Pros Offer Tips for Planning a Great Meeting

Expert planners offer their tips on everything from creating a successful agenda to finding the right site

Mary Welch | December 16, 2013

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     Meetings and Conventions special issue Dec 16 2013     LaMonte Ayers

Meetings and Conventions special issue Dec 16 2013

LaMonte Ayers

When McKenna Long & Aldridge holds a firm meeting, there is always the metaphorical elephant in the room. The elephant's color is green.

"Every time you get a group of lawyers in a meeting, you know that every one of them is mentally calculating how much money they're losing," says Ashley Tenney, McKenna Long's business development manager. "And if you have an all-day meeting or even longer, that's a lot of billable time—hundreds if not thousands of dollars per lawyer."

When planning a firm meeting, time is money and money is the bottom line.

"Maximize the time together so they see it as a benefit," Tenney says. "Respect, don't waste, their time."

Whether it be an all-firm gathering, partners' retreat, associates' confab or practice group's meeting, few argue the benefit of such get-togethers. The trick is to organize them in such a way that the attendees not only see the benefits but also look forward to the next one.

Meeting Success 101: One size does not fit all

Consideration for special circumstances goes a long way with those who require accommodations. When planning a meeting, consider the following:

  • Allow traveling participants time to overcome jet lag.
  • Make accommodations for nursing mothers.
  • Identify participants with serious allergies that might warrant seat placement changes (i.e., someone with severe peanut allergies).
  • Identify and offer alternatives for those with food allergies, sensitivities, special diets or religious issues.
  • Make arrangements for those who might want to pray during the day, such as prayer mats for Muslims.
  • Provide translation services for non-English speaking participants or those requiring sign language.

Pulling off a meeting that will be hailed a success by all who attend can be a daunting task. With some insights from those who have worked in the events trenches, even a first-time planner can pull off a firm event like a pro.

There are multiple moving parts and efforts in making a special meeting successful, Tenney says. "The first thing to do is ask: Why are we having a meeting? Do we really need to meet? Go back to the basics. Just because one practice group has a monthly meeting doesn't mean that yours has to. Stop and evaluate the purpose."

Crafting the perfect agenda

  • Set and share the agenda in advance.
  • Include time for firm news such as new clients, personnel updates, etc., in addition to the substantive legal issues.
  • Include training for leadership and managers.
  • Secure management buy-in.
  • For critical issues, consider smaller pre-meetings for stakeholders.
  • For contentious issues, consider a moderator.
  • Include time to develop action plans and post-meeting follow-up. 

Why we're here

The agenda should reflect the meeting's purpose.

Adam Severson, chief marketing and business development officer at Baker Donelson's Memphis office, says the agenda must be organized in a way to "create opportunities for interaction [and to be about] substantial issues or problems that everyone can work together on."

Another important piece of advice is to make sure that the meeting's leaders agree about the agenda. "Have the agenda hashed out well in advance and stick to it," says Michele Golivesky, director of business development and marketing at Taylor English Duma. "If you are bringing up a new idea that may be controversial, establish where the leaders stand on the issue and decide who will champion it and push it through."

Introducing a topic outside the agenda is a big no-no, she advises. "Don't ever blindside the leadership at a meeting," she says. "I think every business development person has done that—once."

Checklist for a program that includes a meal

  • Discuss special diets with the chef.
  • Taste menu ahead of time.
  • A fish or fowl dish is usually widely accepted.
  • Ascertain whether you will make presentation requiring audio/visual equipment, and check for proper wiring.
  • Select round tables with, ideally, six to eight chairs. Never more than 10.
  • Determine if you will offer an open bar or select a group of wines and liquor.
  • Choose a red wine with high acidity, low tannic; a white should have a medium to low oak flavor.
  • Don’t trust the weather. If you are planning an outside event, make sure there is inside space available and ready at a second’s notice.
  • Estimate one bartender for 75 guests.
  • If you decide on a cash bar, adjust for the extra time.
  • Monitor that every course is served on time.

However, the meeting's leaders should be prepared to address items that are not on the agenda, in case others in attendance initiate a discussion. "Be ready with a presumptive strike," Golivesky says. "Have your leaders be prepared, just in case."

