Ten Things: Legal Departments and the Value of Huddle Meetings

I’ll start this post by saying it is both awesome and (somewhat) dispiriting to have to follow the last “Ten Things” blog post, i.e., Talia Jarvis’ guest post on what you need to know as a woman in-house lawyer.  I feel like the Rolling Stones agreeing to follow James Brown at the 1964 T.A.M.I. awards.  If you don’t know what happened, let’s just say Mr. Brown blew the Stones off the stage with his act. [1]  So, here I am trying to follow her fantastic post – and what have I got for you?  Umm, let’s talk about meetings! Yay! Yeah, I know. Definitely feels like a B-side. Damn.  I never imagined it would suck to be Mick Jagger.

One thing I have written a lot about is all of the meetings that in-house lawyers attend. Sometimes, I think I spent at least half of my in-house career in meetings.  Having sat in meetings, run meetings, avoided meetings, been bored to death in meetings, tried to crawl out the door at meetings, I feel I have a pretty good perspective on the issue.  In past editions of “Ten Things,” I have written about how to hold more effective staff meetings, hosting offsite meetings, 1:1 meetings, and even how to escape meeting hell (a favorite pastime of mine). Today I want to talk about rethinking the base-type of meetings in-house legal departments hold.  In particular, moving away from long-drawn-out staff meetings and department meetings to something significantly shorter.  There will always be a place for those longer meetings, but something I have become very partial to is the “huddle” (also called a “stand-up” or a “scrum”) meeting.  There is a lot of value you can derive from a huddle meeting, for yourself, for the department, and for the company.  What’s a huddle meeting you ask?  Well, you’re in luck.  This edition of “Ten Things” discusses what you need to know about huddles and how they can benefit you and your legal department:

1.  What is a huddle meeting?  A huddle meeting is a short meeting (15 to 20 minutes) where the entire legal team (assuming the department is not gigantic) or section joins and works quickly through a set agenda (i.e., each meeting/person has the same agenda every time) to talk about the tasks before them that day.  Much like a football team huddle, the idea is a quick meeting to get everyone on the same page before the next play.

2.  The huddle “agenda.”  A successful huddle meeting process hinges on a fixed agenda. Typically each person has three items to walk through in roughly a minute or two.  These three items are designed to give the meeting leader (and the rest of the team) a quick insight into what that person is working on.  Here are my preferred three:

  • What I am working on today – here are my priorities.
  • Am I stuck/need any help?
  • I have/do not have time to do other things/help out.

These three pieces of information allow the leader (and others on the team) to a) understand how work is spread out among the team (and if someone is too busy or doesn’t have enough to do), b) whether the team is focusing on the right priorities (i.e., the vast majority of things discussed should track to the department’s/group’s goals or top immediate priorities and, if not, the huddle is an opportunity to refocus the team on the right tasks, c) what things or problems are blocking progress on getting things done, and d) are important matters falling between the cracks and not getting the attention they deserve (or any attention at all).  The leader should have a clear understanding of what is important to the business, what is important to “get done,” and bring and share that knowledge with the team.  The huddle is the perfect place to do that.

3.  What are the benefits?  Several benefits come with huddle meetings.  First is that they are short.  Everyone loves short meetings.  The huddles can replace another –  longer – meeting you may have regularly scheduled for that week.  Second, there is a fixed agenda that does not vary, i.e., it is easy to prepare for and participate in as you know the agenda by heart.  Third, they help your team focus on what is truly important, helping them get more of the right things done sooner while generating fewer emails and phone calls in the process.  It also allows others to step up and offer to help, building teamwork and camaraderie.  Fourth, huddles allow you – as leader – to ensure that the team is aligned around the company’s and the department’s most important tasks and objectives.  The team can re-prioritize workloads on the fly, reallocate resources, and put more hands-on things that need more hands, i.e., get things “unstuck” if there is something blocking progress.  Fifth, information is shared in near “real-time” vs. once a week or once a month.  If there is a problem with a project, it is better to know as soon as possible so you can fix it vs. letting it fester, build up, and jam up other progress.

4.  When to meet.  On the business side of the house, the software engineers and other groups often have huddles every day.  That is probably too frequent for most legal departments (though it depends on the size of your team and on how much value you ultimately find in the process).  I think the more ideal process is three times a week, e.g., Monday, Wednesday, Friday.  I don’t believe you can get the full benefit of the huddle process if you only have one or two huddle meetings a week, but – as with most things – it’s not what I think.  Rather, it depends on what you can pull off and what provides you and your team with the most value.  Still, start with a goal of three times per week and then make adjustments (if any) from there.  Likewise, it is best to have the huddles in the morning because you can get the team fired up and energized for the day.  That said, you must be sensitive to time zones though, unfortunately, sometimes the remote “outposts” will get the short end of the stick on this.

