Select a dozen or so people who have a common interest but different perspectives on a subject, say intellectual property or legal services. Select people who represent ‘stakeholders’ in the subject. Give them a draft document that you wish to discuss with them. Hold a meeting lasting an hour and a half, at which you canvass their views on the document.
Last week, IP Draughts participated in two such meetings. The first was a meeting of solicitors to discuss the Law Society’s corporate strategy. The second was a meeting of various trade bodies to discuss national IP strategy.
The two meetings were very different in their participants, subject-matter and the way they were run. But in some ways the meetings felt very similar. You may think that some of the following points are obvious, but they only became obvious to IP Draughts after reflecting on how the meetings went, and how they differed from the meetings of IP lawyers and business people that he is used to attending.
- It is very difficult to develop any coherent conclusions on a topic when (a) the topic is complex and multi-faceted, and has numerous points of detail, (b) the meeting participants have widely-differing interests and personalities (and in many cases have not met before), and (c) you only have an hour and half to discuss the topic.
- Getting people to stick to an agenda, and to discuss their pet subjects under the relevant agenda headings rather than download their ideas all at once, is much harder than one might expect. Strong chairmanship is required.
- Meetings develop ‘group-think’. The nature of that group-think depends on who has been invited to the meeting.
These comments make some tacit assumptions as to the purpose of the meeting, eg that they are intended to find solutions to problems through discussion. But what if the purpose of the meeting, at least on the part of the people who called it, is to ‘engage’ with stakeholders in the wider sense, without necessarily expecting (or needing) that engagement to lead to any consensus?
By contrast, meetings of the Law Society’s Intellectual Property Law Committee seem much more productive. This may be partly because:
- Under our current Chair’s guidance, the IPLC has been good at sticking to an agenda in its meetings. Preparatory work is done outside meetings, eg through the development of draft submissions on proposed legislation, and sufficient time is given in the meeting to discuss each point in a focussed way.
- Members of the IPLC get to know one another over several years, and develop a productive working relationship.
- Members of the IPLC are not representing ‘interests’, other than in the very general sense of all being specialist IP lawyers.
- IP lawyers tend to take what IP Draughts calls an ‘engineering approach’ of trying to find workable solutions to problems.
Similarly, client meetings that IP Draughts has attended, eg of the executive committee of a listed biotech company, have been focussed, kept to an agenda and produced relevant conclusions.
It is not surprising that strategy discussions take more of a ‘blank sheet of paper’ approach, and this inevitably leads to a looser discussion. But IP Draughts is left wondering about exactly what the purpose was of the meetings he attended this week and whether, in the minds of the organisers of each of those meetings, the purpose was achieved.