Ten Things: Escaping Meeting Hell

If you’ve been an in-house lawyer long enough you know that one thing as inevitable as taxes, death, and another Fast and the Furious movie is meetings.  Lots and lots of meetings.  Meetings you set, meetings you’re invited to, meetings with the boss, meetings as the boss, status meetings, “kick-off” meetings, post-mortem meetings, meetings with law firms, meetings about all the damn meetings you’re having, meetings… well, you get the point.  Some days you look at your calendar and it’s back-to-back-to-back-to-back meetings.  There is barely time to go to the bathroom, let alone get something to eat or just catch your breath (or Heaven forbid do some work).  Worst of all, sometimes you’re sitting in a meeting asking yourself “why the hell am I here?” or “what’s the point of this meeting?”  If you’ve had enough of the Alcatraz I call “Meeting Hell,” then read on.  Time for a jailbreak.

I’ve been around for a while and I’ve hosted a lot of meetings and I’ve attended a lot of meetings.  I’ve also found ways to get out of meetings or, if not, make them more productive and less painful.   This edition of “Ten Thing” discusses my tips for escaping Meeting Hell.  So, step into my cell and let’s have a chat.  And keep it down, the warden has ears everywhere:

1.  Control your calendar.  Initially, the place to start is controlling your calendar.  It’s easy to do if you keep your own calendar.  If you’re lucky enough to have an assistant who does it, then you’ll have to spend time training them on the art of what meetings to accept and which to decline.  I usually kept my own calendar but, as general counsel, I often let my assistant handle it.  My standing rule was no more than three meetings in a day unless the request for a meeting came from someone who could fire me.  Fortunately, as general counsel, that list was somewhat smaller than when I started working in-house (though the possibility of getting fired was way more likely!).  If my assistant wasn’t sure, she knew to ask me what I wanted to do.  I also reviewed my calendar every morning (but especially on Monday mornings) to make determinations about which meetings I would or would not attend that day or the rest of the week.  If things were jammed up, I was happy asking to reschedule meetings or to spread them out (assuming it was a meeting I felt I needed to attend).  Simply put, you control your calendar.  Feel the power.

2.  Just say no.  Nancy Reagan had it right, at least as to meetings – just say no!  Just because you’re invited to a meeting, it doesn’t mean you have to attend.  Again, there are times you cannot say no, you just have to lump it and attend those meetings no matter what, but there are many times when you can punt.  And it feels amazing!  When I would see a meeting invitation pop up on Outlook, the first thing I would look for is how many people are invited.  If there were more than a handful, I knew it was likely I would decline to attend.  More on that below.  When I declined, I would usually say “this does not appear to be a meeting where you need legal advice or where my attendance will be necessary.  If I am wrong, let me know the agenda and how you think I can help.”  That usually did the trick.  If, however, they wrote back with a proper agenda and a reason my attendance was needed, I sometimes changed my mind – though I knew that the odds of a “large” meeting being productive were low.  Really low.

3.  Send a substitute.  Often it is clear that a lawyer needs to attend the meeting.  It just may not be you!  For example, it may be obvious that they need a commercial contracts lawyer and you’re a litigator.  That’s an easy one to fix.  Alternatively, depending on where you sit in the hierarchy, you may be able to send someone from your team to attend and they can fill you in later if necessary.  Not only does it get you out of the meeting, but it may also be a great opportunity for a less experienced department lawyer to gain some exposure to the business, see new issues and problems first hand, and start to become someone the business reaches out to directly (vs. you).  You may, however, need to spend a bit of time with your substitute in advance to prepare them for the meeting, just because you know from experience what they might encounter.  Still, a great opportunity to delegate and start training others to take on tasks that you probably no longer need to tend to.

