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President Ends U.S. Gov Shutdown: Congress (& Law Firm Managers) Learn Valuable Lesson On Time Value of Money

So, the Congressional standoff is finally over. Well, partially over.

President Obama signed a bill today to end the government shut down and raise the U.S. debt ceiling to avoid financial default, reports CNN. Federal workers are back in the office and—for the many national parks services employees—outside.

Although the U.S. avoided default, it wasn’t without cost.

The mere wait for decision-makers to negotiate and the fortnight of near foreclosure cost taxpayers plenty. And, for government workers, the shutdown meant a total shutout of salary payments, subsidies, etc.

The problem is, when debating how to spend money, the government spends money. Often making a decision—any decision—is better than delay.

A new study, for example, confirms this idea when it found that canceling government travel arrangements for budgetary reasons ironically leads to more spending, less efficiency. According to a new study conducted by Rockport Analytics for the U.S. Travel Association, “cancelling government participation in key events carries significant costs and undermines important functions of government.”

“Public agencies at all levels of U.S. government have made deep cuts to travel and meetings budgets in recent years,” said Jon Gray, vice president of research & insight, Rockport Analytics, LLC, who conducted the study.

“Our research found that these across-the-board cancellations offer short-term savings at a much greater long-term cost.”

For example, the 2013 cancellation of the Military Health System Conference, an annual training event for several thousand military medical personnel, cost the government more than $800,000. That’s $800,000 to not attend an event.

In the same vein, the decision made by NASA to withdraw its participation in the April 2013 National Space Symposium, the world’s most prominent international space exploration and policy event, carried planetary-sized monetary and non-monetary consequences.

“Some 30 nations are represented at our symposium,” explained Elliot Pulham, CEO of the National Space Foundation, a private organization that runs the annual conference.

“Important international partnerships are jeopardized, important international programs are placed at risk, and the U.S. government places serious strain on relationships with countries around the world when it does not attend.”

So while the U.S. stood still trying to balance the budget, its allies became unbalanced, unhinged, and highly concerned with how America runs business. This degraded perception of U.S. financial security has a cost.

This macro-level analysis applies to the micro-business environment, as well.

Take law firm meetings. Below are 5 reasons why you shouldn’t cancel your meetings with clients or subordinates… as demonstrated by the U.S. government shut down.

1. Cost

When your assistant organized a meeting to discuss a case matter, five law firm professionals cleared their schedules. They canceled phone calls with clients. They interrupted work flow to attend. Suddenly, you decide to postpone this groupthink. Now, all this time and—most importantly—billable hours have been wasted. It’s likely that this glut cost you more than if you simply carried through with the thirty-minute meeting.

Don’t forget the costs of postponing might outweigh the costs of a bad decision. Sometimes any decision is better than none at all.

2. Perception

When you postpone a meeting, you’re tacitly telling your employees that your time is worth more than theirs. If you cancel a meeting altogether, you’re telling employees directly that can’t manage your time. The perception of your leadership is as important as your real, tangible ability.

3. Productivity

If a decision must be made, postponing it won’t necessarily increase the information or resources available. At a certain point, reevaluating your options is like beating a dead horse. Present all the options, discuss them as a team, and then choose one with more pros than cons.

4. Long-term consequences

If you get into a pattern of canceling or postponing meetings, your employees may stop preparing for them. They may come to expect your bad habit of delaying. So, in the end, the one time you actually mean business, there may not be any business ready on the table to discuss.

5. Morale

Although most employees hate meetings, they are still a good way to boost the morale and cooperation among your team members. Meetings, over coffee or a brown-bag lunch, are scheduled to discuss a case or client. But, they also provide a forum for a general debate among colleagues.

So, even if you decide there’s nothing to discuss, don’t incur the costs of canceling. Go the distance, spend the money on travel, and sit in a boardroom. The long-term gain of increased camaraderie or communication among your employees will outweigh the costs of meeting sans agenda.

Scheduling meetings for the sake of meeting won’t increase employee productivity. But, indiscriminately canceling or postponing them once the decision is made might actually decrease it.

-WB

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“Stop Holding Meetings” Say Successful CEOs

Many parts of daily life are prone to spread. Rashes, gossip, fire. But, for law firm professionals, there’s one type of contagious behavior that should sound the alarms: meetings.

Somehow, meetings procreate. First it’s a monthly meeting. Then, it’s a weekly one. Finally, associates are urgently meeting with superiors in mass conference room meetings every time the coffee pot is empty.

