Reinventing the conference

Rebecca Towers finds out what conference providers are offering, but more importantly asks lawyers what they really want. Charged with the task of making legal conferences more dynamic and more relevant to a wider and younger audience, conference organisers have had to re-evaluate the needs of the legal community and re-package their brand for the new millennium.

First in line for a face-lift is the Solicitors' Annual Conference in 1999. The conference, which is the Law Society's national event, will be held at Disneyland Paris and rebranded as the Solicitors' Law Festival.

To help realise the makeover, the Law Society enlisted the help of high-profile media lawyer Mark Stephens of City firm Stephens Innocent. The profession “needs to wake up and smell the coffee”, says Stephens, who forecasts a seismic change within the legal sector over the next few years as a large number of firms disappear from practice.

As a result, he says, an already over-populated conference market is having to tailor its events to the needs of a changing legal market. Stephens has welcomed the challenge: “I felt that the solicitors' conference had become a receptacle for the middle-aged, middle-class and middle-minded – it tried to be all things to all people without succeeding.”

According to Stephens, the catalyst for the revamp was a “dynamic new group” within the Law Society “who recognised that the conference needed a breath of fresh air”.

The self-styled festival will be looking at issues that are of interest to the entire profession, says Stephens, with an emphasis on catering for the younger end of the market. Modules will include career planning, communication skills and stress management sessions, as well as those aimed at the traditional legal areas.

Today, with the majority of the profession under the age of 40 – many with young families to take into account – organisers are re-thinking the traditional conference structure. The Disneyland deal (at £1,300 for a family of four) is cheaper than holding the event in Newcastle, says Stephens, who promises that creche facilities and a proper children's programme will be high on the agenda.

But Paul Emmett, partner at Leeds-based Walker Morris – who finds it hard to visualise going to any conference organised by the Law Society – cannot think of anything worse than attending a network-focused legal event. And he certainly would not entertain the concept of a family holiday with law seminars.

As far as continuing education conferences are concerned, Emmett says: “Most of our lawyers, including myself, tend to use distance learning methods instead of going to conferencesS I find that the time spent on conferences is not justified by the increase in knowledge obtained. It's a more beneficial exercise to attend in-house courses to get CPD points.”

In the 1980s, lawyers got a mixed bag of expert speakers and a welcome break from the office. Today, lawyers report that they want highly relevant and tailored seminars, the most up-to-date information on legal trends and the opportunity to meet people they can do business with.

Barbara Cahalane, head of communications at the Law Society, agrees the culture of conferences has changed. “The expectations of people have become more complex, with lawyers looking for a mix of factors which include a good venue with good facilities,” she says.

Despite the opportunities of making global business contacts, combining conferences with breaks away is unlikely to become de rigueur in a climate where solicitors are increasingly struggling to meet general practising costs.

But Carl Harris, business director of Legal Monte Carlo '98, an in-house lawyer forum organised by The Lawyer, is confident that lawyers will undertake travel for high-quality conferences. Apart from the draw of international alliances overseas, conferences have other benefits.

Conference producer Steve Warshall of Centaur Conferences says: “People from law firms and in-house counsel can be togetherS away from phones and faxes and the pressures of day-to-day work to discuss issues of mutual benefit.”

Michael Whalley, managing partner at the London office of Australian multinational firm Minter Ellison, agrees. Whalley – who will be attending the Monte Carlo conference – is looking forward to an opportunity to renew contact with a number of existing clients and to make new contacts among the in-house counsel.

Modern conferences are increasingly focusing on how law firms are managed as businesses. Responding to this shift of emphasis, conference providers are expected to offer solutions to practical problems as well as exploring methods of increasing profitability, reducing costs, improving relations with clients and getting better use out of technology.

Deborah Barleggs, director of the legal division of IBC UK Conferences, concedes legal conferences “have changed considerably” in recent years. IBC has been servicing the legal sector for over 30 years and produces over 400 legal events a year, mostly held in London or mainland European cities.

“Delegates have always wanted someone entertaining, technically correct and up-to-date,” she says. But she says people today expect higher standards from conferences than they did 20 years ago – they want the best lawyer and expert for a particular subject.

One contributing factor to the change in conference work has been the increasing use of technology, says Barleggs. Presentations have moved away from simple overhead projections, and speakers are using more interesting visual aids incorporating slide projectors, Powerpoint layouts and video.

Despite this progress in presentation, she concedes that the legal sector still lags way behind other conference users in this respect.

Conferences tend to offer a range of supporting material including statutes, case studies, legal papers and texts which delegates can take back to the office and use for reference and internal training. Providing quality support material is an important element of the event, and is often the deciding factor as to whether a conference is deemed a success.

The single most important feature of conferences – as opposed to training courses – is the potential marketing exercise. As a result, top-level conference providers have become much more research driven, according to Barleggs. She says: “Although written material has always been good, the whole conference product has improved.” IBC spend a lot of time researching their conference material – up to four weeks – in order to ensure a fully represented panel.

Unlike other professional and technical conference users, legal events tend to attract a large number of non-lawyers. Employment law events can expect up to 50 per cent non-legal delegates.

Stephen Broome, director of Central Law Training (CLT) runs up to 3,000 training courses a year, of which 200 are specialist conferences for the legal profession. CLT covers a wide range of legal events, including management conferences specifically designed for the profession.

Broome agrees that the key to a successful conference is having speakers with a high level of practical expertise and excellent presentation skills. “Delegates are also looking for good documentation – something that can be used by others at the office. And the venue for a conference has to be such that it doesn't detract from the presenter and the message they're conveying.”

In the past, simply having a collection of high-profile speakers “didn't always hang together”, says Broome. Now, time is spent researching programmes. Only then will CLT approach panelists.”We identified that the programme needs to be far more structured with more time spent developing themes.” This, in turn, avoids repetition.

Lindsay Scott, managing director of event organisers Kudos, puts the change in legal events down to the introduction of training and business managers. “Firms are more commercially minded now and will not send anyone on a conference unless it will improve performance and client care,” she says.

Scott agrees that successful conferences must offer experts in their field who are also good public speakers. “You come away having learned something new [and having had] an opportunity to meet potential clients,” he says.

From the lawyer's point of view, all conference costs must be justified, says Andrew Latchmore, managing partner of client services at Eversheds. At Eversheds, all lawyers attending conferences are expected to report back to their practice groups and disseminate their knowledge. Latchmore himself will only go to skills-based conferences where he can get specialist training in areas where it is difficult to build skills from client work alone.

Steven Janes, partner with City firm Masons is equally adamant that there must be a business benefit. “I will only go to [conferences] if they have something remarkably different to offer,” he says.

“I don't go to events purely for educational reasons – we have neither the time nor the resources to do that.”