• Neil

Law Firm Meeting Rooms: Coffee & Time Zones

This is a topic I have been threatening to write about for many years, about my experience over the last 34 years of how law firms deal with the meeting room coffee issue.

I am not a tea person, I am a coffee person. I like coffee - a lot; I have 'beans to cup' coffee machine at home in both the US and the UK, and do not adulterate coffee with any alien objects like milk or sugar. Because I drink coffee that way, I can actually taste it – which is why I know that Starbucks coffee is bitter and nasty, and I have been known to walk an extra five blocks in Chicago and New York to avoid it.


Throughout the 1908s it was simple; someone in the law firm’s kitchen made a flask of coffee with instant coffee powder and put it in the meeting room in the morning. If you were lucky, then it might be replaced after lunch with a fresh flask. I quickly stopped accepting the offer of coffee in most law firms, unless I was hung over or otherwise desperate, and drank the water instead.


Towards the end of the 1980s – after I got queried for refusing the coffee on offer, I was occasionally told that it was OK, because “we use Gold Blend”. Needless to say that did not change my habits. Bear in mind that this was at a time when one law firm was renowned for going to the effort of making its meeting room biscuits by hand.


In 1990 when I was doing an IT Strategy for Wilde Sapte, as they then were, I was working with a Head of Finance & Administration called Peter Groves who had two enlightened moments – firstly, he hired Simon Kosminsky from the Fire Brigade as their new head of IT, and secondly, he introduce coffee in cafetières made with freshly ground coffee. It was a revelation – of course it got cold fairly quickly, but the first cup was excellent. I also seem to remember he then introduced thermos cafetières a few years later to keep it warm for the second cup.


At around the same time some other firms started to brew proper coffee (from beans) in their kitchens and put them in flasks, but it was usually too weak and too stewed to be of any real interest to coffee aficionados.


In case you are wondering about US law firms; in my experience their meeting room coffee was even more undrinkable - a bit like diner coffee.


When I first went to Sydney – around 2000 - I found how it should be done. Firstly, if it was after 5pm, I was often offered a Victoria Bitter from the meeting room fridge – that was an eye opener, and very welcome. The other thing I found, at other times of day, was that a uniformed barista walked into the meeting room and simply asked everyone what they wanted to drink. I asked for a double espresso, and a lot of many more complicated coffee-based selection were made. He wrote them all down and left the room. Impressed, and mystified – I think this was at Mallesons – I made an excuse, left the room, and followed him. He went to a room behind reception which had a three-group Gaggia espresso machine. I was very impressed – I asked him what happened when the people in the room wanted another drink. It was his turn to look mystified; “they call me back in and I make some more drinks”.


I don’t know of any UK firms that have industrial strength Gaggia-style machines, but in the last four or five years things have certainly improved. This became obvious when I was in BLP at about that time and, as I usually did, turned down the offer of coffee. Janet Day’s responsibility had recently been enlarged to include facilities, and when the topic came up she said that I could have an espresso from the machine in the staff lunch room if I liked. I did like, and it was duly arranged. Whilst I was very grateful, I did also made the comment that it seemed rather odd that the clients were being offered inferior coffee to the staff.


Nowadays any client at BLP can have proper coffee – and a whole plethora of new generation coffee machines have started to sprout in meeting rooms throughout the law firms of the City. Whilst this is an improvement, and George Clooney’s friends at Nespresso will be very happy – these machines do not make proper tasting espresso coffee. Furthermore, they seem to have periodic cleansing routine that means every hour or so they disturb the meeting attendees with a strangulated sequence of gurgling and spluttering.


Depending on their complexity these machines cost anywhere in the region of £100 - £500. However, when you consider that you need one for each meeting room, and many law firms have 20 or so – a high quality Gaggia and a few baristas would seem to be an attractive investment – to a coffee lover.


The firm leading the way on the coffee front, as I so many others, is Mishcon de Reya. In their meeting rooms is a mysterious looking tap, and nearby, an iPad coffee menu screen with photos of every type of coffee you could wish for. Simply press the graphic, put a cup under the tap, and hey presto!


Meeting Room Time Zones

Another interesting thing to watch out for in law firms is that each firm seems to have its own ‘meeting room time zone’; that is a measure of how many minutes, on average, past the set meeting time that it will actually start.

I am normally in internal meetings – without clients – and I suspect that different rules may apply to them, but for the meetings I attend I find that they tend to start a similar number of minutes late each time, in each firm. For one firm it may be four minutes, and for another it might be 12 – in one firm it was invariably 20.

How many minutes past the hour is the meeting room time zone in your firm?

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