Lawyers attend (or host) a lot of meetings. Even solos are involved in bar association committee meetings, networking meetings and client meetings, just to name a few. Meetings can be held in-person, or virtually by video or teleconference. Meetings can be invaluable tools to brainstorm, get input from a number of people at once, develop goals or strategies, discuss a problem or choose an action or outcome.
But meetings can also be huge time-wasters. Many meetings are unproductive due to the lack of a specific objective, unclear agenda or other problems. That lack of productivity is compounded when the wrong people attend or when meetings are unfocused. And just like email isn’t the best tool for all purposes, meetings aren’t the best tool for all communications. Meetings should have a specific goal or intended action outcome.
If you’re tempted to schedule a meeting just to provide an “update” to a number of people, it may be more appropriate to provide that update using another method and eliminate the meeting. In those cases, a more appropriate tool to provide the information might be a project management tool (like Basecamp), email, or a note in the client or project file, unless the update is significant or is tied to an event or celebration.
If you can’t eliminate the meeting entirely, make it more effective and avoid wasting time by avoiding the most common meeting time-wasters and following these steps:
1. Determine your purpose
First, decide the purpose and goal for the meeting. What outcome do you want to see from the meeting? Is this a brainstorming meeting to generate ideas, a meeting to identify and/or resolve issues, an action-based meeting to identify next steps and responsibilities, a task-based meeting to accomplish a particular assignment or a meeting to make a decision?
Once you know what you are trying to accomplish, you can decide on the meeting structure that will work best: will it be a free-flowing discussion (good for brainstorming or generating ideas) or will participants have a set time to speak (perhaps better for check-in or status based meetings)? Does the meeting address a time sensitive issue that must be addressed right away, or is it a future-oriented, planning meeting?
2. Decide who should participate
Attendance can make or break your meeting: inviting too many people can unnecessarily complicate it, but inviting too few (or the wrong people) can hinder progress.
Your knee-jerk reaction might be to invite everyone in the firm or everyone in a particular category of people to participate in every meeting, but we recommend that you give a little further thought to who should participate in your meetings.
The meeting’s purpose will also drive the attendance. Determine whose experience or expertise will be necessary to accomplish the meeting’s purpose. If the meeting is a decision-making meeting, it stands to reason that the decision-makers must be present in the room in order to accomplish the goal of the meeting. But be sure to include other stakeholders and those who might be significantly impacted by the decision so that they may provide their input or perspective on what factors should be considered.
You may also want to consider whether some participants should only be present for a portion of the meeting, rather than for the entire meeting.
3. Set the agenda and communicate in advance
Create an agenda for the meeting with topics to be discussed and persons responsible. Show that you respect the time of all involved and set limits for discussion, with a concrete beginning and ending time for the meeting.
Advise attendees of the date and time of the meeting. Communicate the purpose and expected outcome of the meeting, goals and agenda to all participants well enough in advance of the meeting so they can prepare. Include any supporting documents needed for the meeting, or that you expect participants to have reviewed or to be familiar with for the meeting. Advise participants of their expected role at the meeting. Request that participants respond to confirm their attendance. Send out a meeting reminder the day before the meeting to confirm.
4. Ensure the meeting stays on track
Start on time and stick to your agenda. Make sure introductions are made if you are not certain that everyone participating knows one another or if some participants are attending the meeting remotely. Have each person indicate who they are and why they are there or what their role in the firm or group is.
Begin the substance of the meeting by repeating the goal or purpose. Advise participants of the format of the meeting. If there is a projected (or firm) end time for the meeting, announce it in the beginning so that everyone is aware of it.
If issues arise that are unrelated but must be discussed during the meeting, request agreement of the participants to continue the meeting beyond the originally agreed-upon end time and establish that only those individuals involved in that particular project or issue be required to stay. If non-urgent issues arise, table them for a meeting to be held at another time specifically for that purpose.
Designate one person to be the meeting facilitator to keep the meeting on point and on time, or assign a time-keeper to keep an eye on the clock and remind the facilitator.
To obtain maximum participation, make the meeting a ‘safe place’ for people to express their opinions without judgment or ridicule. Allow each person the opportunity to speak, but don’t let one person take over the meeting. Obtain different perspectives by asking open-ended questions. Increase participant engagement in the meeting is to assign different people to lead the discussion on each agenda item.
When controversy arises, look for points of agreement. (“Can we all agree that the goal is…” or “If I’m hearing correctly, everyone seems to think there is a problem with Y, but we haven’t come up with the best way to solve the problem yet. Let’s see what we can come up with.”)
Before concluding the meeting, develop an action plan based upon your initial agenda. If necessary, recap the decisions that were made, lessons learned, or options identified during the meeting. Identify next steps, set deadlines for the tasks identified and assign responsibility for those tasks to specific groups or individuals. Determine whether additional or follow up meetings will be required and, if possible, schedule them immediately.
5. Take action after the meeting
Even if you don’t take ‘minutes’ of the meeting, make sure that the main goals and decisions, deadlines, action steps and responsibilities determined during the meeting are communicated afterwards, in writing, if necessary. Consider whether they need to also be disseminated to those who were not present at the meeting to make follow up and future meetings more productive, even for those who were unable to attend. Follow up individually with those who have action steps to complete. If follow up meetings are necessary, add the tasks and responsibilities that were established to the agenda for follow up, or request that responsible parties submit a report of their progress to be attached to the agenda for the next meeting.
Meetings don’t have to be a black hole of wasted time if they are utilized properly. First, you must determine whether conducting a meeting is the correct way to accomplish your objectives. If it is, you’ll want to develop a meeting agenda based upon those objectives and invite only those people who are required to meet those objectives or make decisions necessary to move the project forward. Communicate the objective in advance to allow participants to fully prepare. Then use meeting facilitation techniques to keep the meeting on task and on time. And don’t forget to summarize what was accomplished and document next steps, deadlines and responsibility.
This article is an excerpt from my upcoming book, “How to Do More in Less Time: The Complete Guide to Increasing Your Productivity and Improving Your Bottom Line,” with Daniel J. Siegel, scheduled to be published later this year.