Lawyers in Business Meetings

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1 Lawyers in Business Meetings Antoine Henry de Frahan M anaging a meeting is a simple things to do. At least, there a hundreds of books that will tell you how to do it, and you find in all corporate management programs at least one course on how to manage meetings. But that is of little help for lawyers, because lawyers in meetings, most of the time, are not leading the meeting. They are supposed to attend the meeting, to participate in it, but most of the time, not to lead it. This leading role is left to the client, that is to a business manager or a project manager. So, most of the time, lawyers do not control the key parameters of a meeting, and all the traditional tips and tricks for effective meeting management simply don t help. Because the natural place of the lawyer in a meeting is not the leader s place, the first question to respond for lawyers in business meetings is to clarify their role, or more exactly to decide how they are going to position themselves in the meeting. And here, they are many positions that are dangerous, counter-productive and ineffective: (i) The geisha: some lawyers will play geisha to deserve recognition and justify their presence at the meeting table. From drafting the invitations to serving coffee to making notes to drafting the meeting report, they act as the perfect assistant to the big guys who actually run the show. And that is precisely the problem. For lawyers eager to establish a partnership-based relationship, that is a relationship among equals, adopting the geisha attitude is not effective. It may earn them a ticket to the meeting and some recognition, but not as a strategic contributor: as an assistant. There is nothing wrong about being an assistant, but that is not the positioning that most lawyers have chosen. (ii) The retracted outsider: because they do not have control over the meeting, some lawyers back off. They show with their behaviour that they don t play in the game. They arrive late and leave early, they remain silent, they choose a position in the room that is out of the loop, and they generally give an image of bored superiority. They resent the fact to be in a subordinate position, to be managed rather than to manage, and their resentment shows. Needless to say that most of the time, this attitude is not very effective and is very much the contrary of the partnership, which they claim to establish.

2 (iii) The neurotic lawyer: certain lawyers will try to draw attention and to take control over the meeting by permanently raising all sorts of legal issues. They keep interrupting discussions with Yes, but from a legal point of view Very quickly, they antagonise the rest of the group and are perceived as irrelevant, unhelpful troublemakers. (iv) The passive follower: some lawyers, finally, accept with resignation, or with relief, the fact that they are not in charge and just wait for things to happen, without trying to influence them in any way. They bring a low level of energy, or no energy at all, to the meeting. They don t bother anyone, but they don t contribute much and they certainly don t stand out as professionals. So, if none of those frequent attitudes is relevant, what should be recommended? As role model, I would propose the influential professional : these lawyers do not run the meeting, they do not control its key parameters, but they nevertheless substantially influence the parameters. They are not formally managing the meeting, but their presence and their contribution definitely have an impact for the better on bow the meeting is run. How do they do in practice? Let s first decide what the key parameters of a meeting are (nothing new under the sun, you basically have to look at the table of content of a good management book on meetings), and let s then explore how a professional can influence them without controlling them (and that is a pretty unconventional approach to managing meetings. If you find a book on the subject, let me know!). The traditional parameters of a meeting are: - The purpose - The agenda - The timing - The location - The participants - The roles - The communication and decision-making dynamics - The report Lawyers in Business Meetings 2

3 Influencing the purpose Very often, meetings have an agenda (what we will talk about), but no purpose (what we want to achieve during the meeting, the reason for making this meeting). For example, an item on the agenda may be Discussion of the business plan, but it does not say the expected outcome. Is discussing a goal in itself, or is the discussion supposed to achieve a particular objective? If so, what is this objective? Simply by asking purpose-related questions, lawyers can have a very influencing role in a meeting. They are not setting the purpose, but they are questioning the purpose (or the absence of it), and by that they are contributing substantially to a better outcome for the meeting. Questioning the purpose can take place before the meeting ( What is the objective of this meeting? ), during the meeting ( Are we still pursuing the objective of the meeting? ) and at the end of the meeting ( Have we achieved the objective of the meeting? ). A more complex analysis of the situation leads to the observation that, beyond the objective of the meeting as such, each participant has her own purpose, objective or interest in relation to the meeting. There is not just one meeting objective, but a system of individual objectives that interact in a sometimes constructive, sometimes destructive way. By decoding and understanding this system of objectives, a seasoned professional will become a resourceful, smart and respected player in a meeting, especially when complex interactions are at stake. In practice, mapping the network of individuals attending the meeting as well as individuals not attending but nevertheless with a stake in the meeting, and systematically wondering and investigating their explicit or implicit objectives in relation to the meeting, may be a very powerful way to understand and therefore have an impact on the meeting dynamics. Influencing the agenda Most of the time, a lawyer can propose an item to be set on the agenda, ask details about a particular point in the agenda, discuss in advance such a point, etc. Ways to influence the agenda are numerous. Influencing the timing Most of the time, the only thing that is timed in a meeting is when it starts. And even there, this starting time, in many cases, is not respected. Lawyers can therefore actively influence this parameter in many ways: - By asking, before a meeting, how long the meeting will last and when it is due to finish; Lawyers in Business Meetings 3