“Meetings are a waste of time unless you are closing a deal,” thinks Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks and CEO of HDNet (via Inc).

“There are so many ways to communicate in real time or asynchronously that any meeting you actually sit for should have a duration and set outcome before you agree to go.”

Therein lies the problem. Meetings rarely stick to their agendas. And, when they do, they’ve vastly exceeded the time allocated to them. More often then not, one high-profile, but low-importance issue will arise and dominate the conversation.

From the manager’s perspective, a one-hour meeting is often justifiable. After all, it’s necessary to coordinate work product and hold case status meetings with employees assigned to a client project. Plus, what’s one hour, right?

Collectively, however, a meeting of ten people costs the firm ten hours of productivity. Not to mention the harm done by pulling employees off a particular project just to attend, and then expecting them to continue seamlessly where they left off an hour later.

“Follow Jeff Bezos’s two-pizza rule,” advises Caterina Fake, co-founder of Flickr and a new start-up called Hunch.

“Project teams should be small enough to feed with two pizzas. At Hunch, we don’t have meetings unless absolutely necessary. When I used to have meetings, though, this is how I would do it: There would be an agenda distributed before the meeting. Everybody would stand. At the beginning of the meeting, everyone would drink 16 ounces of water. We would discuss everything on the agenda, make all the decisions that needed to be made, and the meeting would be over when the first person had to go to the bathroom.”

For more traditional law firms, this may be a bit alternative. Nevertheless, the fact remains that most professionals mismanage meetings.

Productivity involves thoughtfulness as much as organization. This means, organize an agenda for the meeting and stick to it in an efficient manner. It also means creating a post-meeting agenda.

“The productiveness of any meeting depends on the advance thought given the agenda, and you should never leave a meeting without writing a follow-up list with each item assigned to one person,” sagely explains Barbara Corcoran, who built one of New York’s largest real estate companies.

“And go outside. All the big ideas are on the outside. You’ll never have a creative idea at your desk.”

Successful CEOs have made it clear: Be organized. Be brief. Be creative. Or be gone—don’t hold meetings at all.

Law firms should investigate ways to increase productivity at a group and individual level. Empower and train your employees so that you have confidence in their work without constant correspondence.

Practice being brief (and send back briefs that are not!).

As a manager, set the tone for the entire office by:

  • Make the most of the time you have and free up time for mission critical tasks
  • Set realistic goals and ‘time to complete’ estimates
  • Rid your schedule of time-wasters for a better balanced schedule
  • Recognize the difference between important and urgent priorities and tasks
  • Keep track of and meet short and long term projects and deadlines
  • Better cope with game changing shifts in priorities
  • Manage social media time stealers
  • Hold meetings only when it’s absolutely necessary

-WB


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  • increase productivity.

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How To Practice High-Tech Politeness

Who is stigmatized worse in the workplace?

The guy who takes notes on a college-ruled yellow notepad? Or the one with his electronic notebook?

Professionals are concerned about the future of productivity.

The Harvard Business Review Blog recently received advice about workplace and university classroom policies, including:

Sure, outcomes may count more, but methods matter, too. You never know when good work product can transform into exceptional results by tweaking the process.

If innovation is important, why are so many people out to sabotage its every move?

The majority of issues with technology stem from the user. Cell phones, for example, are not a problem in movie theatres until somebody leaves them on or—worse yet—answers a call during the séance.

Computers can be great tool in class or the boardroom, until people become distracted by e-mail or surfing the web.

Ultimately, technology is not the problem. Politeness is.

Whether or not we realize it, technology has made us less polite. When two people are talking, a third person would excuse themselves before entering the group conversation. Yet, when the phone rings, people won’t think twice before picking it up in front of a colleague or friend.

In meetings, dozing off is a definite no-no. But, for some reason, people won’t say no to spending an entire meeting or presentation distracted by the Internet.

The debate isn’t about which innovative technology to use, but rather, can we use it politely?

Last year, Roy Speckhardt, Executive Director for the American Humanist Association came up with “Five Recommendations for a New Politeness,” published in the Huffington Post. Here are a few of his ideas, summarized:

1. Stop fretting about political correctness. Instead, simply identify people in ways they prefer to be identified. Remember the Golden Rule and treat people as they’d like to be treated.

2. State your opinions or critiques with respect for present company who may disagree.

“Politeness doesn’t mean censoring the flow of ideas or even respecting your opponent’s positions; just don’t forget they’re human, just like you,” explains Speckhardt.

