Even before the onset of a global pandemic that sequestered many lawyers to their homes, remote meetings and videoconference were quickly becoming an important and ubiquitous business tool. Online meetings bring benefits and convenience, but can also increase confusion and frustration.
Here are ten tips to help you host effective online meetings, whether with colleagues or clients. In addition to this article, see LAWPRO's Video Conferencing Checklist to help you provide legal services online.
1) Ensure confidentiality and security
Not all video conferencing software provides the same security. Consider whether your meetings will require true end-to-end encryption (which means even the software provider will not have access to the content of your conversation).
To avoid uninvited guests logging into your meeting and listening-in or causing disruption, require a password for entry (and don’t post this password online). It’s also a good idea to use a virtual waiting room where attendees will log in and wait until they are specifically granted access by the host.
2) Check your tech
You don’t need studio lighting and high-end audio-visual equipment for your personal computer, but a few basic steps will ensure you come across in the best manner.
a) Place your camera at approximately eye-level. If you are using a laptop, this may require you to elevate the laptop above its usual position. When speaking to others, look at the camera, not the screen. Eye contact is an important part of communication.
b) Use headphones to avoid audible echoes. If available, good quality headphones with built-in microphones will usually provide better sound quality than a laptop mic.
c) Test the equipment and software. It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with how to navigate the videoconferencing software before the meeting, especially if you will be screen-sharing or hosting.
3) Don’t assume others know how to use the software
A client or colleague may not have used remote conferencing software in the past, or may be unfamiliar with the specific software used by the host. If you expect to be arranging online meetings with new contacts, it’s a good idea to prepare (or download, if one already exists) a brief step-by-step walkthrough of how to set-up any required software and access the meeting, and provide those instructions (or a link) to every attendee in advance.
4) Dress (and set-dress) to impress
When meeting with a client, or attending an online Court hearing, you will want to maintain a look that fits the situation and is consistent with the image you would like to project. Different lawyers will have different styles, and different views about what is proper business attire in the time of COVID-19. Whatever your look, in all instances, don’t forget proper leg-ware!
Use a wall or tidy shelf as a backdrop—avoid windows as they can be distracting and can blow out your lighting, making you difficult to see.
Some video conferencing tools allow you to set a virtual background. If you’re going to do this, make sure your background is appropriate for your audience. Giving the illusion that you’re speaking from the bridge of the Starship Enterprise may work for your Trekkie client, but won’t work for everyone. Make sure you have the right technical set up or the background may be distorted, and distract others in the meeting.
Finally, if you are working from a home shared with others, make sure they know you will be in a meeting and should not be disturbed. If there’s a risk in this unprecedented time that you may need to have a child or pet (or both) join the meeting, warn those in attendance of this possibility.
5) Prepare to share
Most video-conferencing programs allow users to share the contents of their screen with other attendees, and may also allow joint annotation and other functions.
If you will be referring to documents during the meeting, or reviewing documents with a client, prepare in advance what you will and will not be screen-sharing. Remember to close any non-relevant windows or programs you may have running in the background, as you probably don’t want others to see the online shopping or cat videos you were looking at earlier.
6) Set an agenda
It can be difficult to maintain everyone’s attention and understanding during a large online meeting. A clear and concise agenda, either outlined at the start of the meeting, or circulated in advance to all attendees, will keep the meeting on track and ensure all matters are dealt with efficiently and effectively.
To keep everyone focussed on the meeting, it’s a good idea to regularly solicit comments from all or some attendees at the end of each topic discussion—to “go around the table”, so to speak.
7) Keep it short (but overestimate the length)
Keep the meetings short, if possible, but overestimate their expected length. If the meeting is expected to be long, remember to schedule breaks for everyone to briefly step away from their computers.
8) Mute, mute, and mute
For meetings with a large number of attendees, remind everyone at the start that they should mute their microphones if they’re not speaking (and unmute when they are).
9) Provide backup contact info
It’s always possible that one or more meeting attendees will have trouble accessing the videoconference or drop-out due to a technical error. It’s helpful to provide a phone number in advance for attendees to text or call if they are having technical difficulties—even if this call is just to inform the host that someone is having difficulties.
10) Summarize and memorialize, and/or record with written consent
It’s often a good idea to delegate the taking of minutes to one of the attendees other than the host, even if the meeting is relatively informal.
At the end of the meeting, summarize what was discussed and any deliverables and follow-ups that are required.
As always, if meeting with a client, remember to memorialize the meeting immediately after it ends, and put any instructions received or advice given into writing.
In some cases, it may be helpful to record the meeting. If you intend to do so, it is helpful to obtain the written consent of those attending, and confirm their consent at the start of recording.
*A version of this article originally appeared on practicepro.ca.
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