Pulling off successful meetings in your in-house law department

One of the most painful yet underestimated problems of modern business is bad meetings. If not properly structured, meetings can be demotivating, alienating and unproductive.    

Meetings are inevitable and can serve multiple purposes within an in-house legal department. They provide an ideal opportunity to compare notes on service level commitments toward clients, communicate and process client feedback, ensure clients are not “lawyer shopping,” facilitate knowledge transfer and smooth out role and responsibility reassignment. For example, I am a big supporter of having lawyers rotate among client groups for corporate governance reasons (as backup in case a team member is hit by the proverbial bus), encouraging team cohesion and identifying strengths and weaknesses in members of the department. Regular meetings can go a long way toward preparing lawyers for easy transitions as they rotate their assignments. Smooth transitions, as lawyers rotate roles and responsibilities, tend to garner accolades from clients because they are impressed with the department’s adaptability and strong communication skills.

In-house law department meetings should be motivating, compelling, inclusive and even passionate. They also, in my view, should be short, to the point and “low-tech.”

I am personally not a big fan of having different lawyers chair each meeting. My sense is meetings run by alternate chairs tend to be uneven — rather than promote cohesion they are more likely to sow dissent and they create confusion in terms of reporting lines and authority. Meetings are best chaired, structured and run by the general counsel.

Meetings provide an ideal opportunity to be inclusive. Lawyers, paralegals and admins should all attend.  The entire team needs to be on the same page. This is increasingly the case with global law departments or virtual lawyers and other staff. With that in mind the agenda should be structured such as to solicit input from all attendees before, during and after the meeting. Soliciting input particularly before and after provides an invaluable opportunity to understand what is on everyone’s mind, and that includes not only team members but also clients as well as senior management and board members.

I have a strong bias in favour of keeping meetings “low tech;” that is, a WebEx or GoToMeeting connection, video feed where available and a basic powerpoint presentation e-mailed to all of the participants a day or two before the meeting. I have seen far too many technical glitches and snafus delay the start of meetings — or worse, bring them to a crashing end — because of equipment or network failures to be a supporter of using projectors, resolution monitors, video walls, shared blackboards and the like. I also encourage simple PPT presentations primarily consisting of short bullet points in text. I appreciate that my views are personal; however, I find slick presentations consisting of embedded sound and video clips, clip art, pictures and photos tend to be distracting and time consuming to create. I ask participants to bring up a copy of their PPT presentations that were e-mailed to them rather than rely on technology to share presentations live.

Monthly meetings sounds about right. Any more often than that and they run the risk of becoming a burden and members tend to not properly prepare their input in advance. Mondays and Fridays are typically not great days to have a departmental meeting since those days have a habit of being important days in terms of jumping on or finishing up critical matters.  

Law department meetings tend to be 60 to 90 minutes in length. Personally, that is too long given normal attention spans. A productive meeting focused on truly relevant items should be no longer than 45 minutes. Short, punchy meetings are more likely to be purposeful, focused and informative. Meetings are best held at a regular time and date and should be mandatory attendance.

I am a big believer of going around the table and having everyone report on the two or three most important matters on which they are working. This promotes inclusiveness and accountability as well as general awareness. Meetings should also include 5- to 10-minute deep dives into topics of interest to the department such as legislative changes, alignment with corporate priorities and business performance, performance against budget, etc. I shy away from inviting guest speakers from other departments. Most other departments tend not to so there is no reason to draw special attention to the legal department or impose on others to go out of their way and meet with the legal team, at least not on a regular basis.  

It is important to solicit regular feedback regarding the meeting, especially before and after. Ask members what they would like to see changed or added.  What is working and what is not?  Are the meeting’s goals being accomplished? Not only will this help to ensure meetings are productive and informative but your team will appreciate you asking.

Members should provide their full attention. Phones and other devices should be turned off or put on vibrate. They should not bring other work to the meeting. Ditch the idea of offering muffins or sandwiches — this should be a meeting not a breakfast or lunch. If a meeting cannot be held it should be rescheduled rather than cancelled entirely. If you as general counsel treat the meeting as important it will rub off on other team members.

The above practical considerations are merely a start and, of course, simply a set of suggestions, but if you invest the appropriate time structuring meetings they can be useful, informative and time efficient. You will take the drudgery out of meetings and organize them so that people actually look forward to attending and participating in them.

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