A bad habit to quit back at the office
As law firms over the world are hurdling back to the office, familiar pre-pandemic patterns reemerge. For this article I will focus on internal meetings. Meetings absorb more time and drain morale more consistently than any other corporate activity. Before the pandemic law firm managers were spending an average of 23 hours a week in internal meetings. For the other partners numbers were not as high, but still mounted up over the year to about 8 hours a week on average.
I’m not sure if working from home has reduced these numbers as having too many Teams or Zoom call has been the most widely heard complaint over the past year. Now that lawyers are gradually returning to the office there is perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity to rethink and restructure the way we communicate. This is the time to get rid of about half of all meetings.
Meetings drain morale and drain energy
What percentage of internal meetings in your firm, did actually start on time? Probably not that many. It is a common annoyance. I know of law firms resorting to drastic measures such as locking the door once the meeting has started, to enforce more punctuality, but to no avail.
For what percentage of meetings would you say that all attendees come well prepared? Again, probably not that many. Typically no one has read any material or even the agenda. They just come in, take a seat and wait for things to happen. Partners have typically not prepared for internal meetings, which makes discussions inefficient and also a bit pointless as arguments have not really been thought through and are mostly based on the gut feeling of the moment, or on what someone else has just said.
What percentage of meetings you are requested to attend has a clear purpose? Often the objective of a meeting is totally unclear. The meeting exists just because it exists. This could be the monthly meeting of the IT committee, the International Committee, you name it. Any meeting without a clear objective such as information sharing and coordination, or finding a solution for a well defined problem, is bound to be a waste of time.
The fact that partners are late for internal meetings and/or bring their laptop to work during the meeting are sure signs that those meetings are doing more harm than good and should be scrapped.
Ted Lasso doesn’t do meetings
There is a hugely popular series on Apple TV right now that is called Ted Lasso. Since it started airing in 2020, it has won more than 20 awards among which 4 Emmy awards. The shows’ main character is a small-time college football coach from Kansas, Ted Lasso, who is unexpectedly recruited to coach AFC Richmond, an English Premier League team, despite having no experience at all in association football. If you’re not familiar with this series, it’s definitively worth giving it a try.
Despite having no experience whatsoever in coaching professional football, Ted Lasso soon turns out to be highly effective at it. He manages to turn a group of individuals who are, due to their egos and lack of communication, dysfunctional as a team, into a close knit team of champions. For someone with my background, it is striking how many similarities there are with managing the partners in a law firm.
Rest assured that I am fully aware that Ted Lasso is fictional comedy, nevertheless there are perhaps lessons to be learned. For one, professional footballers do not spend a lot of time in meetings like law firm partners do. And yet, there is the need for a lot of communication, but these tend to be brief, focused and held in the locker room. This illustrates that there is no need for formal meeting in order to have a number of highly talented individuals to adopt and execute a strategy and work effectively together to achieve a pre-set goal. And, before I forget, professional football players are also not participating in an IT committee or an international committee. They leave that to the real professionals to deal with.
Focus on what is essential
When returning to the office, prioritize spending quality time together. Focus on social interaction that will reinforce the fabric of the team and the culture of the firm. Make transfer of knowledge and a creative meeting of minds a top priority. Above all, stop wasting valuable time on pointless meetings.
It is advisable to create a high threshold for scheduling a meeting. Internal meetings can only be called for if there is a ‘business plan’ outlining what the purpose of the meeting, who should attend and why, and what information needs to be available and what topics should be covered. No purpose, no meeting. At the end of each meeting briefly evaluate if the objectives have been met and what could have been done better. No meetings that become recurring by default!
The return to the office after the pandemic is perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity to break with bad meeting habits, so grab the opportunity. You will save valuable time and boost morale and firm culture.