A Lawyer’s Guide to Hosting Better Meetings

  • January 21, 2009
  • Ann Macaulay

There are many excellent ways to take charge of meetings — it can be a simple yet powerful way to improve your professional image. Your clients and colleagues will thank you for it.

Looking for an effective way to impress clients and colleagues? Conduct better meetings. Taking charge while chairing a meeting, whether it’s small or large, formal or informal, can improve your professional image simply but powerfully.

Since meetings are such an integral part of everyday business life, you’d assume that lawyers would be pros at holding meetings. But that’s not always true, say lawyers who have sat through a surprising number of disorganized and unproductive meetings.

From meetings with clients to those involving business development, internal practice groups or transactions, when hosting a meeting it’s your job to manage it as effectively and efficiently as possible. Here’s a simple guide to chairing better meetings with clients and colleagues.

Client meetings

Prepare in advance
Before you even meet a client for the first time, begin by researching him and/or his business. Find some common ground, advises Robert Calvert, managing partner at Davis & Co. in Calgary. “I try and find out something about the client so I can relate to the client,” he says, whether it’s a friend or hometown in common, or past experience working in an industry. It can bring a level of trust to the relationship right from the start.

Wear suitable clothing
Casual Fridays may have become an accepted norm for most offices, but if you plan to meet with clients that day wear a suit to project a professional image.

Use a boardroom
Instead of ushering clients into your office, use a boardroom instead. It’s quieter, less cluttered and there will be no disruptions — no phone messages, no e-mail, no one knocking at the door. “The only file that will be there, the only notes that will be there, the only people that will be there will be their problem or their file,” says Calvert. “You’re totally engaged with the person and their problem.”

Start on time
Start the meeting on time. And if you’re even slightly late, apologize for the delay. If your client has gone to the trouble of arranging his life to show up at your office at a certain time and you’re late even though you merely had to walk down the hall to meet him, that sends a strong message that you don’t really value his time.

Greet clients by name
It’s important at a first meeting to greet the client by name, shake his hand and introduce yourself. “Greeting them by name validates them,” says Peter Lillico of Lillico Bazuk Kent Galloway in Peterborough, Ont., and at the same time mnemonically helps you to remember their name. He also cautions his staff never to say: “Your four o’clock is here.” Who wants to make their client feel like a number?

Create an agenda
Make a list of what you need to discuss. Get the client focused up front on what his goals are, which will keep you both on track. If you overlook an item, you’ll have to go back to ask questions later — a time waster for both of you. Jacqueline Peeters of Birenbaum, Steinberg, Landau, Savin and Colraine LLP (BSLSC) in Toronto practises family law and tries hard to run meetings as collaboratively as possible with the opposing side. She makes a preparatory phone call to opposing counsel prior to the meeting to plan how to run it effectively. “It’s amazing how much more productive that is,” she says, adding that it ends up being to her client’s benefit to strategize and focus on the most difficult issue.

Peeters says that meetings can be extremely effective in a family law situation. “They cut through the nonsense of correspondence, going back and forth, which eats up huge amounts of time and money and really doesn’t get anywhere.” A four-way meeting with clients and counsel can clear issues up right away. The feedback is immediate.

Offer beverages
Since you’re the host, offer your guests drinks. If the meeting is going to go over the lunch or dinner hour, arrange for food.

Manage expectations
Clients have a wide variety of views and opinions, so managing their expectations in the first meeting is important, says Allan Lovatt at Simpson Wigle Law LLP, who practises corporate, commercial and employment law in Hamilton, Ont. “Lay it out, right from the beginning, that this is what to expect,” he advises. “They appreciate that because they get the feeling you’re working as a team.” If you don’t lead them through the process — the timing, how their case will proceed, what you need them to do — they can have unrealistic expectations. Some clients expect a case to be resolved in weeks, when the court process can take years.

Talk money
Lovatt has been in meetings where clients have walked in expecting a free consultation. “As evil as it seems,” he says, lawyers should ask for a retainer in the very first meeting. It’s uncomfortable, but “You really need to be up front with that, because it’s one of the most important things to many clients.”

Many lawyers assume they know exactly what the client needs, then proceed to impart the necessary information and advice during the meeting. That’s fine, but when the client speaks, let him do so without interruption. It allows him to walk away feeling he’s been heard. Family lawyer Peeters says that in meetings her clients often get very emotional, so she tries to listen, be sympathetic and give them suggestions, but she has to be careful not to slide into becoming an amateur therapist. “It’s a balancing act,” she says, adding, “Let them know right away where their behaviour is being inappropriate.”

Donald Baker of Baker & Baker Family Lawyers in Toronto has a favourite trick: “Say nothing after people have stopped talking. You know what they do? Start talking again. It’s a wonderful mechanism to get everything out of them that you possibly need to get out to get a sense of what the case is about.”

Listening is good, but clients often appreciate it when you cut them short, says Ian Hull, an estate litigator at Hull & Hull in Toronto. They may start talking and forget that they’re paying you for your time. At that point, Hull tells them, “you can’t afford to be telling me this part of the story.”

Give clients homework, such as finding their power of attorney or calling their insurance agent to change coverage. “I try to give them a task so that they become engaged in finding the solution,” says Calvert. “I never leave them with a ‘Gee, that’s a kind of interesting problem; I’ll see if I can figure out a solution.’ I leave them something early on by way of either solution of method for solution so they know which direction we’re going.”

Give business cards
Give the client your business card and write down the time of his next appointment on it.

Follow up
If you end the meeting with a casual “Give me a call in a week’s time,” the client will quite possibly forget to do so. Instead, follow-up with a letter that summarizes what was discussed and what he needs to do next. That way he knows what to expect and you have a written record of what he needs to do. If there’s a failure to communicate, it’s the lawyer’s responsibility, not the client’s.

