Somewhere between the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial rulings that closed the summer session and the start of its fall session today, Justice Stephen Breyer hit the publicity circuit.
After joining The Late Show with Stephen Colbert welcome wagon week to plug his well-reviewed new book, The Court and the World: American Law and the New Global Realities, he headed west on the author circuit. I was lucky to have scored a ticket for his Los Angeles stop and was delighted to hear him opine in an intimate setting.
The associate justice answered questions, albeit gingerly, on major decisions — recent and past — such as Obergefell (legalizing gay marriage nationwide) and Brown v. Board, as well as the globalization of law, the death penalty and the interplay between popular opinion and Court rulings. All fascinating, lofty and somewhat predictable topics.
But he did have one surprise up the sleeve of his robe — details of the Court’s seemingly mundane but highly effective workflow and meeting management techniques.
Court Meetings — They’re Just Like Yours and Mine
The concerns facing the Chief Justice and eight associate justices sound similar to issues that all law firms and other commercial enterprises tackle. These include volume — the Court’s caseload has shrunk by half since the 1980s — and staffing. Apparently even justices have ways to jockey themselves into position to increase the likelihood of being assigned their first choice opinion-writing assignment.
No One Speaks Twice Until …
The best practice from the Supremes that most inspired me was: Nobody speaks a second time until everybody has spoken once.
The underlying civility of that rule struck me in the days after hearing it. I began to notice the lopsided nature of so many conference calls and how the usual suspects dominate most calls. Imagine implementing the rule during in-person meetings, too, and how the meeting dynamic might change if everyone knew they were expected to participate.
Not Productive? Time’s Up.
Another meeting management technique Chief Justice John Roberts uses: When the discussion turns unproductive, thus endeth the meeting.
How does that work in practice? When the all-too familiar stalemate, voice-raising and entrenched opinions take over, and arguments cease to move beyond the “I am right” stage, the meeting shuts down. Game over.
The Sun Will Come Up Tomorrow
This productivity focus leads directly to the third practical Supreme tip: Tomorrow is another day.
In practice, that means when the Learned Nine find themselves debating the points of a new case, previous animosity or disagreements from earlier cases should be placed far behind them. The ultimate clean slate. That caused me to ponder how easily past experiences at work can color attitudes on new projects, perhaps even in an unproductive and prejudicial way.
There’s nothing revolutionary in the behind-the-scene details Justice Breyer shared. It forms the basis of classroom management and guides etiquette for large family dinners: no seconds until everyone has had their firsts.
But what was reassuring and motivational was knowing that even the nation’s top intellectuals need and abide by these rules, marked by simple civility and respect, to keep their workplace functioning, fair and moving forward.
If it’s good enough for our nation’s final word on justice, maybe it’s good enough for your next meeting. Next time you lead a meeting, or even attend one, what do you have to lose by working it like a Supreme?
Amy Spach is a writer, editor and communications strategist based in Los Angeles who has worked with lawyers and other professionals for more than 20 years.
Photo credits: Rob Latour, Courtesy of Library Foundation of Los Angeles