Competing for CLE: What can you do that you haven’t done?

Volume 30 Number 3

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Every bar leader has had the same nightmare at least once, said Mark R. Weaver, clicking forward his PowerPoint slide to illustrate it: a room set up for a CLE presentation—with empty chairs as far as the eye could see. “Remember,” he told members of the National Association of Bar Executives at the group’s Annual Meeting, “other groups want to take your business.”

Weaver, a lawyer, law professor, and marketing consultant from Columbus, Ohio, then listed the hungry CLE presenters who compete for your CLE clients: other general focus bar associations; what he dubbed “industry” bars for practice specializations; increasing numbers of for-profit companies; large firms; and government agencies. With so many competitors, Weaver warned, “it’s not a fair fight.” And the biggest advantage several of those competitors share is that attorneys’ loyalty to their local bars’ programs often ends when it comes to choosing CLE programs.

Having designed and moderated many focus groups on this topic, Weaver has developed a three-step outline of steps bar associations can take to beef up their attendance. The first, and also the most labor intensive, necessity is the one we all know from high school: Do your homework. Find out what choices the lawyers in your community are making. To do this, he emphasized, “Talk to your members—and your nonmembers. Find out why the nonmembers go where they do.” Talk informally with colleagues, run a survey, or host your own focus groups; if you don’t know how, Weaver advised, hire a moderator, or check out any of a number of good books on the subject.

Here are some conclusions Weaver’s research has revealed about the factors lawyers do and don’t consider when deciding how to spend their CLE dollars and time: | Topic. The majority of participants named this their foremost consideration. In addition, lawyers will not choose outside their practice areas unless they’re completely out of options and facing deadlines. Other factors of note were how easily the program fit within the lawyers’ schedules, reputation of the instructors, and number of credit hours. | Format. “Personal preference drives the decision with regard to the program’s length, location, or method of delivery,” Weaver said. The one exception might be solo or small firm lawyers, many of whom choose presentations spread out over two or three days “because this lets them maximize their opportunities for networking.” | Deadlines. Some priorities do change as the deadline for submitting CLE credits approaches, Weaver admitted. | Cost. Interestingly, most participants said cost “was not a major factor”—possibly because many large firms pay for CLE. Again, solos or small firm lawyers might be more likely to consider price a factor. | Marketing. All the lawyers agreed that the overall amount of CLE advertising they receive is “overwhelming.” Their preference for snail mail or e-mail delivery of notices did not run along age, gender, or practice lines. | Loyalty. Disappointingly, lawyers’ own bar memberships count for very little in making CLE choices, but this is not true for those most involved with bar activities.

Step 2 of Weaver’s suggestions was to get bar leaders involved in marketing CLE programs. One suggestion was to have board members make direct contact, in person or via phone, with other top practitioners in the area to talk about upcoming CLE and encourage their participation. Another way to involve already influential members in marketing efforts, which Weaver noted several times throughout his presentation, involves having them do “walkthroughs” as political candidates do, shaking hands or slapping backs while visiting other firms or legal gatherings.

Developing your brand

Weaver’s final step was brainstorming—“What can you do that you haven’t done before?” Because everyone likes something for nothing, however small, consider arranging with local businesses for coupons for free services—such as a free Starbucks fix or a day’s free parking at the downtown mall. If you believe you offer top-notch accommodations for your CLEs, review every aspect to check what could be improved: not free drinks but free cold drinks, not just a room with heat in winter but a room set to a comfortable temperature for all attendees.

Ultimately, he said, any organization’s primary goal is to build a brand. Figure out the image you hold within the community—what you’re known for. Do your CLEs always feature the hot presenters? Are glitzy perks—sylvan setting, inventive menus, goodie bags—always a priority? Or are you always accessible and reliable—the unglamorous tortoise who nevertheless wins the race? Whatever it is, find a way to incorporate the image you’ve already got going for you into all your marketing efforts, and build on it. If you can’t come up with a way to visualize it, hire a design firm to do it justice.

The Ohio State Bar Association recently took the “do something different” adage to heart and for its summer program offered “CLE Survivor”—a weekend takeoff on the reality show, held at a popular state park and offering activities for the whole family. All of the promotional material—including a video takeoff on the TV series that came in at under $500!—featured surf pounding onshore while palm trees wafted in the background; the video’s voiceover, in classic cheesy announcer mode, raved about the 20 practice tips small firm lawyers would learn—and could use to survive.

The Survivor tie-in rewarded the bar’s innovative approach, and the weekend was a social and professional success. CLE committee members are now spending their nights glued to Nickelodeon reruns in search of the next theme. Can The B(a)rady Bunch be far behind?

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