Running Efficient Meetings

One of the things I love about being a lawyer? There are a lot less meetings than when I worked in the world of non-profits. Clients don’t want to pay for lawyers to sit around talking to each other and so our profession generally eschews agonizingly long meetings. That said, even as a junior attorney, there are times when you’ll need to run a meeting: a board meeting, a paralegal meeting, a meeting with opposing counsel, or a committee meeting.

Since an inefficiently run meeting is more annoying than waiting in an inefficient line at Starbucks, I thought I’d offer my thoughts about running an efficient meeting (and potential pitfalls).

First, decide that a meeting is necessary

I confess to having sat in meetings and thought “this is such a waste of time.” But I don’t want people doodling or drooling in meetings that I’m running, and so I try to put in some thought ahead of time. Identifying the goal of the meeting in advance helps me clarify the meeting’s purpose. Much like a legal brief, effective meetings need topic sentences. And, it helps me to identify a goal as well as a topic. For example, if I need to resolve an issue or decide upon a plan of action, I note the goal ahead of time so that I don’t faciliate a lengthy discussion of an issue only to leave it unresolved. Alternatively, if my goal is simply to brainstorm and not reach resolution on any particular issue, I let people know that goal up front as well.

An advantage to thinking about meetings in terms of topic sentences? Your topic sentences can translate nicely into an agenda for the meeting. I always like having an agenda in meetings for the same reason that I like having a program at a wedding—the audience can follow along and judge for themselves how much longer the program will continue. Starting and ending on time also helps. To this end, Google places a giant timer on the wall that “runs off a computer and is projected 4 feet tall.” The timer’s purpose? To exert “subtle pressure to keep meetings running on schedule.”

Keep things moving

Research has shown that meeting leaders tend to speak 50 percent of the time (on average). How does this happen?

Lawyers (myself included) like to debate. Sometimes, we can get into a loop where we find ourselves arguing about things that don’t really matter or aren’t relevant the key item to be decided/addressed. It’s nice to have someone running the meeting who doesn’t mind reminding people to stay on task and (if possible) remains outside the debate, facilitating, not dominating the meeting.

Another meeting pet peeve? Permitting meeting participants to become sidetracked with long personal conversations. A bit of small talk in the beginning of a meeting can be a lovely thing, but the meeting organizer needs to pull people back to the issues when they veer off track.

Assign Tasks

When possible, have a note-taker who can keep track of tasks assigned. The note-taker can email the notes to anyone who missed the meeting and follow up on the assigned tasks. And voila—you have a meeting with goals, that moves along quickly, and a record of the whole shebang.

The internet is replete with additional advice about running an effective meeting, but some theories and suggestions struck me as more amusing than effective. While, “[p]roductivity expert David Allen recommends starting every meeting with a statement of wild success,” a vision of the meeting’s best possible outcome, I can imagine the “statement of wild success” feeling forced or even setting expectations too high. Others recommend singling out latecomers by locking the meeting door or making late arrivals fetch coffee. What are we in high school?

Most of my thoughts really represent common sense. Why don’t we (myself included) always do these things? We’re busy. Taking time to plan for a meeting and thinking about goals in advance doesn’t always feel productive, but when I don’t, my meetings feel haphazard and disorganized—nobody’s idea of a productive use of time.

(image: Man Looking Bored with His Woman from Shutterstock)


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