Meetings – basically, dealing with people – are the lifeblood of legal work. Yet, excluding email invites, they’ve remained the same since lawyers first put quill to parchment. Could virtualising these everyday occurrences lead to more productive meetings?

At Red Rain, we’re always trying to improve productivity, both in our software and processes. If you’re thinking about switching to virtual meetings, first consider the pros and cons of swapping a meeting room for chat room.

Virtual meetings – cons

Less trust, less empathy

Have you ever sent an apology for the tone of an email you just wrote? While emoticons might help a little, they can’t compare to the trust and empathy that is built in face-to-face meetings.

In a profession where results are built upon relationships, trust and empathy are vital. In a 2010 study, researchers found that students who collaborated via email were more likely to shirk their responsibility than students who collaborated via video chat or face to face. They didn’t trust that their group was doing the work, and felt less compelled to do the work themselves.

Less engagement

If the aim of your meeting is anything more than a catch up – meeting new clients or making a sale – face-to-face meetings are essential.

As Spencer Jarret of Invision Communications argues, “It’s simple. Live meetings deliver the rich, potent experiences that virtual meetings can’t. They deliver motivation along with messaging, and inspiration with information.”

Everyone can attend

Virtual meetings reduce the barrier to attendance, meaning less relevant people are more likely to attend. This reduces productivity and increases the time the meeting takes.

If you’re holding a virtual meeting, invite the same people you would if it were face to face. Apple and Google stick to 10 people or fewer, a good rule to follow.

Virtual meetings – pros

Costs

There are a number of costs, both hard and soft, that face-to-face meetings incur. Whether it’s travel, rent, printed materials or refreshments – virtual meetings are comparatively free.

As Brent Arslarner of Unisfair argues, “A Global 500 high-tech outfit known for its extravagant physical events is going from holding eight in 2008 to one in 2009. Instead of spending $1 million for sales training as it did in 2008, a billion-dollar company will hold its July training virtually.”

Clarity

There’s no need for minutes in a virtual meeting because every action is automatically recorded. This clarity means responsibilities are easily defined and are simple to check up on. As well as this, you can’t hide behind waffle or rhetoric – the impersonal nature of text means you have to be upfront and objective.

Also, if you have a virtual meeting with a client, you have a digital trail which you can back yourself with up should agreements go sour.

Everyone can attend

While this can be a negative, it can be beneficial if you manage it correctly and only invite relevant people – in other words, don’t invite more people just because you can.

Whether your team are working from home, in transit, overseas, or even unwell, they can all attend a virtual meeting. And as we’ve said before, if you let staff work how they want, they work more productively.

It’s greener

It’s not something that comes to mind straight away, but virtual meetings lessen your carbon footprint. This is something you can subtly work into your marketing materials and workplace culture.

It fits in perfectly with the ‘green policy’ trend we are seeing developed by clients. While it mightn’t be a deal breaker, clients respect greener businesses and it could be an extra selling point for your firm.

Conclusion

As with most things, you should consider your firm’s needs and combine different approaches to find out what works best.

As a general rule it’s a good idea to have a face-to-face meeting if it’s the first time you’re meeting someone; if you’re closing a deal; if you need to motivate or excite people; or if you’re discussing high level strategy.

Basically, you don’t want to make your client feel like you’re neglecting important issues. Yes, having a face-to-face meeting is a bigger investment on your behalf, but this is a form of social proof – you’re showing your client you’re being legitimate (in much the same way a store-front legitimises a store’s goods).

However, there are a number of times when a virtual meeting can be beneficial: when going through basic process; when talking through technicalities (having it in text makes it easier for everyone to comprehend details at their own rate); when you want good anonymous feedback; when your team physically can’t make a face-to-face (beggars can’t be choosers); and of course, when your team is already comfortable together.

Does your team have virtual meetings? Is there anything that we’ve missed out on? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter.