What Does a Professional Parliamentarian Do?

If you’re thinking you might be in the market for a parliamentarian, but you’re afraid of making your situation worse or getting yourself into a super-picky-about-Robert’s-Rules mess—this post should clarify reasons why you might ask a professional parliamentarian to step in and help. Every day, parliamentarians serve as impartial advisors to organizations and boards as they work through difficult organizational issues. As you consider contacting or hiring a parliamentarian, here is what you can expect.

1. A professional parliamentarian can support other staff.

A parliamentarian can come alongside an organizational parliamentarian or in-house/outside legal counsel, working with them to problem-solve and handle procedural difficulties.

2. A professional parliamentarian can serve publicly at a meeting.

It can be helpful to hire a professional parliamentarian as an outside consultant for a potentially controversial or difficult board meeting or membership business meeting—either to help you prepare and/or to serve on-site or virtually during the meeting. A parliamentarian can do any or all of the following before or during a meeting:

  • help structure an efficient, strategic agenda
  • prepare announcements, explanations, presentations
  • help draft resolutions and motions
  • help answer member questions about the meeting
  • script the meeting so the Chair can preside comfortably
  • help the presiding officer practice a critical presentation
  • sit next to the Chair during a meeting
  • preside at the meeting—entirely or temporarily
  • serve as a go-between for staff and leadership
  • attend the meeting and help draft or review minutes
  • monitor an election at the meeting
  • advise regarding voting methods
  • ensure ballot counting happens properly
  • be present as an independent, impartial observer

3. A professional parliamentarian can provide training.

Knowing and applying the rules of parliamentary procedure is challenging. Many board members or officers in a group have had very little help in navigating and understanding Robert’s Rules (or another parliamentary authority). A parliamentarian can provide groups with workshops and training sessions, covering basics and specifics about meeting rule sources, motions, amendments, debate, points of order, vote counting, agendas, and more.

4. A professional parliamentarian can write an opinion.

A parliamentarian can provide a written answer concerning a question about something that occurred or can draft a written interpretation of the bylaws. Often, a problem will come up, an organization will send me their documents and questions, and I will spend time researching the issue and writing out the answer to be used as needed by the client. This provides the group with a more authoritative basis for understanding a contentious issue.

5. A professional parliamentarian can draft and revise governing documents.

Organizations often consider a partial or full rewrite of various portions of their bylaws, such as sections about officers, board of directors, term limits and lengths, or nomination and election processes. But often, a group isn’t sure where to start or what’s legal.

Phase 1: A parliamentarian can begin with a review of any governing documents—constitution, bylaws, charter, other sets of rules. I start with a high-level pass to examine and mark the documents, paying special attention to the sections the group is concerned about. I make comments—“Here are some things to think about, sections to change, things that are missing.”

Phase 2: After the client reviews the feedback, we have a conversation about which changes make the most sense to prioritize. Frequently, there is not an appetite among the group to do a wholesale revision. It’s too much at once perhaps, or there are very controversial parts. So, I ask, “If you were going to start by changing two aspects of your documents, which would you change?”

Phase 3: Once a group has narrowed down revision plans, I draft language for them based on an understanding of the modifications. I dialogue with the bylaws committee or individuals involved to hash through edits. This discussion takes time! Traditions are hard to change, and people can feel disenfranchised by revisions. But I work to reach agreement with key stakeholders and create a draft that they feel able to share for review with a committee, the board, or the whole organization.

Phase 4: Finally, I work with leadership to get ready for the presentation of the revised documents—the socialization piece of redoing bylaws. You want things to go well as you share revisions with the larger group, so a professional parliamentarian helps you prepare pre-meeting announcements, keep people from being confused, facilitate questions, and manage PR.

Value-Adds: With this type of project, I have long experience with drafting bylaws and can speak to what’s typical and what’s best practice for various types of organizations. I also know what questions will be asked and what will get people wound up. I’ve observed sad results when leaders have not strategized or prepared well for socialization of the changes, and people have gotten very upset. Additionally, I can share a realistic timeline. Typically, it takes a group one year to work through, plan, and implement a holistic revision of a document—from the first conversation to a vote. Involve a parliamentarian early in the process—she can always step back when not needed.

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