What’s your agenda?

20 09 2010

My friend Ross, an in-house attorney in the U.S., is known for his personal crusade against unproductive meetings.

Derek's two hour meeting to discuss the colour pallete for the firm's new logo was not as popular as he had hoped

We’ve all been in them: the time-devouring, pointless meetings that swallow time and achieve little (if anything).

The book “Rework” by Fried and Hienemeier Hansson gives a great explanation of why there are so many meetings of this nature, arguing (quite persuasively) that meetings are inherently toxic for reasons that include:

- they cover a very small amount of information per minute

- they frequently drift off-topic and often have vague agendas

- to be productive they require preparation, which most people don’t have time to do properly

The authors also highlight the set-up time involved, which is to say getting to meetings, waiting for them to start, leaving meetings, and then getting ready to do “real work” is also another hidden time cost associated with meetings.

Now in my experience, law firms certainly have their fair share of unproductive meetings, and I absolutely agree with the criticisms in the book (which is definitely recommended) but I do think there are reasons why law firms suffer less than some other businesses from the plague of pointless meetings.

Perhaps it’s the culture of time recording meaning that lawyers are more aware of how they spend their time, but I do think that there are fewer of these meandering, aimless meetings than in a corporate environment.  Lawyers are also pretty good at setting agendas and sticking to them, which might be because they are trained to structure and run client meetings from a relatively early age or it might be simply the result of common personality traits in lawyers. Either way, if a meeting is wandering in a law firm, there’s a good chance there will be a fairly direct, strong character to pull things back on track.

Another angle to this is the need to expedite the flow of knowledge. As the ultimate knowledge workers, lawyers need to share experiences and information to build their individual and organisational intellectual capital. A quote sticks with me from a book I read a few years ago (I think the book was Working Knowledge, by Davenport, but couldn’t swear to it) that to maximise knowledge acquisition and transfer, a firm should “hire smart people and let them talk to each other”. Meetings may not be the best forum for this, but if the topic, agenda and participants are right, they can be an effective forum for learning.

This dialogue can be particularly important for those law firms that are rigidly structured, leaving their lawyers sitting in silos. I’ve seen this in firms of all shapes and sizes: from the five partner law firm where the personal injury team has no idea who the tax and trusts lawyers are acting for, to the large City firm with a corporate team preparing for a pitch for a FTSE100 energy company, not knowing that the partner who recently joined the real estate team spent ten years acting for them at her previous firm.

So, let me be clear, I’m not aimlessly waving the flag for meetings. Far from it. However, in law firms that still fall prey to the tyranny of the timesheet, a focussed, well-run meeting may well have some benefits that are proportionate to the time invested in the meeting.








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