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July 13, 2010

Ten (New) Truths of CLE

To many lawyers, their state-mandated continuing legal education (CLE) is a necessary chore to be completed, rather than an anticipated opportunity to hone their skills in an exciting and stimulating environment.  Part of the reason lawyers don’t love CLE more is that the traditional panel-centric format has -- to put it nicely -- grown stale.  Even if listening to three speakers reading their slides worked once, it doesn’t work now.  The audience has changed -- and the industry must change with it.

In this article, I offer ten observations, tips and even some advice to those in the CLE business.  Though these aren’t my talking points, they mirror much of what I’m going to be speaking about at the Association for Continuing Legal Education (ACLEA) in my talk “The Innovative CLE: Ten Bold Proposals for Change” later this month in New York City.
1.  If you ask your attendees what they’re buying from you and they answer “CLE credit,” you’ve got a terrible problem.  Stop selling credit, and instead sell understanding, collaboration and community.  Give lawyers what they need to keep their clients happy -- not just what they need to keep their license.

2.  Your audience has far less attention to pay than they once did.  Recognize that your events must change because your attendees already have.  And never confuse your audience’s attendance for their attention:  while you only have to earn their attendance once, you’ve got to earn their attention all event long.

3.  Your audience’s ability to pay attention at your event is inversely proportional to their ability to pay attention to the outside world.  There’s a very fine line between supporting their technology and giving them yet another way to check their fantasy football standings.

4.  Lawyers love online CLE -- not because it improves upon the in-person experience, but because it duplicates it.  If lawyers are going to passively consume information from a speaker or panelist, they might as well do it from their desk as they get some “real” work done.  If you want lawyers to attend your programs, offer them something they can’t get online, like the ability to work with (and learn from) the other attendees in the room.

5.  Convincing lawyers to attend your programs begins with answering their one simple question: “How will this make me better at what I do?”  Focus less on the specific things they’ll learn, and more upon how their practice will improve the moment they leave your event.

6.  People complain loudest about the price of things they don’t want to buy.  If your customers say your prices are too high, focus first on giving them more value -- and if you must cut the price, don’t be afraid to give them less.  Also, never forget that the price of your event matters less to attendees than their cost to attend it. 

7.  Your attendees will get far more “networking” done when they are thinking together than when they are drinking together.

8.  Imagine a second-grade class room where the teacher never makes time to answer the students’ questions.  Asking 300 people, with two minutes left before the next session starts, “Are there any questions?” is a lot like that.

9.  You aren’t serving lawyers well if you refuse to teach them to attract great clients and run their businesses better.  It is a hell of a lot easier to be a competent, ethical attorney when you’re not worried about keeping your lights on and your family fed.

10.  Just because your audiences aren’t asking for a better experience doesn’t mean they don’t deserve one.  Henry Ford once said, “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”  Think about ways to build a better CLE.  Experiment, and try new and novel things.  Your audience is far more likely to forgive your ambitiousness as they are to tolerate your ambivalence.



Comments

Every suggestion is excellent, and it applies to CLE presenters, and anyone else who needs to get and keep the attention of an audience. Teachers who remain tied to yellowing notes on long legal pads should take note.

Great post and provocative as always, Matt.

Increasingly, in these less than ideal economic times, more entrepreneurs, companies, consultants and presenters - folks who count on attendance at their events, webcasts, etc, are exploring how offering CLE credit for their activities can increase participation. That's often the first question attendees ask and that's okay -- then wow 'em with your fabulous stuff.

Totally agree with you about the need for new and innovative delivery and content at CLE events. If, as I just noted, CLE credit is relevant, even critical to attorney participation, then the states CLE governing bodies (usually, the supreme courts) need to be challenged to promulgate new rules or revise existing ones to relflect an ever changing world and to enable the kind of innovation you mention. But, oh boy, that's a whole other affair :-)

For several years now my CLE speaking has been almost exclusively in the form of semi-scripted panel discussions -- think "Inside the Actor's Studio" with multiple panelists whose conversation moves from topic to topic, along with real-time audience Q&A.

This format is super-easy for the panelists to prepare for, and it's gotten stellar audience-approval ratings at, e.g., the Association of Corporate Counsel annual meeting.

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