5.  Key Rules of the Huddle.  There are several must do’s for your huddle:

  • Stay on time.  One of the most important attributes of the huddle meeting is its brevity. You must resist the urge to turn the huddle into something more than it is or something longer.  No long, rambling lists of “here’s all of the things I am working on,” etc.  End on time.  As leader, it’s your job to figure out how to make that happen. It may be as simple as a fun “buzzer” sound that goes off when someone’s turn is up (which I have done), or – if a persistent problem – you may need to discuss offline with the offender the purpose of the huddle and coach them how to distill things down/simplify (something I have also done).
  • Everyone attends.  Huddles are not optional.  If someone cannot attend they must email in advance and set out their responses to the three fundamental questions.  If someone is half-assing it through the huddle, not engaged, or generally indifferent, it’s time to have a talk with them about expectations and attitude.  As I mentioned in my post on performance reviews, the right behaviors are just as important as getting things done.
  • Everybody speaks.  No exceptions.  Everyone’s work and contributions are important to the success of the department and the company.
  • Create a sense of urgency.  The huddle is intended to be a fast-paced, quick meeting. Make sure your huddles are not getting bogged down or turning into (gasp!) staff meetings.
  • Look forward.  The huddle is about the work for today and going forward, not what happened yesterday.  Save what people did “yesterday” for a 1:1 or a separate meeting.  Your huddle meetings should focus on how to get things moving and done, i.e., use the huddle to solve problems and remove obstacles, not chastise or place blame.
  • The leader goes last.  The leader of the huddle should go last.  This way she can listen closely to what everyone is saying and figure out how it will blend in with – or change – what she is planning on talking about.

6.  Camera on/off?  Okay, I’ll admit it. I have come to dread Zoom, Teams, BlueJeans, WebEx, or all of the other collaboration tools that involve cameras.  It is exhausting to me to stare at someone on-screen so intensely and have to be “camera-ready” for what used to just be a phone call.  Most of my Teams or Zoom invites now explicitly say, “No Cameras Needed.” I like the ease of computer audio but after a year of working like this, I am failing to find a lot of value in having cameras on for every interaction.  My suggestion is that you have cameras on for one of the three huddle meetings and off for the other two.  Sure, there is value in being able to “see” each other but, seriously, once you have seen your co-workers on Zoom a few times does it really matter if you cannot see them?  No, it does not.  So, make it easy on your team and go with minimum camera time (or no camera time as the whole camera-technology-not-working-correctly can become a thing and slow the meeting down).  Also, the traditional huddle technically requires everyone to stand.  In the age of Covid and the increasing prevalence of remote work, forcing everyone to stand in their home office feels kind of silly – unless you are going to play the National Anthem before the start of the huddle.  It is up to you, but I think it’s more important to get people to stick to the agenda than enforce huddle stand-up purity.

7.  Stay on agenda.  Whenever you get a bunch of lawyers together, it is easy to see the meeting spiraling out of control.  Not a wild melee of fists and weaponized shards of beer bottles (though that happens on occasion), but morphing from one-minute highlights to efforts to solve world hunger, justify, criticize, scold, and negotiate.  Stop! The point of the huddle is tactical and to focus on today and what is being done today to advance the goals and objectives of the department and the company.  Resist the natural inclination of lawyers to go further, deeper, and delve into metaphysics of the law.  It is okay to ask questions and raise quick issues, but in-depth problem solving should be saved for the staff, department meetings, or 1:1 meetings.

8.  Be creative.  Guess what?  You can ignore all of the above and turn the huddle into anything you want and what works best for you and your team.  Or, as the Wizard of Oz said, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. He’s not wearing pants!”[2]  Seriously, there are many things you can do with the huddle meeting format.  It should be constantly evolving and mutating[3] so it stays fresh and relevant to you and your team.  Here are some ideas:

  • You can rotate leaders (it’s a great way to give junior lawyers experience at running and preparing for meetings).
  • Use separate huddles for strategic projects or big litigation/big contracts/M&A or whatever.  You can even do a huddle with yourself each day to make sure you have your priorities lined up properly.
  • Start at off times – 9:08 am or 10:37 am.  Odds times tend to ensure that people are on time and prepared vs. rushing from their last meeting or phone call.
  • You can make one of the huddle meetings a bit longer than the others to focus on something particular, e.g., a key goal or strategic initiative, KPIs, survey results, development, or whatever.
  • Pick a different department KPI or metric to focus on each huddle and ask everyone to add to their discussion a short point or two about how what they are doing is advancing the KPI.  It may be nothing, but for most there will be something and the team will start to see how everything ties into everything else.
  • One thing I have used is a number system to shorthand how busy the department was.  If everything was running normally, we were at a “5.”  A “3” meant things were slow and a “9” meant we were running super-hot.  You can create and share this number, color, or whatever with the team at each huddle.  The point is to identify the stress level on the team, i.e., when to find more work, when to shift work around if necessary, or when to go outside to get additional resources to help.  A week or two of “9” is not pleasant but it is doable.  A month or two of “9” is not sustainable and action needs to be taken (and your team needs to see that you understand and will take action).