4.  Meetings you host.   The first three points deal with getting you out of meetings altogether.  A noble goal indeed.  But, alas, it’s not always possible to avoid meetings, especially if you’re the one calling for the meeting.  Here are a few tips to make your meetings better and more productive:

  • Prepare an agenda – every substantive meeting you call should have a written agenda that sets out what you want to accomplish.  If there is time, send it out in advance, but at a minimum share it at the start of the meeting.  See more on agenda preparation below.
  • Invite only the people who need to attend – perhaps the key to productive (and shorter) meetings is to only include the people who are a) doers, b) decision-makers, or c) impacted parties.  Everyone else is superfluous (damn, I actually got to use that word in a sentence!).   Remember the “Golden Rule” – Do onto others … so they don’t invite you to their crappy meeting.
  • Start/End on time – starting and ending on time is not only polite, it’s critical to effective meetings.  First, don’t be late to your own meeting (and if for some reason you are, apologize profusely to everyone).  Second, consider starting your meetings at odd times like five minutes after the hour/half-hour, e.g., 9:05 am or 3:35 pm.  This allows people with back-to-back meetings time to get to your meeting/dial-in.  If you want to get a little funky, make it 9:07 am or 3:39 pm (then your meeting really stands out on the calendar).  Third, you will use up however much time you allot for the meeting, usually with a lot of that time wasted on non-important matters.  Rarely is a one-hour meeting needed for anything.  Thirty minutes should usually do it and on rare instances, 45 minutes.  So, look to set meetings for the amount of time you will actually need vs. the default 60 minutes most meetings seem to fall into.  And as the host, it’s your job to keep the meeting on track and on time.
  • Don’t rehash materials sent out in advance – if you sent materials out in advance of the meeting (with sufficient time for people to read), don’t waste time repeating everything that was in the materials.  Say something like, “I assume everyone has read the materials but if anyone has a question about them or needs some further elaboration let me know.  Otherwise, we’ll cut right to the chase of why we’re here.”  Everyone who bothered to read the materials will secretly (or overtly) thank you.
  • Send out a summary of next steps – your meeting needs to focus on just a handful of things – requests, promises, and who does what by when.  When the meeting is over, send everyone a summary of the key issues discussed, the requests and promises, and who is doing what by when.  Be sure to always “write smart” as you never know who will be reading the summary down the road (think “Dear Party Suing Us…”) and, if appropriate, ensure you take steps to help ensure the summary is covered by the attorney-client privilege or work product privilege/doctrine.

5.  Meetings you’re invited to attend.  As noted, sometimes you cannot get out of a meeting.  When that happens, plan on taking some time to help ensure the meeting is productive.  Start with contacting the person calling for the meeting and asking for the agenda.  If there is none, work with them to put one together.  This will help them focus the meeting.  Next, show up on time and be prepared to contribute.  This means reading the materials provided in advance (if sent) and understanding why you were invited in the first place.  If it’s not clear, you can determine this by speaking with the person calling for the meeting.  While attending, help keep the meeting focused on the agenda and on track – lawyers tend to be good at this task.  And make sure there are clear next steps discussed before the meeting breaks up.  Finally, remind the person running the meeting to send out a summary with the requests, promises, and the “who does what by when” information.  If things are sensitive, offer to review the summary before it is sent so there is nothing in it that can come back to bite the company if there is litigation down the road.  Actually, if you know the meeting is related to a sensitive legal topic/issue, you should offer to host the meeting or co-host the meeting so that there is a better chance to claim it is privileged – either as an attorney-client communication or litigation-related work product.

