Posted by: johnocunningham | September 16, 2016

Governance by Committee: Can Law Firms Make it Work ?

I was intrigued by questions posed in a recent column on Bloomberg’s “Big Law Business” page, entitled “Do Big Law Firms Have Too Many Committees?”

The column’s focus was on whether management by committee was a plus or minus for law firms, which got me to thinking about my experiences in law firms and in corporations, which have two very different forms of governance and decision-making. Law firms – in general – try to manage more by consensus and committee. Corporations manage more by delegation of authority and empowerment of the authorized individuals on whom accountability is placed.

I know from experience that the latter approach certainly moves faster, and it tends to cultivate more respect and trust for those who have been empowered to do an important job or make critical decisions, but the two approaches are not always as different as they might appear, though they have different upsides and risks.

The downside of a committee approach to decision-making is not just the time consumed in attempts to reach consensus, but the potential for rather personal debates and a sense of some people getting their way and others “losing” the debate.  This can sap the team’s energy and breed disruption. On the other hand, this form of decision-making, when it incorporates all of the points of view of all of the important stakeholders, is less likely to result in a disastrous gaffe born from an oversight due to lack of collective input. It is also less likely to give one group or another the feeling that they have not been heard (provided that various constituencies are all included, such as different departments, different professional functions, different levels of seniority and so forth).

But the two approaches are not always so different. In a corporation, a professional who is empowered to make decisions is wise to seek input from others, including all of the departments in the company who could be affected by that individual’s decision. In fact, someone who blithely makes decisions on an island will quickly be escorted to the door after seeing the ruinous results of decisions made without input, both practical and political in nature; and someone who quickly gathers input from affected groups before making a decision is always blessed with a better outcome. The difference in the corporate world is that the empowered professional who seeks input is not required to make everyone happy with his or her decision. They are simply accountable for good results achieved with methods that don’t offend the key players in the chain-of-command.

In a law firm, the committee approach and the results do not have to be so different. The chair of a committee or board can run meetings in such a way that input is quickly solicited and incorporated into expeditious decision-making. The key is to limit the time for meetings while making it clear to people that decisions must be made promptly and actions taken by certain agreed deadlines in order for the body politic to function and the firm to survive in a fast changing world.

I have personally witnessed and learned from people in the corporate world who were very good at running effective meetings (there is even leadership training in the corporate world that focuses on effective facilitation of meetings and group decision-making). If you want to conduct an effective meeting that facilitates and enhances collaborative communication, here are some guidelines to follow (from one of my prior posts):

  1. Identify the group purpose of the meeting in advance, and limit the purpose to something that requires consensus, analysis or brainstorming by the entire group, so that you don’t waste people’s time.
  2. Communicate the purpose of the meeting ahead of time, and state what you hope to accomplish with such a meeting.
  3. Invite all people necessary to achieve the meeting’s purpose, but only those people necessary for that purpose as well.
  4. Select a meeting venue that is conducive to your stated task, perhaps one that is quiet and isolated from distractions.
  5. Well ahead of the meeting, provide all attendees with an agenda and any supporting documentation that will be discussed.
  6. Limit the number of items on the agenda so the meeting does not run too long.
  7. Designate a meeting leader or facilitator who understands meeting principles and who can skillfully and gracefully maintain group focus and pace while encouraging people to participate and collaborate in developing solutions to group problems. Such a facilitator should also know how to summarize and state conclusions or action plans for the group as a whole.
  8. Designate a note-taker who can work well with the facilitator on summarizing issues and proposals discussed at the meeting while identifying action steps to be taken after the meeting by various team members.
  9. Request that all pagers, cell phones, and other electronic devices be turned off during the meeting, so that everyone in the group is respected.
  10. Start and end the meeting on time, leaving late attendees to get their own information from meeting summaries and post-meeting conversations. This will train people to respect the group and put the interests of the group above their own.

If you need help facilitating a productive group meeting or conference, don’t hesitate to contact me. For several years running, I ran the highest-rated service department in a company with several thousand employees while maintaining a high level of employee satisfaction and retention.

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