Meetings — you gotta love ‘em.
Especially if you go in-house.
I didn’t appreciate it before I moved in-house, but law firms are remarkably meeting-free. I suspect this is for three reasons: First, law firms are not public companies, so they aren’t obligated to perform many bureaucratic tasks the law imposes on public companies. Second, most law firms bill by the hour; when time is literally money, few people tolerate non-productive meetings. Finally, law firms have flat organizational structures. Although partners cooperate to varying degrees within firms, partners (or, at a minimum, partners who generate business) are largely independent actors. A partner is retained for a new piece of business, assembles a team to handle the work, and starts working. The team is typically fairly small (two or three lawyers are plenty to handle most legal matters; a team of 25 lawyers is large, even at a big firm; a team of 100 means you’re defending the largest of the mass torts). There’s no real organizational structure within the firm. A partner in charge of a practice or an office may technically oversee another partner’s work, but “oversight” in that sense means only making sure the partner’s bringing in enough business and billing enough hours. “Oversight” does not mean, for example, having weekly one-on-one meetings with the partner to manage his performance; no senior partner would stand for that nonsense (and waste of time).
Corporations are different. They’re publicly traded. They’re often much larger than law firms. They’re divided into operational divisions with pyramidal structures, with many people reporting to fewer people who report to fewer people still who report to someone near the top. Put that all together, and it means meetings. And meetings. And meetings. And meetings. In fact, to my eye, there are four types of corporate meetings . . . .
First, there are meetings that are necessary to move the ball. These are the types of meetings that you experience at law firms: Several people are undertaking different tasks. The tasks must be coordinated, and you need a unifying mind at the top to know what’s happening. So you meet.
Or you’re struggling with a tough issue that you can’t resolve alone. You need help, so you meet.
Thus, the first type of meeting is one that’s substantively necessary: You meet to move the ball.
But we set meetings at corporations for many other reasons, too.
For example, we set meetings simply so that people know that God is watching them. If some business unit has terrible control deficiencies, or is operating in a semi-legal way, or is grossly under-performing, we might set monthly or quarterly meetings between representatives of that unit and a high-ranking person in the corporation — a divisional CEO, the general counsel, the CFO, a committee of the Board, whoever. The high-ranking person doesn’t necessarily have to prepare for the meeting or do anything after it ends. She doesn’t even have to listen very attentively while the meeting is taking place. That isn’t the idea.
The idea is to schedule the meeting. This causes the dysfunctional business unit to know that it’s being watched, which in turn causes the unit to make progress toward some goal. The guy who’s running the under-performing unit realizes that he’s meeting with God next week, and he frantically emails his underlings: “Shoot! I’m meeting with God next week! Did we do anything this month to improve our performance? Send me a set of slides and some speaking notes so that I can explain all the progress we’ve made!”
The underlings then scurry around and, with just a little luck, actually do some work. They make progress toward the goal, which the boss can report to God.
Perfect! The meeting served its purpose! The meeting wasn’t actually supposed to move any ball forward, and it didn’t; it was set simply to prove that God was watching. It served that purpose like a charm. (I will say that it’s not necessarily fascinating to attend a meeting that was scheduled only to serve a monitoring purpose. Those meetings typically do not involve rigorous intellectual debates about difficult issues.)
Corporations set a third type of meeting, too — meetings that are required for some reason of law, regulation, or corporate hygiene. If, for example, the consent decree says that you’ll have quarterly meetings to monitor subject X, then you’ll have quarterly meetings to monitor subject X. You’ll probably prepare minutes, too, to prove that the meeting occurred.
But there’s no reason to think that anything significant happened during the last quarter or that some difficult issue requires attention. That’s possible, of course, but it’s hardly necessary. You’re dutifully holding the meeting because you’re obligated to hold the meeting. That serves a purpose: If the government or some adversary later comes calling, you can prove definitively that the meeting occurred! On the other hand, if you were hoping your meeting would involve a dozen smart, engaged people debating the true meaning and purpose of life, you’re likely to come away disappointed. Intelligent discussion may occasionally break out at one of these meetings, but that’s by no means mandatory. You’ll meet to have met; that’s plenty.
My personal favorite, however, is the fourth type of meeting that corporations schedule: Somebody suggests that a group should meet. Others nod sagely in agreement with the suggestion: “Oh, yes. That’s a fine idea. We need to spend some time together to share our knowledge and get to know one another. We should meet at the earliest possible time.”
Administrative assistants around the globe dutifully coordinate with each other (“clearing calendars” in the U.S. and “diarizing” things in the U.K.); flights are scheduled; hotels booked; the big day approaches.
Three days before the appointed time, the person who first proposed holding the meeting sends around an email: “I just realized that everybody’s flying in for a meeting on Thursday. Does anybody have any ideas for topics that we can put on the agenda?”
Meetings to move the ball. Meetings to show that God is watching. Meetings for the sake of having meetings. Remarkably, all of these I understand.
But meetings for which you’re struggling to figure out what you can discuss?
Maybe corporations should limit themselves to three types of meetings.
Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer 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 and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.