Meetings

I was 26 years out of law school before I moved in-house.

In those 26 years, I had never heard of “one-on-ones” (outside of the context of basketball). When I moved to a corporate job, folks were astonished by my ignorance. (A small part of that astonishment had to do with my unfamiliarity with one-on-ones.)

I’ve now been working for four years in what I take to be a typical (indeed, world-class) corporate environment, and I’m ready to declare the truth, thus offending every human resources professional who has ever lived: One-on-ones — individual weekly meetings between managers and each of the people who report to them — are generally unnecessary.

I know, I know: One-on-ones guarantee that the manager knows what’s happening in his or her department. And the meetings let managers give immediate feedback on how members of the team are performing. And there’s nothing like personal conversations to build relationships and esprit de corps.

Humbug!

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For Biglaw attorneys, it can take a while to realize the importance of face-to-face interaction in the business world. Especially for those young attorneys who start working at Biglaw firms immediately after graduating law school, and who attended law school immediately after college. In my case, I had a year of real “work experience” before starting law school, but in a very junior position.

So I was not involved, as I suspect most young people outside of tech startups are, in important business interactions. It is debatable whether someone’s experience seeking funding for an app that locates and arranges delivery of fresh donuts on a 24-hour basis counts as “real” business experience of value to lawyers. Nevertheless, many Biglaw attorneys land in their partner-discarded Aeron chair knock-off by jumping directly off the college-law school cliff of debt. And as a result have never attended an important business meeting before joining Biglaw. Ever….

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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 . . . .

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Patrick Bateman? No, Tabber Benedict (via Getty).

* Former Biglaw associate Tabber Benedict, whom we’ve mentioned before (in happier times), reportedly threw a lavish “going away” party — going away to prison, that is. [Daily Mail]

* Take your pick: is government an “impetuous vortex” or a “hideous monster [with] devouring jaws”? [Althouse]

* Some thoughts from Juan Haines, a current San Quentin inmate and jailhouse lawyer, on wrongful conviction. [Life of the Law]

* In defense of the weekly meeting. [What About Clients?]

* Prosecutors: above the (traffic) law? [UTSanDiego.com]

* And how about the U.S. Postal Service? [Felix Salmon]

* The furor over U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz and the late Aaron Swartz shows no sign of abating. [How Appealing]

* Speaking of technology law, how would you like to win $5,000? If so, check out this contest. [IT-Lex]

Partner meetings should be better. As I discussed in last week’s column, Biglaw firms tend to hold glorified lunches, sprinkled with some generic info-passing, instead of real informative meetings for partners.

It does not have to be that way — even if your Biglaw firm ascribes to a “partners are just our highest-paid employees” ethic. And especially if your firm is serious about involving partners in the firm’s business as much as possible in these days of behemoth Biglaw firms.

What kinds of improvements to partner meetings would I advocate implementing?

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Every firm has them. And partners dutifully show up. Mostly for the free lunch. This month we are serving Tex-Mex. One percenters’s loading up on the free food like a Soviet-era pensioner given the keys to the potato warehouse. It can be a gruesome scene.

So what happens at these monthly gatherings of Biglaw’s barons and baronesses? Nothing important. (You want important stuff, you need to crash an Executive Committee meeting. Or for the increasingly common Biglaw dictatorships, you need to bug Chairman Mao’s office.) At least at the scheduled monthly partner meetings. “Special” partner meetings are a different story. You want those to be boring, like calling for a vote on a group of laterals. “Exciting” special meetings, while good for Lat, are not good news for the average partner usually. Stability is one of the biggest draws of a Biglaw partnership. Stability means no shocking announcements, over which you have no control.

Anyway, here is how the typical monthly partner meeting goes….

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You’ve heard about lawyers who schedule depositions at Dunkin’ Donuts, but you’ve probably never heard about lawyers who get their nails and their briefs polished at the same time.

It looks like the latest trend for professional women in New York is the “manicure meeting,” a time when participants must sit and listen to each other, instead of sitting and pretending to listen to each other (while at the same time endlessly following the Bill Urquhart directive to CHECK YOU EMAIL).

But how did the manicure meeting come into existence? And more importantly, is this feasible for the women of Biglaw?

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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?

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In last week’s installment of Moonlighting, we looked into the challenges of just planning a global meeting. This post will continue the theme by examining particular practical issues that arise during global meetings.

The first few minutes of most meetings are passed waiting for people to join, whether in person or on a call. Those who’ve joined early on typically engage in casual social banter to avoid the awkward silence. But on a global call, you need to be careful as nothing says “you’re not an American company” like banter that leads with, “Say, how ‘bout those Knicks?”

Then what should you talk about — world events? Perhaps, assuming you can talk about them without offending anyone (avoid discussing the madness in Western Europe). Safer, but admittedly boring, topics are weather and vacations. And of course, be wary throughout the call of using American business jargon like “get our ducks in a row,” “circle back,” etc. These are best accompanied by a clear explanation of what the idioms mean: “As we say in America, let’s circle back when we have all our ducks in a row. This just means that we’ll give each other a heads up when we’ve got our house in order.” Wait… not that….

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Companies are doing more business internationally and dragging their lawyers along with them. As you can imagine, doing international work has obvious challenges — foreign law, culture and language, time zone issues, cardboard that airlines call “food,” etc. These next couple of Moonlighting posts are going to delve into some of the nitty gritty of practicing in a global arena by examining one very basic, but essential, part of the in-house practice that I’ve discussed before — a meeting.

But first, a clarification of terms. People often use the terms “international” and “global” interchangeably. However, in-house lawyers who practice in these areas may disagree. Assuming the terms are used by Americans, an “international” U.S. business refers to a business that is headquartered in the United States and operates individual businesses in other countries that focus on the market in each of those countries. In this structure, each business in each country focuses on its own business and does not often coordinate with the others — communicating primarily with the U.S. headquarters in a hub and spoke kind of structure.

On the other hand, a “global” U.S. business is one that’s headquartered in the United States and builds businesses in other countries that focus on how the market in those countries could support cross-border business growth. In the global model, businesses in the other countries often work directly with each other. For the sake of simplicity though, I’ll use the term “global” for the rest of this post to refer to both international and global work. Now that you’re sufficiently confused, we can move on….

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