Decision-making in law firms can be slow, stifling and chaotic. Even where something has been agreed it is often undermined or subverted later or is simply impossible to execute because the action points are too vague.
Almost every firm that I speak to has suggested to me that they spend too much time in meetings. Either there are too many meetings or the meetings are too long, circular in discussion or ineffective in reaching a conclusion.
I have three main suggestions for making meetings more effective. The first is to focus on the right behaviours and attitudes on the part of members in order to discourage undermining, apathy and disengagement and to improve sympathy, support and sharing. The second is to rely on initiatives to cut down or eradicate discussion in a number of areas by following a ‘consent agenda’. The third suggestion is to consider defining the decision making process by clarifying the consultation, approval and decision powers both of the firm’s leaders and also of the members of the firm
Behaviours in Meetings
Sadly, meetings in law firm often fail to exemplify the firm’s values and expectations of good behaviour. There are usually eight categories of constructive behaviour that should be fostered and three categories of unacceptable behaviour which the chairperson should discourage
Acceptable behaviours include
– Proposing: putting forward a new concept of suggestion
– Informing: offering facts, opinions or clarification to others
– Seeking Information: seeking facts, opinions of clarification from others
– Supporting and Building: declaring support or agreement with another person or extending/developing their proposal, accompanied by preparedness to put in time and effort to assist
– Sympathising: accepting the proposal but not willing or able to make any effort actively to support the project
– Disagreeing: a direct criticism given constructively, a difference of opinion or disagreement with another person’s idea given in a spirit of collegiality
– Testing Understanding: seeking to establish whether an earlier contribution has been understood
– Summarising: summarising or restating content, conclusions or action points of a proposal or discussion
Unacceptable behaviours include
– Disagreement: if offered or expressed aggressively or offensively
– Blocking: blocking a proposal without offering an alternative or giving a reason
– Indifference; immersed in client work, failing to read the papers, sometimes attending meetings sporadically or later and generally appearing disengaged:
– Silent dissent: Not taking part – saying nothing in the meeting (and thereby allowing silence to assume assent) but undermining the decision afterwards
At every meeting, there are a few items on the agenda that do not need any discussion or debate either because they are routine procedures or have already received indications of general or unanimous consent, on the back of papers and business plans which have been previously produced. A consent agenda allows the meeting to approve all these items in one block without discussion or individual motions. This can free up anywhere from a few minutes to much longer more substantial discussion.
Typical consent agenda items are routine, procedural decisions and decisions that are likely to be noncontroversial. Examples include:
1. Approval of the minutes
2. Final approval of proposals, projects or reports that the meeting has been dealing with for some time and with implications that all members are familiar with
3. Routine matters such as appointments to committees
4. Staff appointments requiring only ratification
5. Reports provided for information only
6. Correspondence requiring no action.
A consent agenda can only work if the reports and other matters for the meeting agenda are known in advance and distributed with the agenda package in sufficient time to be read by all members prior to the meeting.
The RASCIP process is one way of identifying how decisions can be made – who is responsible for the project, those from whom approval is necessary, those supporting the initiative, those who need to be consulted, and those who need to be informed. Although this looks a somewhat cumbersome and bureaucratic process, it really does help to clarify information and decisions right up and down the organization. Even then, not everyone in the firm will get the plot. I know one particular law firm professional manager who took only a few weeks to discover that the partners of the firm had not the slightest intention of allowing him to exercise the decision rights and authority explicitly given to him in his job description. In my experience, this sort of opposition is not uncommon. The reasons vary from the extreme of outright subversion (from partners who are determined to undermine anything which threatens their autonomies and comfort zones) to the indifference and inertia of partners who are immersed in client work and have therefore given insufficient time and commitment to engage in the necessary cognitive thought processes needed to work out how the firm is going to become successfully run as a commercial business.
In strong execution firms, everyone has a good idea of the decisions and actions for which they are responsible. There are unambiguous lines of accountability and authority and decisions are rarely second-guessed. The design of information flows is critical so that important information gets through quickly and those involved have the information they need so as to understand the bottom line impact of day to day choices. I am not suggesting that meetings should be anodyne and bland – some degree of conflict and tension is necessary to stimulate change or innovation or to prevent complacency. Destructive conflict however creates stress and anxiety, distracts from major goals and impairs judgement. The three suggestions that I have made help to promote better decision making and to avoid distraction from major goals.
This article first appeared in Managing Partner Magazine and is reproduced with their permission