June 2011Volume 16Number 5PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

Parliamentary procedure: Unexpectedly doing what is expected

The general public seems convinced that, as lawyers, part of our legal training involved public speaking, charm, and social grace. And, to be considered a real lawyer, they also expect that we have a healthy dose of sarcasm. Then, there’s that other expectation—the unwritten rule that lawyers know what to do at all times, in all situations. This is especially true at meetings. Whether those meetings are religious organizations, not-for-profit groups, corporate boards, or merely a small gathering of neighbors, the expectation is that lawyers know how to effectively use parliamentary procedure to run the meeting. So, in addition to teaching you contracts, evidence, and ethics, law school was supposed to teach you how to effectively use parliamentary procedure! If you’ve ever been in that situation before, you know that trying to talk a person out of that belief is like arguing proximate cause in the Palsgraf case. Try as you might you cannot convince a layperson that knowing parliamentary procedure, as a lawyer, was not a foreseeable event. Because you are a lawyer, people expect you to lead…so do it! Here’s a simple primer that should get you through the very basics.

Motions are the way business is conducted in a meeting. A motion is a formal proposal, by a member, in a meeting, that urges those assembled to take a certain action. Using parliamentary procedure, then, relates to the orderly transaction of business in meetings and to the duties of officers. Here is how a motion is brought and considered at a meeting or assembly, hazards present at each stage, and even a few tips to sharpen your edge:

STEP 1. A member stands up, is recognized, and makes a motion;

Common Mistake: Members do not stand up, do not wait to be recognized, do not properly obtain the floor, or starts to discuss the motion before completing STEPS 2, 3, and 4!

STEP 2. Another member seconds the motion;

Common Mistake(s): The person seconding the motion dives into the merits of the motion. A motion that does not require a second is given a second.

TIP: A motion made by direction of a board or duly appointed committee does not require a second.

STEP 3. The presiding officer restates the motion to the assembly;

Common Mistake(s): The motion is not restated or is restated differently from the original wording of the maker. Beware! The motion that is adopted is the one stated by the presiding officer, not the one stated by the maker of the original motion.

STEP 4. The members debate the motion;

Common Mistake(s): The maker of the motion is not given the first opportunity to address the motion in debate. Debate gets out of control in temper, duration, or relevance! Members may talk at each other rather than through the presiding officer of the meeting.

TIP: A member who has spoken twice on the same motion on the same day has exhausted the right to debate that question for that day!

STEP 5. Presiding officer asks for the affirmative votes & then the negative votes;

Common Mistake(s): The presiding officer states ‘All in favor’ and fails to tell the members what to do as a matter of voting (for example, ‘say aye’, ‘stand up’, ‘raise your hand’, etc.). In some cases, the negative vote is never requested or even counted and recorded!

STEP 6. The presiding officer
announces the result of the voting; instructs the corresponding officer to take action; and introduces the next item of business.

Common Mistake(s): The presiding officer fails to pronounce the result of the voting. No one is instructed to take action. Sometimes, dead silence follows because the presiding officer is lost and stares at the assembly instead of moving to the next item of business.

Part of our legal training has always been to expect, and deal with, the unexpected. With this information in hand, you are well on your way to delivering a solid performance—as leader, as lawyer, and as expected. ■



Robert, H.M. III, Evans, W, et al., Robert’s Rules of Order, Newly Revised, 10th ed. (2000). Persues Publishing.




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