Morning Meetings and Democratic Efficiency in the Small Firm

I’m trying to introduce something new at the firm for which I work–the morning meeting.

I know. “One. More. Meeting.  OMG! Who needs one more meeting!” And, in a small firm, what really is the point?

Far be it from me to suggest yet another meeting just to have a meeting.  Many meetings are fairly low-productivity affairs that could be better handled via email.  Some are time-wasters.  But I’m going to try to make an argument that this particular sort of meeting–which might eat as much as 15 minutes every day–is particularly pro-productivity.

OK, you say, but we’re talking small firm.  That’s maybe three or four people, so what’s the point of holding a formal meeting?  Isn’t there some way to handle this without an actual meeting?  Wait.  You don’t know what I’m taking about yet.  I hate meetings every bit as much as you do.  But this one is…different.

In a typical small firm, it’s true that the number of actors is relatively small.  And if each actor (attorney, paralegal, secretary, intern) handled only one or two tasks, there would be no need to meet.  But the attorneys alone in a typical small firm are dealing with multiple sets of tasks at any point in time,  not only multiple cases. There’s billing, computer purchases, network maintenance, personnel, physical facilities (whose job this week to vacuum?  To buy the coffee?) and so on. And, let’s face it, our attention sometimes wanders (hmmm, what’s on Facebook, I wonder?).  So yes, we need to meet.  Efficiently.

A morning meeting need not be long, but it should include the following:

1. Everybody. Attorneys, paralegals, support staff.

2. Portfolios. Each person at the meeting should tell the meeting what they’re working on that day, in order of priority, along with a sense of about how much time those tasks will take, and anything unusual they’ll be doing that day (long lunches, appointments out of the office, etc).  These portfolios should be prepared in a few minutes at the end of each work day–not at the beginning of the day.

3. Requests.  If a paralegal is struggling with a certain matter and an attorney or secretary is available to help, now is the time to ask–and you’ll know who is most available thanks to (1) above.

4. Offers.  If attorney X is suffering because of email overload and paralegal Y anticipates a light day, Y can volunteer (if appropriate with respect to ethics) to run interference for X.

5. Noticing. Those who generally assign work to others need to notice who is overloaded and who has time to type their dictation that day.  Over the long run, if they notice that everyone is overloaded, they may need to consider hiring additional support.  Or taking other steps.

It can also include appropriate social lubricants, such as coffee and donuts.  It should definitely not include the following:

1.  Blaming.  This meeting should be understood to be aspirational in character.  What we present is what we hope and believe that we can accomplish during the work day.  Sometimes we’ll get it all done, sometimes we won’t.  This is not the time or place to say “Yesterday you said you’d have the Smith contract ready by noon, and a day later it’s still not finished!”  Take that sort of thing elsewhere.

2.  Complaints about overwork (or anything else).  This meeting may make people aware of their situations, but that’s the key–awareness.  Solutions for major problems happen outside the meeting (minor problems get fixed by Requests and Offers).

3.  Confidentials.  Because everybody will be at this meeting (you need this to make things work), material that should be kept confidential, or that would in any way breach The Wall between screened attorneys is not appropriate.  You shouldn’t need to talk about that sort of thing anyway; this is work allocation, not problem analysis.

If participants follow these guidelines (and it will be most difficult for those in authority) you will find that the morning meeting will result in a more efficient workflow.  Each actor will know where everyone else is at, and can adjust their own priorities as needed.  What’s more, because the presentation of portfolios makes expectations more public, it help motivate each actor to be reflective throughout the work day (should I play on the internet when I’ve promised to deliver a six-page memo by the end of the day?).

Properly run, morning meetings can make each actor in a firm more conscious of the need for efficiency without imposition from above.  It can make the allocation of work into a democratic, empowering process.

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