In addition to sending out the agenda to all participants in advance, Golivesky says the agenda should include an action plan and deadlines for follow-up.

To Jonathan Tuggle of the family law boutique Boyd, Collar, Nolen & Tuggle, the agenda is all-important. "I've been to professional meetings where there were some really boring speakers—or let's say, less than dynamic speakers—but the content was of such huge importance to me and my practice, that I knew I had to pay attention and forced myself," Tuggle says.

The agenda should "mix it up a bit," says Severson, allowing time also for broader issues such as the firm's common goals. "I also think it's good to try to mix different practice groups so that you interact with each other," he says. "The purpose is to engage."

Once the agenda is set, structure the meeting so that the topics are properly covered but inertia doesn't set in. Ideally, a meeting should be about 45 minutes with a 10-15 minute break. "You really have to let them not only stretch their legs but return emails and do a bit of business," Tenney says.

Let's chat

It is helpful to come up with creative ways to get the information across and start a meaningful discussion. Severson suggests case studies and role playing.

"It's almost like the way you pitch a new client or prepare for a client meeting," Severson says. "You set up a case study and have different attorneys play the roles and then everyone critiques it. Again, the point is interaction."

Tenney favors "spicing it up" by having panel speakers initiate interactive exercises, even bringing in clients to help with the role playing and making sure that younger lawyers are actively involved. "People are used to having the same people do all the talking," she says. "If you get some of the younger attorneys to speak, it makes it more interesting and, I really think, more effective."

Tuggle, who is chairman of the State Bar of Georgia's Family Law Section, at a recent meeting took engagement and interaction to a new technological level. The 630-attorney meeting concentrated on the "Big Four" of family law: alimony, child support, property division and custody. A panel of judges was invited to share their insights.

Prior to the discussion, Tuggle and the judges collaborated on the questions the panel would address. Using an online service whereby participants could download the questions and then select one out of four possible answers using their computers, iPads or mobile phones, the votes were tabulated in real time so participants were afforded the instant gratification of finding out how their colleagues voted on the issues.

"It was a great launching pad for further discussion," Tuggle says. "Everyone felt engaged and energized. It was a smashing success."

Tuggle predicts that user-friendly technology increasingly will have a role in professional meetings.

Little things make big difference

Once the agenda is set, the next big hurdle is selecting the site and menu—and keeping it all in budget. "A person must ask a lot of questions when doing a site inspection," says Jennifer Yard, vice president of special events at Fernbank Museum of Natural History. "You can find a perfect spot but then find yourself blindsided by costs."

For instance, many places charge for the china, cups and flatware, chairs, tablecloths, AV equipment, decorations, centerpieces and parking. In addition, planners need to know if the facility has its own AV equipment and staff, valet service and bartenders. If it doesn't, there will be extra work finding them.

According to Yard, the three things that can turn a meeting into a disaster are:

  • AV not working properly,
  • Not enough food,
  • Getting off schedule.

"Test everything," Yard says. "Test the AV equipment. Make sure the speakers know how to work the equipment. Order about 6 to 8 percent more food [than you think you will need] and allow enough time for each part of the meeting but then cut it off at the appropriate time."

Food can be the make-or-break factor in the success of a meeting. "With all the wonderful restaurants and facilities around town, please have something more interesting on the menu than chicken breast and rice pilaf," says Chuck Kneeland of Steel, a Midtown Asian and sushi restaurant.

Nick Quinones, owner of Woodfire Grill, says that most restaurants can cater to special diets. "Plan your menu, but then also have a vegan course like raw and roasted vegetables, because vegan dishes can be eaten by almost anyone. Trust that your co-workers will communicate their dietary needs. But you can't try to please everyone. Create a high-quality menu."

A firm meeting should be a blend of business and social networking. If you "pay attention to the details, do your homework and have everything worked out ahead of time," you should be able to pull it off, says Golivesky.

Ideally, adds Tuggle, "You don't have to collect their mobile devices at the beginning of the meeting so they'll pay attention."