Colleague-to-colleague meetings

Well in advance of the meeting, give participants reports, copies of previous meeting minutes and any background information on what will be discussed.

Start on time
As with client meetings, getting started on time is a sign of respect and professionalism. It’s surprising how often people show up late for meetings or fail to bring meetings to order on time. If the meeting begins when it should, those who made the effort to be there will appreciate that their time isn’t being wasted. Those who are late will realize you mean business and in future they’ll try harder to be there on time.

Welcome everyone and introduce yourself and others. If people introduce themselves, ask them to give their name, their role and any pertinent background information. If you’re meeting with people you’ve never met, give and receive business cards at the start of the meeting. In addition to helping to remind you of people’s names, you’ll have their contact information for later reference.

Set the agenda
It’s your job as host to organize the meeting. Take a couple of minutes at the start to ensure everyone knows what will be under discussion. This can be done informally, so be upfront and say what you think should be discussed. Sometimes people are not prepared or authorized to talk about certain issues and some may have completely different topics they want to talk about. It’s best to find out from the outset. “Keep it to the agenda,” says Calvert, who keeps his partnership meetings to one hour a month, usually within a minute or two. “My job is to keep it focused.”

Agree upon goals
At the outset, agree upon what will accomplished. Are you merely exchanging information? Are you figuring out where you stand? Or are decisions going to be made and a resolution reached? People’s assumptions going into the meeting may be completely different. You need to know that sooner rather than later.

Give a timeframe
Be clear and let everyone know how long the meeting will take. At a meeting with many people, sometimes you don’t have very long until people start disappearing. While one person may have thought it would take an hour, another attendee may have booked off the afternoon. “If I think I’ve got an hour and I’ve got three or four things, then I don’t need to hurry,” says Lillico. But if halfway through the meeting somebody looks at their watch and says he has another meeting elsewhere in 15 minutes, it may be before you’ve even gotten to the most important issues. “If I say I’ve got an appointment in an hour and a half, well, they’d better know it right then.”

Watch the clock
Allow people to express themselves and let them feel they have a voice, then consider it and make a decision or take a vote. Cut the conversation short when it starts getting repetitious or strays off topic. “Make the decision, move to the next item, and keep the clock in the corner of your eye,” says Calvert. “They appreciate it, because then the business is done quickly and efficiently and they can get back to their practices or their families.”

Keep control
Hull says he encourages open discussion but he jumps in if discussions get too personal. He makes sure to never embarrass anyone. “I always turn their comments around and say ‘that’s an interesting point, but can we finish this thought?’ I don’t try to humiliate them back on track. The minute you lose your audience and they tune out is when you lose control of the meeting and you’ll never fulfill your objectives.”

Encourage participation
One of the most important jobs the chair can do is to make sure all members at the meeting are involved. If someone has been silent throughout, ask if he has anything to add to the conversation.

The best meetings are ones in which responsibility has been delegated around the table, says Lovatt. People are given a specific area that they’re to speak on, and keeping everyone around the table involved helps to keep them awake, he says. “In an ideal situation, the chair shouldn’t be the one doing most of the talking; they should be facilitating the conversation.”

Find out others’ roles
Discover at the outset what role the other person in the meeting has. As Lillico puts it: “Are they a flunky or are they a decision-maker?” It’s very frustrating and can be counter-productive to discuss and negotiate and believe you’ve reached a resolution, only to find out that your colleague doesn’t have the authority to settle a case or needs to get client or senior partner approval.

Turn off phones and BlackBerrys
Ask that everyone in the meeting turn off their electronic devices. No one can focus completely on what’s being discussed if their attention is partly on their text messages. A pager’s buzzing might not be all that irritating, but the implied message is that the other people in the meeting are “not as important as whatever has just happened in your pocket,” says Lillico, who has seen it happen more than once. He doesn’t know if they’re sending messages to a girlfriend or trying to manage another file, but “what I do know is they’re not at this meeting. And that’s just not respectful.”

The first time he sees someone taking out a BlackBerry in a meeting, Lillico hopes it’s just an anomaly. But if they’re using it again after several minutes, he directs a question at them. “All eyes are on that person now. And it’s not to be cruel, it’s for them to realize that’s about as polite as picking your nose in public.”

Don’t interrupt — unless you have to
Let people talk. Don’t interrupt them in mid-speech to point out the flaws in their logic. “If you listen, you might learn something,” says Lillico. “And it may really be of advantage to you. Some of the wisest people are the ones that say the least and listen the most.” Just don’t let them go on too long if they’re getting off-topic and unfocused. As chair of the meeting, it’s your responsibility to keep everyone focused on the business at hand.

Share the good news
As chair, pass on positive feedback during the meeting. If someone in a partnership meeting has won a big case, or has been asked to speak at a conference, share it. “So much of the stuff we do can be negative or draining,” says Calvert. “You forget to give the positive feedback.”

Show respect
From partners to junior associates to articling students, treat everyone at the meeting with the same respect and give them equal time to talk.

It’s amazing how differently people can interpret the same batch of information. Take a minute or two to review and clarify what has happened in the meeting. Say something to the effect of “Here are the action items. Here’s what should happen next. Is that agreed? Who’s doing what? Who’s waiting to hear back from whom? Have I missed anything?”

Show appreciation
At the conclusion of the meeting, thank everyone for coming and show your appreciation for anyone who made a special contribution.

Follow up
If minutes were taken, ensure everyone gets them. And make sure those who were given assignments have followed up.

Ann Macaulay is a Toronto writer and editor.