can you do to improve future meetings? Consider asking participants how they felt about the meeting and how they think future meetings can be improved.
Meetings don’t have to be long, boring or unproductive. Taking some time to think strategically about the meeting and following these guidelines before, during and after your meetings will greatly improve their efficiency and productivity. You’ll get a lot more out of your meetings – and your team will thank you for it.
Allison C. Shields, Esq. is President of Legal Ease Consulting, Inc., which provides productivity, practice management, marketing, business development and social media training, coaching and consulting services for lawyers and law firms nationwide. She is a co-author of How to Do More in Less Time: The Complete Guide to Increasing Your Productivity and Improving Your Bottom Line, published by the American Bar Association Law Practice Division, among other books, and she frequently lectures and writes on all of these topics for bar associations, law firms, law schools and other legal organizations. Her website, Lawyer Meltdown, and blog, Legal Ease Blog, provide tools, resources and information to help lawyers improve their practices.