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How to plan and run more effective legal project meetings

When running legal projects of all kinds, meetings are necessary.

If run well, legal project meetings are productive and propel the project forward.

If run poorly, legal project meetings can become a source for confusion, hinder progress and, frankly, waste people’s time.

In this post I will suggest some ideas for more effective legal project meetings, covering both legal matter management and legal process improvement.


Setting legal project meeting expectations

There are different types of legal project meetings.

Each meeting type should be designed to achieve a different objective and managed accordingly.

I think it good practice to inform legal project teams at the outset what the most common project meeting types are and what is generally expected of the team before, during and after each type of meeting.

This sets expectations.  Knowing what kind of meeting is coming up should prime attendees to contribute appropriately.

Later in this post I will consider:

  • Kick-off meetings
  • Status update meetings
  • Problem solving meetings and
  • Review meetings.


Dominant voice

The phenomenon of a ‘dominant voice’ is quite common in law firms, especially when a senior partner is sitting around the table.

Senior partners are usually quick to speak.  They can also be an intimidating presence, which can mean that more junior staff may be reluctant to speak up.

I am not being critical of senior partners as such.  They have a wealth of experience which they are usually happy to share.

But other meeting attendees often have a valid point of view, but some (perhaps many) are likely to be hesitant sharing their views with senior partners present.

It is important that everyone attending feels they can fully participate in meetings.  Having a diversity of views, especially during solving problem meetings, makes it more likely that a wider range of problems and potential solutions are aired.

Also, if delivery team members feel they have a voice and are therefore an integral part of the team, this helps with team cohesiveness and a sense of shared purpose.

There are several things you can do to work around the dominant voice syndrome and try to make sure that everyone has a chance to participate in meetings.

My preferred approach is to devise and run mini-workshops during meetings (see below).


General tips for effective legal project meetings

  1. Call meetings only when they are essential and serve a clear purpose.
  2. Think carefully about who should attend the meetings.
  3. Create an agenda. Even a quick informal agenda is better than none.
  4. Ideally, indicate how much time is to be spent on each item listed in the agenda.
  5. Keep the meetings as short as possible and be a rigorous time-keeper during your meetings.
  6. Send out material beforehand and let it be known that you expect the material to be read before the meeting starts.

During my training courses when we discuss more effective project meetings, most people are quick to come up with points above.  Everyone knows this stuff, but often it is not done regularly or consistently.  Why is this?

I think organisational culture in legal services acts as a break on people planning and managing meetings more thoroughly.  Generally (and I know this is a sweeping statement to make) it is thought better to be seen ‘doing’ rather than ‘planning’ in legal service delivery.

Time to start chipping away at the legal service industry culture.  Don’t be afraid to spend some time planning meetings and take steps to ensure that attendees feel able to fully participate.


Create Mini-workshops within legal project meetings

Ask yourself: what do you need to do to make a legal project meeting more productive? 

You are likely to come up with something like the following

  • Encourage participants to articulate problems and ‘own’ them.
  • Create meetings where ‘real work gets done’.

How to do this?  This is where the mini-workshops come in.

If you are going to do run an in-meeting workshop or exercise:

  • Have time frames for activities
  • Plan the room (including any breakout rooms you may need)
  • Make sure you have the materials that you will need
  • Be interactive – get people to see things, touch things, move around as well as speak.


What might a mini-workshop look like?

Let’s assume for the moment that during your face-to-face legal project kick-off meeting you want to ask the delivery team to identify and consider operational risks which might affect the project.

Instead of just asking people if they can identify any risks and then, probably, waiting for the senior person in the room to explain what they think, step-in and make the meeting more interactive and participative.

Here’s one easy example of how this can be done:

  1. Hand some yellow post-it notes around and ask all meeting participants to write up as many risks as they can think of, one risk per post-it.
  2. Participants should work alone and in silence for two minutes while they compile their risks on the post-it notes.
  3. After everyone has written down their risks, collect the post-its.  There will probably be duplicates, so take out the duplicates.
  4. Then put the post-its on a wall.
  5. Then suggest a coffee break – with some work thrown in.
  6. Explain to meeting participants that they have 3 votes each. They can vote for the risks they believe are most likely to occur and have greatest impact on the project.
  7. Each participant can place all 3 votes on one risk if they wish or they can give one vote each to 3 different risks or two votes for one risk and one vote for another.
  8. Participants make a vote by placing a dot on the relevant post-it on the wall as they are going to / from the coffee machine or kitchen. This is known as dot voting. Coffee not essential, but it might help.
  9. Post-its (risks) with the most dots on are those which are deemed by the team to rank highest in priority.  This can be be seen easily be everyone by looking at the wall of post-its when voting has finished.

Whenever I have run this exercise, teams always generate a lot of potential risks and quickly prioritise them.

In contrast, going around the table and asking for ideas about potential risks generally generates fewer ideas, and takes longer.

Having a simple dot voting exercise like this reduces the potential for social and professional embarrassment and provides an easy means for people to put their ideas forward and participate in the meeting.


Virtual Project Meetings

You can of course run legal project meetings virtually and still have a significant interactive element.

When running virtual meetings, good meeting planning is, if anything, even more important than planning for face-to-face meetings.