4 - By asking before the meeting how much time will be devoted to each item on the agenda; - By recalling, if nobody else does it, the time during the meeting. ( For your information, dear colleagues, we are now exceeding by five minutes the time we decided to spend on that issue. ) Just noting that the timeframe is not respected, without imposing a measure to deal with it ( Let s move to the next point or Let s decide now ) is a very smart move: it has definitely an influence on the meeting process, but it does not constitute a leadership threat to the leader of the meeting: it is an information, not an instruction, and it leaves the leader of the meeting free to make the relevant decision. - By showing up on time at meetings. Arriving late is a sure way to weaken one s position in a meeting. People arriving late somehow have to excuse themselves, and they often do it by being soft and easy on issues where they should stand firm. Arriving late undermines credibility and power. It exposes the latecomer to missing important information and developments. Definitely a wrong idea! Influencing the location My place or your place? Suggesting a location, offering to host a meeting, choosing the right place to sit at meetings (what level of centrality? Close to whom? In front of whom?) and other ways of playing with the geography of meetings are all sorts of way to influence a meeting, without being the formal leader. But you have to arrive early, before all the seats are taken! Influencing the participants Lawyers can propose to invite other people at the meeting, or even sometimes propose not to attend or simply refuse to attend. They can influence their own presence as well as the presence of others. Influencing the roles The risk here is to fall into the geisha trap. Lawyers behave like committed professionals from the preparation to the meeting itself to the follow up, and eventually they end up doing all the ancillary work. Lawyers must therefore be careful to suggest and promote a sufficient degree of circularity in the roles. OK, I ll do the minutes this time, but I suggest that someone else will do in next time, and to keep circulating the role over the following meetings. The lawyer should promote the same circularity with the other traditional meeting roles: chairman, timekeeper, secretary, and host. Influencing the communication and the decision-making dynamics In practice, a very effective way to have a determining impact on the overall meeting process is to take possession of the flip chart (or the white board as the case may be). The flip chart easily becomes the focus point of all participants. It is the ideal place to write down the objective of the meeting, key decisions, to map out the thinking process Lawyers in Business Meetings 4

5 (flow chart, decision tree) in action, the time remaining, etc. Actually, the flip chart is a fantastic facilitation tool for a meeting, and is most of the time neglected by the official leader of the meeting. Becoming the flip chart woman is a sure way to play a very influential role on the communication and decision-making dynamics of the meeting. Influencing the report Lawyers are supposedly good in writing, and often end up drafting meeting reports and minutes. But why not, after all? It is a great way to indeed influence a meeting. During the meeting, you can argue that you have to write the report to ask clarification questions (when a decision was not clearly expressed), to confront the group with ambiguous decisions, or with the lack of it. The key of course is to keep minutes very short and to limit it to the three Ws (Who? What? When?), unless circumstances otherwise command. * * * In summary, here are a few recommendations and tips for lawyers in business meetings: 1. Before the meeting, be sure to know the agenda and the objective of the meeting (these are not the same things). If you don t get the information, ask for it until you receive it. 2. Be prepared. The contrary will make you look irrelevant and unprofessional. Know in advance what the issues are. Get familiar with the facts and the documentation. Put in writing a checklist of questions, suggestions, comments to make. 3. Have an informal discussion with key participants before the meeting if the subject is too obscure for you and you need explanations, or if the issues are very complex or political. 4. Bring flip chart and white board markers with you. There are your weapons for the meeting, and those in the meeting room may be missing or over-used. 5. Be on time. Arriving late puts you in a weak, defending position. It disqualifies you. Arriving on time gives you confidence and power, and the possibility to sit where you want. 6. Be careful about where you sit. Make a conscious decision as to whether you want to occupy a central place or not, whether you want to be in the loop or not. If you want to be part of the team, take your place in the middle of it. 7. Try to sit close to the flip chart. Lawyers in Business Meetings 5

6 8. Try to sit where you can see everyone and where everyone can see you. 9. Take possession of the flip chart. Use it to write the purpose of the meeting, to summarise and structure decisions, to draw the action plan, and to focus attention on you. If you use the flip chart, you will be the de facto facilitator. 10. Turn into your advantage the fact of being a non-expert on financial, technical or other non-legal issues. Transform your ignorance into a reason for asking questions and so taking your place in the discussions. 11. If you can t add value as to the content because it is too far away from your knowledge basis, bring value to the process of the meeting and to the group dynamics. Be the goal keeper, the time keeper, the record keeper Demonstrate your superior skills as a meeting facilitator. 12. Observe the power games and understand them. Don t get involved in them. 13. If you are to write the minutes, keep them short. Limit it to an summarising decisions (who, what, when). Lawyers in Business Meetings 6

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