6.  Conference calls – where work goes to die.   If there is a bigger time-suck (and waste of time) than a large conference call, it would be a surprise to me.  Conference calls are where work goes to die.  This is because most conference calls fail to properly include or engage the people dialing in (especially if the meeting involves a room full of attendees).  If you’ve sat through many conference calls as someone “dialing in” what typically happens is two minutes into the meeting everyone in the room forgets there are people on the phone and start engaging each other in conversations, whiteboard discussions, inside jokes, and other behaviors that not only encourage but basically forces those on the phone to tune out.  And even if that is not the case, many remote attendees treat conference calls as an opportunity to do something else while the call drones on in the background.  A fairly recent poll on what people do while calling into such a meeting is revealing:[1]

screenshot-www.statista.com-2019.09.23-16_49_26

The poll results speak for themselves and paint a pretty poor picture of the level of engagement by those on the phone (video games?).  All of this supports my conclusion that most conference calls are a waste of time.  But, not all is lost.  With some planning you can overcome the bad habits that cause attendees to tune out or engage in the activities revealed in the poll:

  • Insist on video conferencing and that everyone calling in use their camera.  If you’re on camera, you’re engaged in the meeting (and definitely not going to the bathroom … I hope).  Video conferencing is easier than ever and plenty of free options[2] exist if your company doesn’t have a service like GoToMeeting or BlueJeans.  Look at Zoom, FreeConferenceCall.com, Skype, or Google Hangouts to start.
  • Ensure that everyone in the room remembers that there are people on the phone and the importance of speaking clearly, not talking over people, pausing to allow remote questions or feedback, and actively soliciting the input of those on the phone.  This is especially true when you’re hosting the meeting but nothing stops you from speaking up on these points if you’re just an attendee.
  • Rethink your own behavior when you’re dialed into a conference call.  Put your phone down, stop looking at emails and trying to “multi-task” (hint – you’re failing), be an active participant in terms of asking questions or weighing in on issues, and go to the bathroom before you join the call.  Additionally, if you’re muting your line make sure it’s truly muted, especially before making snide comments or engaging in unrelated conversations with the guy at the Starbucks counter or the paint store.

7.  Ban the status meeting.  Seriously.  The only meeting more useless than the large conference call is the status meeting.  It’s way past time to rethink this calendar-choking turd. Most status meetings can be handled through an email or an attachment to an email.  If there needs to be a meeting, then you should be able to set it for 15 minutes if:

  • You send out the materials in advance of the meeting (with sufficient time for people to read them).
  • You limit the meeting to three points:
    • Does anyone need anything to get to the next milestone?
    • Does anyone need direction on what to do next?
    • If anything is not on track set out what is being done to fix it.
  • You actively work to keep things moving along and not get bogged down in unneeded side conversations.

8.  External meetings.  As an in-house lawyer, odds are good you’re going to get invited to a lot of external meetings.  Usually with someone trying to sell you something – legal services, vendor services, or whatever.  Your first inclination may be to just say “no” to all such meetings.  That is certainly one way to keep your calendar clear but it’s also a mistake.  First, you should (and must) be judicious with your time and which external meetings you will accept.  That’s just smart.  Second, accept those that make sense, i.e., a law firm you might be interested in learning more about, a product or service you might use, and so forth.  Third, remember that you may not always be in-house and the network you establish over the course of your in-house career can serve you well when you’re searching for that next position.  You’re never more popular than when you’re an in-house lawyer!  Fourth, if you’re interested but cannot attend or are on the fence, send a substitute (for all the same reasons discussed above).  Fifth, don’t be bashful about accepting these meetings but subject to a time and place most convenient for you, e.g., meeting at your offices, meeting for breakfast or coffee vs. lunch or dinner, meeting near your offices vs. driving long distances.  Remember, they want the meeting with you and that gives you a lot of options when it comes to whether you’ll meet, and as to when and where.

