First things first: Thank you.
In response to my solicitation a couple of weeks ago, my “commenters” and correspondents provided ample material for the last chapter of my forthcoming book, Inside Straight. The “commenters,” I must say, will test the mettle of whomever ABA Publishing assigns to edit the manuscript. I asked my readers to propose a subtitle for the book, and I promised to re-print in the book the best (and worst) of the suggestions. To my eye, Inside Straight: The Annoying Ramblings of an Uber Douche and Inside Straight: But Outside? Pretty Into Dudes both made the cut. But I’m easy; the unfortunate editor at the ABA will have his hands full.
(Why seek to savage myself in public? Because roughly 97 percent of visitors to Above the Law never bother to look at the comments. I’d like the book to reveal to those typical readers the odd relationship that bloggers can have with their blaudience. That relationship is multifaceted; people should understand both the vitriol of the commenters and the wisdom of crowds.)
Thanks also to my correspondents (including one New York Times bestselling author, who’s also a lawyer) who provided some additional “advance praise” that we’ve posted at the pre-publication web page offering Inside Straight for sale.
But enough of that. Let’s get back to business: What annoying ramblings can the uber douche inflict on readers today? Business meetings! We have them all the time, and people misuse them. We meet with outsiders whom we’re trying to impress, and we then cross-examine each other and reveal that we’re not very impressive at all. We meet to solicit help from business folks, and the lawyers blather on about legal technicalities that neither interest nor inform anyone. How can we fix this?
First, how about giving people just a hint of what will be discussed at an upcoming meeting? In my experience, colleagues hijack your calendar in-house far more often than they do at law firms. Someone wants to schedule a meeting, so she checks on-line for a time when all of the desired participants are available and then sends around a notice setting the meeting. That’s fine — but if you’d like people to be prepared for the meeting, you really must tell them what will be discussed. When people see only that they’ve been asked to attend a meeting about “law department calibrations,” participants may not realize that the meeting will require each attendee to justify the performance ratings (on a scale of 1 to 5) that the attendees gave to each of their direct reports six weeks ago. If you knew that you were heading off to a meeting to defend your performance evaluations, you might have reviewed those ratings and thought about folks’ performance before you started strolling to the conference room.
Second, if people must review materials before the meeting, consider distributing those materials . . . before the meeting. It doesn’t make much sense to have a dozen people sitting around a conference table simultaneously reading things that everyone could have reviewed beforehand.
Please note that “before the meeting” means a decent amount of time before the meeting. When the meeting is at 11 am, it really doesn’t help to hear a bleep on your computer at 10:57 distributing the 30-page memo that we’ll be discussing three minutes hence. If you’d like intelligent input, give people a chance to provide intelligent input.
Finally, think about the purpose of the meeting. If we’re trying to impress outsiders to the firm, let’s try to . . . impress the outsiders. At an impress-the-outsiders meeting, we should not be aggressively cross-examining each other and thus revealing our own incompetence.
If we’re bringing business folks up to speed about something, let’s talk in non-legal English about the points that matter to the business people. The fascinating procedural machinations about removal and remand may thrill the lawyers, but the business folks almost surely care more about who sued whom for what. A bring-the-business-folks-up-to-speed meeting is, or should be, a very different event from a meeting where lawyers are strategizing about something. In fact, if the lawyers waste too much time on legal technicalities during meetings with business people, the lawyers may find that they’ve worn out their welcome and are less able to convince business people to attend future meetings with lawyers.
Are we attending the meeting to teach an outsider? That’s one situation. Or are we being instructed by an outsider? That’s very different. Or are we trying to solve a problem collectively? That’s yet a third situation.
Think about what you’re trying to achieve at the meeting, and you’re more likely to achieve it.
Finally, remember that the meeting probably isn’t about “events that I personally recently lived and therefore will inflict on everyone else for no particular reason.” If the meeting is about key developments in a collection of 20 related lawsuits, you should probably be talking about upcoming trials, working with experts, and pending dispositive motions. If the person who’s chairing the meeting recently filed a motion to change venue, the venue motion should not become the main subject of the meeting, simply because the chair cannot resist regaling folks with recent events from his own life.
What are the rules?
Tell people the subject of the meeting. Give folks a chance to prepare. Think about what the meeting is meant to achieve. (If appropriate, distribute an agenda in advance.) End the meeting either (1) when time has expired, because many participants will then have other things on their schedules or (2) when the subject matter has legitimately been exhausted. (Except in extraordinary circumstances, let’s not hear: “Well, that about covers everything. But we still have ten minutes left. What else shall we talk about?” It’s not a sin to end early.)
That’s all I have to say. Meeting adjourned.
(Was that uber douchian enough?)
Mark Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law (affiliate link) and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.