The number of law practice management conferences has exploded in the last 20 years. What does this tell us and where are we heading? 

In 1989, I saw few conferences of any kind advertised in the legal trade press or by direct mail. To fill a gap in professional dialog, in 1991 I co-organized the Law Practice Technology Roundtable. The day-long, peer-organized meetings brought together lawyers and forward-thinking IT directors to discuss what we now call practice support. It met 20 times over a dozen years.

Now, reading American Lawyer, Inside Counsel, Corporate Counsel, Law Technology News, and other trade publications, I see many ads for law practice management conferences. For-profit companies such as ALM Events, Ark Group, IQPC, and Marcus Evans and not-for-profits such as ILTA, ALA, ABA, LMA, AALL, and SLA host many events.

So what changed and what does it mean? The growth and “business-ification” of the AmLaw 200 is a big driver. In 1990, many firms loathed the idea of firm as business. Today, law practice is simply a way to make big bucks. Growth in professional law practice managers has probably outpaced that of lawyers. Just consider functions today that did not exist or were embryonic in 1990: IT, marketing, business development, professional development, recruiting, sourcing, facilities management, knowledge management, practice support, and e-discovery / litigation support.

Professional sharing is great but I do wonder about the number of conferences. In KM circles, we have asked if there too many KM conferences – what’s new to justify so many conferences each year? Our answers are inconclusive. This post was triggered by Mark Ross of Lawscribe with his thought-provoking post: Legal Outsourcing Conferences – an Addict’s Critique. I too have noticed many legal process outsourcing conferences. (Re the LPO market: I share Mark’s concerns but I think the positive take-away is that we are at the tipping point of widespread outsourcing adoption; of course, I may be biased now that I work for an LPO!)

So, what’s next? Some of my thoughts about the future of conferences:

  • Conference organizers should clearly distinguish between “here’s what you will learn” sessions driven by a speaker plus PowerPoint and real panel discussions. I find being talked to – whether by a single speaker or seriatim by 3 to 5 panelists – less useful than a truly interactive panel , one not overly rehearsed, that operates slide-less, and that engages in a real conversation on the podium and with the audience.
  • On the commercial side, let’s hope for a shake-out. I’ve heard too many stories of sessions or whole conferences with just a handful of non-speaker / non-vendor attendees. As a marketing person now, I see way too many opportunities to sponsor conferences or pay-to-meet-buyer events. (Even worse, some of the for-profit conference organizers do not seem to understand CRM, so I receive multiple, uncoordinated calls from them soliciting sponsorships. The guilty shall remain nameless.)
  • How about more “un-conferences.” I read a bit about these; I gather participants drive these in real time, meaning no advance agendas or speakers. Out of chaos, order emerges. Said another way, I find that at most conferences, the best action is in the hallways, small group discussions, and networking. Perhaps we should just do away with the fiction of sessions and focus on the “intelligence of crowds”, chance encounters, and networking.
  • I imagine law firms and departments now spend a pretty penny on conferences. Is there a way to create a collective rating system so that lawyers and department and firm staff could, in a neutral forum, rate conferences, speakers, venues, etc. Any entrepreneurs out there who can start this rating business?