3. Daily prejudice and discrimination exists, whether or not you personally witness it or experience it. With that in mind, be aware of stereotypes and avoid speaking as if you endorse them.

4. Give in once in awhile. “When you’re in the majority group, and most everyone is in some aspects of who they are, consider giving ground once in a while to someone who isn’t,” writes Speckhardt.

That means, lawyers: “Hit the brakes on your Beemer and let that minivan merge into traffic.”

5. Keep the behavior of others in check with constructive criticism, but maintain your composure and compassion while doing so.

So, before you make policies to stop smartphones in the workplace, start leading by example with politeness and see if behavior will change. It means more than just putting your cell phone on silent.

At presentations, if you decide to take notes on a laptop, alert the presenter ahead of time. Ask their permission. And, during the presentation, be sure to make eye contact and show your enthusiasm and alertness.

It’s tempting to jump at every ping, but condition yourself away from this sense of urgency. When in company, abstain from looking at your cell phone.

Of 2,000 people interviewed in a study by Intel Corporation,“Nearly 20% of them admitted to having bad cell phone habits themselves, but said they kept it up because they saw everyone else doing it” (read more here).

If you must, excuse yourself for a minute and explain why the phone call is urgent. Colleagues will be more understanding with a sincere apology and quick explanation.

Finally, follow Speckhardt’s five steps to politeness. When you practice politeness outside the office, it will become more natural to practice it within. Just because the environment is more stressful or busy at work, doesn’t mean you should get away with being disriptive, distant, or rude. Plus, you’ll be surprised at how small gestures go a long way to achieving a more pleasant workday.

Don’t restrict the innovation, re-condition your behavior as the user.

-WB

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Law Office Anthill: How To Organize A Staff Meeting Without Disgruntling The Troops

Occasionally, an all-staff meeting is necessary. The hire of a new associate, announcement of an important departure, or reminder to reread the handbook about dress code are a few of the myriad reasons behind mass congregations in law-office conference room

Whatever the occasion, there are both effective and irritating ways to require associates, assistants, and staff to gather at once.

Follow these guidelines so that your good news doesn’t backfire into bad vibes.

Announce it a day before. Law firms are like anthills. People run around in every direction to file emergency briefs, to meet impending deadlines, and to get to court.

For a variety of reasons—a few legitimate and others not—some associates will seek to circumvent the hive meeting. There’s little an administrator can do to encourage their participation. Sending the invitation to meet one month in advance, one week, or one day won’t matter.

For those who are willing and able to attend, one day’s notice allows them to reschedule phone calls or their own casework appointments to accommodate the hour. It also leaves less time to forget.

Partners and managers are prone to sending out mass e-mails reading, “Staff meeting 10 minutes in Conference Room A,” which sends the message that their subordinates’ time is not valuable.

To the masses, managers who send last-minute messages appear disorganized, discourteous, and self-important.

Make them a rare occasion. In the event an all-staff meeting is necessary, make sure they are, at least, infrequent. Attendance for all-staff meetings increases in indirect proportion to the number of meetings held per year.

You’ll assure that 90 percent of the office hears your message when you hold bi-annual meetings. Any more, however, and that percentage will begin to drop exponentially. And for good reason.

Firms rely on attorneys fees from client cases to survive. Not only do meetings disrupt the productive flow of work, they also reduce the billable hour. It turns out, the only two true distractions at an office are meetings and managers.

Good news, bring food. Bad news, send an e-mail. If the meeting surrounds good news—a case won, a baby born, or partner named—than share the joy with breakfast or lunch. Plus, food almost always encourages 100 percent attendance.

At the same time, if the news is bad, consider sending out a mass e-mail instead. It’s unwise to blindside people with bad news. Allow them time to digest the information, and seek out a manager on their own terms and timeframe to discuss.

Also, controversial news may be met by disgruntled employees. An all-staff meeting can quickly turn into battle to the death between queen ants. Keep your employees from saying something they’ll later regret by eliminating the forum for debate.

Don’t have it! Finally, if you’re confused about how or when to organize an all-staff meeting, consider not having it at all.

The majority of announcements can be handled with firm-wide e-mails, or, like most professional environments, in hushed tones at the local tavern during happy hour. Most likely, whatever you’re about to say has been already spreading via underground gossip tunnels that reach far beyond the office.

The secret truth about all-staff meetings traces back to that anthill. When you see a long line of ants trailing into the distance (or to your picnic) it usually leads to trouble.