Miro is my preferred platform for interactive meetings, but there is plenty of other software available too (Zoom for example has whiteboarding functionality and a whole host of plugins to help make virtual meetings more interesting and participative).

If you are hosting a meeting virtually, you will need to become familiar with how the software works.  No-one expects perfection, but a degree of competence and confidence will help your meeting go much better.


Some tips for effective legal project meetings

Project kick-off meetings

The most obvious tip: hold these meetings if possible!

I am glad to say that it is now becoming more common for legal service teams to hold kick-off meetings, especially when the legal service work or process improvement initiative looks a complex undertaking.

The essential purpose of a legal project kick-off meeting it to make sure that everyone on the team understands what is required of them, both as individuals and as a team.

Hence you will need to give some thought to this beforehand and be prepared articulate a concise description of each team members role.

Don’t forget that some team members may have multiple roles.  For example, sometimes they may be the person responsible for executing the work while at other times they may be performing a quality assurance role, verifying and validating the work of other team members.

As with all meetings, you can also make project kick-off meetings participative.

For example, if you have been working on a project initiation document (sometimes known as a project definition document or project charter) you can, even at this early stage, work with the team to complete and flesh out that document, perhaps by using mini-workshops as outlined earlier.

Send your project definition document around ahead of the meeting with the agenda and ask participants to come prepared to work on some aspect of the document, such as early project risk analysis or stakeholder identification.


Project team progress meetings

These are status update meetings.  As such they should be short (lasting minutes, not hours) and focused.

Essentially, all that is needed is a summary from each team member about progress they have made on tasks assigned to them.  Stand-up meetings (whereby attendees are encouraged to stand and not sit) are examples of this approach.

These meetings should not be considered judgmental in any way.  Think of them as data collection and sharing exercises.  All you want to learn from these meetings is what progress has been made to date.

There should be no need to write up copious notes after team progress meetings.

In an agile working environment these meetings are often held either around a physical or virtual Kanban board where, for example, progress is recorded by moving a task card from the ‘doing’ to the ‘done’ column.

Short team progress meetings can have several benefits, the most obvious being that everyone in the team knows what is going on.

Output from the status meetings can also be fed into status update reports for other key stakeholders, such as outside counsel and clients.


Problem solving meetings

Any project you run will hit problems along the journey towards completion.

As a project manager one of your most important tasks is to work with your team to resolve problems and keep the project flowing.

To run problem solving meetings effectively you will need to start by identifying and summarising the problem(s) to be solved.  This sounds ridiculously simple.  But how often have you seen this done, and done well?

I think problem solving meetings, above all others, require excellent facilitation skills by the meeting leader.

A skilled facilitator, according to Roger Schwartz (author of one of my favourite books, ‘The Skilled Facilitator’) helps groups get better results.  Again, this sounds deceptively simple, but only comes about after problem solving meetings have been planned and managed properly.

Invariably, when you have a team of subject matter experts, such as a legal service delivery team, they will be capable of coming up with solutions, and sometimes novel solutions, to problems.  A skilled facilitator helps teams arrive at optimal solutions more quickly than they would have done if left to their own devices.

Developing the skill of asking open ended questions of team members can be especially useful during problem solving meetings.

The classic starting point when seeking to properly understand the nature of any problems is to simply keep asking ‘why’ an issue or condition exists.  Repeatedly asking ‘why’ helps peel back the layers and expose the core of the problem under investigation.


Project Review Meetings

Ideally, after every project of any significant size the project delivery team should meet and review the project.

The most important part of this is for the team to identify what worked well and what did not work well.

The outcome of this discussion (or activity, if decide to run an in-meeting workshop) should be recorded and placed on file.

Then at the start of each new project the team (or project manager) should quickly review the ‘lessons learned’ file and prepare not to make the same mistakes as previously.

This sounds easy to do (and it is!).  It is also an easy way for individuals and teams to track and improve their project delivery capability.

Unfortunately, project review meetings tend not to happen as often as they should.  It is hard to get people together to discuss previous projects when their focus is now on their current projects.

This is especially acute in legal services, where fee earners are under constant pressure to record and bill their time to meet billing targets.  Any time considered ‘non-billable’ gets pushed way down to-do lists.

To overcome reluctance to attend post-project review meetings, hold short phase review meetings after each project phase instead.

These meetings can be built into the delivery cycle, and be shorter than end of project meetings because the team is reviewing the phase, not the project as a whole.

Best of all, the lessons learned can be carried forward to the next phase of the project, rather than waiting for the next new project to come along.


Next steps: plan and practice

Project meetings are essential when running projects of any kind, whether they be legal matters or a legal process improvement projects.

If planned and managed properly legal project meetings can be interesting, informative and offer opportunities to accelerate progress.

Planning meetings properly takes time.  Managing them well requires practice.

Given the importance of achieving outcomes, for both individual meetings and projects as a whole, I think that planning meetings properly is a good use of your time.

You may also perhaps want to keep your own project meeting review journal.  After each project meeting you run, take five minutes yourself to consider what worked well and what worked not so well during the meeting.  Note these items down and add to your project meeting review journal.  Keep referring to your journal, as it will help you improve your meeting management.

I cover how to plan and manage effective project meetings in both my legal project management and legal process improvement training courses.  I run public courses, which are open to anyone, and private courses at the request of legal service delivery teams.  If you would like to find out more, please contact me.

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