9.  Someone’s missing!  Nothing makes a meeting less productive than when someone whose attendance/input is necessary misses the meeting.  Usually, it’s not until the meeting starts – and so-and-so no shows – that someone asks “did they accept the meeting?” Before you play Where’s Waldo, just know that it should never have gotten this far.  The organizer of the meeting needs to ensure that everyone who needs to be at the meeting is invited, has accepted, knows why their attendance is required, and has their commitment to attend.  Not everyone will extend you the courtesy of asking why they are needed, they will just blow off the meeting.  This can make the meeting a total waste of time for everyone who did bother to show up.  So, rule one is making sure everyone invited knows why they need to attend and commits to doing so.  If you are hosting a meeting and someone necessary fails to show, you need to decide quickly whether to keep going or reschedule.  If it’s truly hopeless to go forward just apologize and cancel the meeting and move on.  Don’t force everyone to sit through a meeting that will fail at its essential purpose.  If the meeting can fully proceed without an attendee, ask yourself why the were invited in the first place?

10.  Preparing a kick-ass agenda.  It may come as a surprise to many but there is an art to preparing a good agenda for your meetings.  While not every meeting requires a detailed agenda, when one does you need to plan on spending sufficient time getting it right.  A properly prepared agenda keeps your meeting organized and on track, gives it clear purpose and goals, and lets everyone know how to prepare for the meeting.  Here are the basics of preparing a proper agenda:

  • Start early, at least three to four days in advance of the actual meeting.  This will allow you to send it to the attendees in advance of the meeting (a critical step for effective meetings).  If you have time, solicit input from others about the content of the agenda.
  • Define and set out the objective(s) of your meeting – what is the goal?  What are you trying to accomplish?
  • Outline the items that will be discussed and put in priority order, i.e., the most important items come first.  You should generally not have more than five or six items on your agenda.
  • Provide proper detail for each item on the agenda.  For example, instead of “Team?” set out “Who is needed to create the right team to implement the department website?”  This will allow the participants to start thinking about the item before they attend the meeting, saving a lot of time and likely generating better ideas or discussion.
  • Allot a specific amount of time for each item.  Think hard about how much time is truly needed to discuss/decide each agenda item and put the expected time on the agenda.  This will consciously (or unconsciously) force the participants to manage the discussion to the time limit.  Just be realistic about time.  If you have allotted five minutes for a key topic and you have seven participants at the meeting, that less than a minute per person to weigh in/discuss.  Is that really going to work?
  • Tell participants how to prepare for the meeting, e.g., read attached documents, their responsibilities for specific agenda items, etc.  Set it all out in writing so everyone sees (in advance) who is doing what, and especially what is expected of them.

For more on agendas, including a sample meeting agenda and a template, take a look at Roger Schwartz’s excellent HBR article How to Design an Agenda for an Effective Meeting.  And, a simple Internet search will provide you with dozens of business meeting agenda templates so you don’t have to start from scratch.

*****

I wish I could tell you that you can easily avoid all meetings and spend your day doing only awesome legal work.  But, it doesn’t work that way.  Meetings are necessary for many reasons, especially for in-house lawyers.  Still, when you get a meeting invite you should pause and think through whether it’s a meeting you really need to attend.  If not, just say no (or at least ask “why”).  If you must attend or are calling your own meeting, think about all of the above and take the necessary steps to ensure the right people are in attendance and that the meeting is properly set up to be productive and not waste anyone’s time.  While you cannot always escape meeting jail, at least you won’t be doing hard time.

Sterling Miller

September 25, 2019

Follow me on Twitter @10ThingsLegal and LinkedIn where I post articles and stories of interest to in-house counsel frequently.  

I have three published books: Ten Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel – Practical Advice and Successful Strategies, The Evolution of Professional Football, and The Slow-Cooker Savant.  Volume 2 of the “Ten Things” book is with the publisher and should be out in October or November 2019. I am also available for speaking engagements, coaching, and consulting.

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“Ten Things” is not legal advice nor legal opinion and represents my views only.  It is intended to provide practical tips and references to the busy in-house practitioner and other readers.  If you have questions or comments, please contact me at sterling.miller@sbcglobal.net

[1] See https://www.statista.com/statistics/323678/what-us-employees-are-doing-in-a-conference-call/.

[2] See https://www.owllabs.com/blog/video-conferencing-tools.

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