9.  Use Your “Top Two’s.”  Lawyers are great at working on the stuff they think is important, but if those tasks and projects don’t align with the priorities of the business then the legal department is missing a great opportunity to show value.  I am a big proponent of simply asking the leaders of the business what they think is important for the legal department to work on.  I would do this every Monday, i.e., talk with or email the leaders of the business and say “What are the top two things on your legal wish list for this week?”  After a while, they knew to anticipate this question and many had polled their team and were ready with the two things (sometimes more) they felt were most important to get done now.  When you get input like this from the business, you can use it during your huddles to both communicate what made the list but also ensuring that someone is working on any particular Top Two.  This way, nothing the business thinks is important can fall between the cracks.  And, after the Friday huddle, you can report back to the business leaders where things stand with their Top Two projects, even if that update is “we’re still working on it.”  It is far more productive for the legal department to proactively provide clients with updates than it is for the client to get mad and feel they have to “chase” you for an update.

10.  Wrapping it up.  Nothing is as important as the ending of the huddle.  As the leader, your job is to:

  • Ensure you know what obstacles are blocking progress on key projects and that you (or the team) are working on getting those removed.
  • Set (or reset) priorities for the team that day – make sure everyone is focused on the right things… today!
  • Make sure any instructions you give are understood by everyone at the same time (one of the benefits of having everyone together).
  • Energize the team – give them some praise, (quickly) celebrate any big accomplishments, and get them to understand how their work fits into the overall goals of the department and the company, i.e., how they (and the team) are generating value creation or minimizing value destruction.
  • Keep score of what was discussed.  It is probably worth your effort to create some type of list of priority projects, a blank template (that you can fill in as each team member goes through their list), or – if you’re really into the process, some form of Kanban board (a board that tracks workflow process).[4]  You can also delegate this task to someone and give them extra responsibility for creating the team’s priority list for the week and tracking progress.
  • Constantly evaluate your huddle process.  Is it working, is it dying, does it suck?  As the leader, you must ensure that you and the team are getting what is needed out of the process or reset and do-over.

*****

I know you need another meeting like you need a hole in your head, but there is real value to extract from the huddle process.  If you want to go deeper, here is an excellent article on huddles: How to Run a Daily Leadership Huddle.  I bet that a lot of you already have a process like this in place.  If so, great.  Be sure you are getting the maximum value out of the process or consider whether you need to revamp it.  If you are not using huddles today, give it a try for a month and see how it works.  I would bet big that you find your group is more focused on the right projects, more energized, and, most importantly, coming together more closely as a team. If you are not the leader of the huddle but simply a participant, be sure you are giving the right level of effort and attention to the process and not just going through the motions.  Like anything, you get back what you put into it.  Finally, if you add huddle meetings be sure to reduce the frequency of other meetings, especially any type of weekly staff meeting.  I think you will find huddles far more useful and productive and you can still have staff meetings, just less of them.

Sterling Miller

April 30, 2021

My fifth book is almost finished.  It should be out later this year. Two of my books, Ten Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel – Practical Advice and Successful Strategies and Ten (More) Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel – Practical Advice and Successful Strategies Volume 2, are on sale at the ABA website (including as e-books).  As the ABA says, “Don’t make us hunt you down.  Buy the damn books!” Trust me.  Don’t mess with the ABA!

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I have published two other books: The Evolution of Professional Football, and The Slow-Cooker Savant.  I am also available for speaking engagements, coaching, training, and consulting.

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

“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, ideas for a post, please contact me at sterling.miller@sbcglobal.net or, if you would like a CLE for your team on this or any topic in the blog, contact me at smiller@hilgersgraben.com.

[1] Seriously, if you have never seen the T.A.M.I. movie go find it on YouTube.  Or, read this article The Biggest Mistake the Rolling Stones Ever Made.  The Stones are great but James Brown’s performance is like he dropped in from another planet.  So, yeah.  That’s I how I feel this week.  Go Talia!

[2] They edited out the “pants” part for the movie.  The censor code was pretty rigid back then.

[3] Finally!  Got to work the word “mutating” into a post!  Take that bucket list.

[4] A Kanban board (like surf boards and school boards) is a bit beyond this blog post, but if you want to know more check out this article:  https://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/kanban.  

 

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