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Bar News - January 16, 2009

Topless Meetings?


Unlike some organizations that are going "topless" to prohibit laptops and BlackBerrys in meetings, the [Wisconsin] State Bar Executive Committee is experimenting with receiving and reviewing all meeting materials electronically and so is inviting participants to bring their laptops to meetings.

"Go topless to meetings to keep meeting short" was a recent headline on my Internet start page. Sure, I thought, but has business casual really gone that far? Well, it turned out that "topless" meant laptop- and BlackBerryģ-less. The point of the topless meetings is undeniably reasonable - to keep attendees focused on the meeting and shorten the meetings. Weíve all seen the BlackBerry pose: The individual focused and quiet, intent, eyes down, hands off the table, but fingers and thumbs busy while scrolling through email. Recently, a possibly apocryphal story from Milwaukee County featured a trial lawyer observed in a contested hearing, replying to email via BlackBerry.

Against the topless trend, the members of the State Bar Executive Committee have been encouraged to bring laptops to committee meetings. The committee voted in August to experiment with receiving and reviewing all meeting materials electronically for at least the next several meetings. The State Bar has the technology to electronically post or email committee meeting materials. The biggest concern for some members, including me, will be ease of electronic review and retrieval of the materials. Another issue is whether we will be distracted by the Internet or email.

Many articles discuss the topic of etiquette for the use of electronics during meetings. Advocates for the use of laptops during meetings say that the laptop or BlackBerry keeps the meeting rolling because no one needs to interrupt the meeting to take a call or relay messages to the outer world, such as sending a message saying something like "still in meeting will be late." Some articles detail appropriate rules for business text messages. Under these rules, it is okay to text something like "let me know when you have a minute" to your colleague down the hall. The justification is that sending this kind of text message saves time. The sender does not have to phone or, perish the notion, walk down the hallway to alert the recipient of the need to communicate. The recipient is not interrupted. It is efficient.

My first job as a lawyer was with a firm with a long history. I was assigned the thankless job of cleaning out the oldest of the files, some dating back to the very early 1900s. Some of the material in the oldest files was initially confusing. There were handwritten notes in elegant script containing messages saying things like "I stopped in to see you today to bring you the `Jonesí will for copying and found that you were out of the office. I have left the will here; please return the original to me when you are finished."

Why didnít the writer call first? Why didnít the writer have his assistant copy the document while he was there? Or, just mail a copy of the will? It was amazing to realize that there was no telephone, and that copying meant that someone would handwrite or typewrite from the original to create the copy.

Iím pretty sure that someone believed that routine use of the telephone would isolate lawyers from each other. They likely marveled at the convenience and regretted the lost opportunity for collegial contact. Lawyers may have worried about the frequent interruptions the telephone would cause. Maybe the bar journals of the era even discussed etiquette for telephoning.

No one to my knowledge has found a reason to resent the copying machine, but it is time to cut down on the use of the copying machine by the State Bar of Wisconsin. If the Executive Committee trial is successful, I will ask that the materials for the Board of Governors meetings also be delivered electronically. Each governor receives several hundred pages of materials for each Board of Governors meeting. It will take perseverance for all the governors to prepare for meetings online and use them at meetings without distraction.

The savings in copying, shipping, carrying, and storing the materials will be well worth it. The Bar will be greener. The times have changed again.

Diane S. Diel is the president of the Wisconsin Bar. This article is reprinted with permission from the October 2008 Wisconsin Lawyer magazine, the official publication of the State Bar of Wisconsin.

If you are in doubt about the status of any meeting, please call the Bar Center at 603-224-6942 before you head out.

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