By JIM CALLOWAY, Dolan Media Newswires
Do you find yourself participating in more telephone conference calls (aka teleconferences) today than several years ago? Many of us have noticed an increase in the number of conference calls due in part to the challenges and expense of travel.
Whether you are coordinating volunteers, negotiating the language in a pre-trial conference order or scheduling half a dozen depositions, it is almost certain that there even more such calls in your future.
Here are some tips on powering up your conference calls:
• Better scheduling. Scheduling a conference call can sometimes seem to take as much time as the actual call itself. Emailing everyone can work well, but we all have such a flood of email to manage that often someone fails to respond within a reasonable time. And calling everyone to get available dates and times can be very time-consuming.
The better approach may be to try electronic services like MeetingWizard.com that allow you to automate the date/time selection process. With these services, you identify your available dates and times and enter the email addresses for everyone else who will participate. The service then sends them a link to a survey form where they can check off times. You will be notified when everyone has responded and can view a chart showing what times work for everyone. MeetingWizard can also prompt individuals who do not respond and can be set to remind participants the day before the teleconference.
The basic MeetingWizard service is free, but registration is required. Other popular meeting scheduler services can be found at www.timebridge.com, www.setameeting.com and www.tungle.me/Home.
If you have people in various time zones participating, take a look at an old standby, www.timeanddate.com, and its Meeting Planner to make sure you keep the time conversions straight.
• Use the mute button. One of the biggest problems with conference calls is caused by the failure to mute. We’ve all been distracted by rustling papers, pages over the intercom and participants responding to whispered inquiries from staff. If you have the call on your speaker phone function, it is probably best to keep it muted unless you are a very active participant, or at least close your door and ask everyone not to disturb you.
If you are participating in a conference call by mobile phone, you absolutely have to mute when you are not speaking. Static and wind noises will not be noticed by you, but they will be obvious to everyone else on the call. These are not just distracting, but downright infuriating.
Here’s another scenario: You are on a conference call and an assistant comes with a note that a federal district judge’s office is on the phone and says it is urgent, or another lawyer has to talk to you immediately about a major case. The natural impulse will be to place the conference call on hold. But many of us have had a conference call interrupted by “hold music” when one lawyer places the call on hold to handle an emergency.
You can avoid this inadvertent rudeness by using the conferencing system’s muting instructions before you place the call on hold. This will keep the other participants from hearing the hold music while you talk to His Honor.
• Learn to conference. Every lawyer should know how to connect two lines together for a three-way conference call without bothering an assistant or setting up a formal conference call with a service. Being able to do this easily can make you look good to lawyers who have no clue how to do it.
For your office phone system, you can set up an easy cheat sheet. There are probably booklets explaining all of the features of the phone floating around the office. You may even have had training that is long-since forgotten. Search the company’s website, download the PDF version and store it somewhere on your computer or your network where it will be easy to find. (My Documents may be it.) If you have Adobe Acrobat, you can add bookmarks to the paragraphs that describe conferencing calls or you can extract just the page with those instructions and save it as a separate PDF file.
There are numerous services for conference calls and your office probably has already selected a one. But if you ever have to set up a conference on the weekend or for a non-business matter, several services provide free conference calling using a toll number (i.e. not an 800) number that the attendees dial in to, or you can pay a small fee for a toll-free number. These services include www.freeconferencecall.com and www.freeconference.com. Skype can also handle up to nine callers.
• Try web conferencing. Web conferencing services are surprisingly easy to use and very effective if documents are to be discussed in a call. Instead of sending a proposed contract or other document around by email and hoping for replies, set up a conference call and provide a link so everyone can look at the document and watch as changes are made. Then you can send everyone the final draft afterwards.
Web conferencing services are fairly easy to set up. The meeting organizer sends all of the participants a link and then they log in to look at the meeting organizer’s desktop. You can share anything from a document to a PowerPoint presentation. Many of these services have polling, online data storage and other advanced functions.
Useful web conferencing services include GoToMeeting, Adobe Connect (free for up to three participants) and DimDim (free for up to 20 participants).
This brief overview should help make your conference calls more productive and enjoyable for everyone.
Editor’s note: Calloway is the director of the Oklahoma Bar Association Management Assistance Program. He publishes the weblog, Jim Calloway’s Law Practice Tips at http://jimcalloway.typepad.com. He serves on the ABA Law Practice Management Section Council and is also chair of its Practice Management Advisor’s committee. He is a frequent speaker on law office management and technology issues.