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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5 responses

20 09 2010
Paul Rutherford

At heart, there are only 3 types of activity in a meeting:

1) Information sharing: could be done in print or online, but if you want to up the chances of holding attention, do it face-to-face

2) Information processing: we’re going to examine some data /facts / opinion together and reach a consensus – which we may or may not do anything with after we’ve left the room

3) Idea exploration: we have a problem and we need collective wisdom to come up with a solutions – a variation on #2, but usually without the data.

If the person who puts an item onto an agenda can articulate which of those three s/he is trying to achieve, it can save a huge amount of time, not only during the meeting, but for delegates to decide whether or not they really need to be there at all.

That, and taking the chairs out of the room.

20 09 2010
intelligentchallenge

Nice analysis Paul; the sharper the agenda, the more productive the meeting. Enforcing a no-blackberry and no-side conversation rule can also help get the best out of the session. I like the idea of taking the chairs away too!

21 09 2010
Jason

I know someone (a lawyer by trade who became a business man) used to complain ad nauseum to me about the amount of unproductive meetings in the business world that never were the case in the legal world/law firm arena. We’ve talked about it as my career path has evolved and we think part of it is the difference in how lawyers think and trained (as analytical problem solvers who apply facts to law and then move on to the next issue).

Also, I think business meetings are just a creature of tradition in business. People have meeting after meeting because that’s how its always been. Most unproductive to me are 1) the regularly scheduled meeting (often no need for it but its been scheduled as a weekly or bi-monthly occurance and so people just keep having the meeting even when there’s nothing to discuss that particular week) and 2) the too many people meeting. I think there’s often a critical threshold for productive meetings. You get more than 10 people on a call or meeting and it quickly can become paralysis by analysis without a very strong leader in the meeting.

21 09 2010
Lee Taylor

Great article yet again. I agree that the more focus the meeting has the better the outcome. I’ve been in all too many meetings early in my career where meetings seemed to be for meetings sake and it was the marketing team that had to really push lawyers to get action points out of them.

More recently meetings seemed to have flipped on their head and there’s a real onus on getting things done. Oh and I’ve been in situations where blackberry’s were banned from meetings (which actually worked) and one firm actually used a yellow and red card system similar to football for use of blackberries in meetings. Two yellow cards and you are out of the meeting … (certainly not a good thing to have on your Annual Performance Review!)

21 09 2010
intelligentchallenge

Thanks Jason & Lee: appreciate the comments.

It would be interesting to know whether the recent increased focus in meetings is a result of economic pressure driven by the macro environment, or simply an internal push for productivity.

I’ve seen the no-blackberry rule work well, but not the yellow and red card rule. Great idea: I wonder if the senior partner has even been sent off??

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