-WB

Read more about productivity and office distractions here.

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The Only True Office Distractions? Managers & Meetings.

The office. That’s where lawyers go day after day, week after week, year after year.

Law firms, like most companies, hire a variety of employees to work toward a specific cause. To facilitate this work, the firm rents a space, a variety of equipment, some mini-fridges, all for the sole purpose of bringing together different associates to complete a certain number of projects.

Jason Fried, in his talk “Why work doesn’t happen at work,” discovered an interesting fact about offices, however. It turns out, “the office” is never the answer to the question, “where do you go when you really need to get something done?”

Answers range from specific rooms—the basement, a coffee shop, the library, the kitchen, for example—to the commute—a train, a plane, a car, just to name a few. Jason Fried explains, in his ten years of asking this question about getting work done, he has almost never heard somebody answer, I go to the office.

“But businesses are spending all this money on this place called the office, and they’re making people go to it all the time, yet people don’t do work in the office,” Jason Fried teases. Still, all joking aside, it seems that people do not perceive the office as a powerhouse of productivity. Why? Because of all the distractions.

The first thing that comes to a manager’s mind when you say “distraction,” is modern technology. In fact, about 54 percent of companies have blocked social networking websites at the office. And, according to a study by Steve Matthews and Doug Cornelius, 45 percent of law firms have done the same.

Consensus among the blogosphere is that blocking associates’ access to social media sites is a signal sent by administrators and firm partners to say that they don’t trust associates to efficiently and independently complete their own work.

But Jason Fried says, “Today’s Facebook and Twitter and Youtube, these things are just modern-day smoke breaks. No one cared about letting people take a smoke break for 15 minutes 10 years ago, so why does everyone care about someone going to Facebook here and there…? Those are not the real problems in the office.”

In addition to social media at work, law firm partners and company managers also worry that employees who work from home will be distracted by children, or errands, or television, for example. Ironically, the real distractions occur at the office, and they’re not what you think.

“Managers are basically people whose job it is to interrupt people. That’s pretty much what managers are for, they’re for interrupting people,” Jason Fried muses about bosses, like himself.

“They have to check in: ‘Hey, how’s it going? Show me what’s up,’ and that sort of thing. And they keep interrupting you at the wrong time, while you’re actually trying to do something they’re paying you to do.”

At the office, employees are not productive because they find themselves working in just 15- to 20-minute increments. The biggest distractions breaking up an associate’s day are two things—meetings and managers.

“Meetings are just toxic, terrible, poisonous things during the day at work. We all know this to be true. And you would never see a spontaneous meeting called by employees… The manager calls the meeting, so the employees can all come together and it’s an incredible disruptive things to do to people—is to say, ‘Hey, look, we’re going to bring 10 people together right now and have a meeting.’”

Managers often try to justify meetings, claiming they last a mere hour. Collectively, however, a meeting of ten people costs the firm ten hours of productivity. Not to mention the harm done by pulling employees off a particular project just to attend, and then expecting them to continue seamlessly where they left off an hour later.

In addition, there’s never just one, single case-status meeting. It’s usually a weekly meeting, or bi-weekly meeting, or a preliminary meeting in preparation for a bigger meeting in the near future. “Meetings procreate,” according to Jason Fried.

So what are firms to do? Jason Fried has three simple suggestions.

First, instead of casual Friday, try no-talk Thursday. Seriously. Try one day a week or one day a month where nobody in the office can talk to one another.

“What you’ll find is that a tremendous amount of work actually gets done when nobody talks to each other.”

Surprisingly, the second suggestion is to avoid active collaboration in favor or passive, electronic communication. This means no face-to-face meetings or phone calls, but emails and IM chat.

“[These things] are distracting at a time of your own choosing. You can quit the email app, you can’t quit your boss. You can quit IM, you can’t hide your manager. You can put these things away, and then you can be interrupted on your own schedule.”

Finally, Jason Fried’s last suggestion is cancel your meetings. Yes, all of them. Don’t reschedule, just erase. And, you’ll find that work continues to get done and crisis doesn’t ensue.

“People have a more open morning, they can actually think, and you’ll find that maybe all these things you thought you had to do, you don’t actually have to do.”

So, managers, cancel your Wednesday afternoon meeting. At worst, you’ll gain ten hours of productivity (and surely the esteem of your subordinates). At best, you’ll discover a better way for your associates to get work done at the office.

-WB

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