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September 01, 2021 Vol. 47, No. 1

A transitional moment in CLE: Bars develop new ideas, new skills, new partnerships

By Robert J. Derocher

By all measures, the Johnson County (Kan.) Bar Association was doing quite well in providing in-person CLE to its 1,300 members in 2019.

“We were meeting our financial goals and the number of CLEs every year. It wasn’t a broken system,” says the bar’s executive director, Tracey DeMarea. “But as soon as we were in [COVID-19] lockdown, I had to pivot, and we did. Successfully.”

A year after scrapping live events, DeMarea—who, pre-pandemic, had never used Zoom—led the creation and distribution of 18 virtual CLE meetings over five days for the bar’s first-ever remote bench-bar conference this past spring. “It was so well attended. It was awesome,” she says.

Despite technology and marketing challenges—and a bit of fear—early on, the bar has since recovered and now surpassed pre-pandemic levels for CLE income and attendance, DeMarea says. The virtual programming has helped her connect with members she hadn’t interacted with much previously—those who, as it turns out, prefer this format because it better fits into their lives and the way they want to learn.

“Because of this,” she notes, “we’re upgrading and installing advanced IT into the bar office, so our CLEs will be both in person and streaming live.”

While “Zoom fatigue” and the yen for in-person programming are real, so are the benefits that many are seeing with virtual programming. Among them: better attendance, more convenient and economical program offerings, greater collaboration among bars and other nonprofits, and increased networking and program opportunities outside of CLE. Although the shift to virtual CLE was less seamless for some bars, particularly those lacking equipment and technology skills, what began as an emergency measure has proven to be a solid strategy. DeMarea is not alone in saying the virtual format is a big part of the future she’s planning for CLE—regardless of what happens with COVID-19.

Cranking out programs

Like many small and medium-sized bars that rely on CLE and live events for significant revenue, the 1,700-member Westchester County (N.Y.) Bar Association felt immediate impacts from the pandemic-driven shutdown. The bar’s CLE and events director was furloughed and the position was later eliminated, forcing Executive Director Isabel Dichiara to shoulder much of the burden for developing remote programming.

Armed with a new Zoom account, Dichiara immersed herself in how-to YouTube videos and talked to nearby bar executives to develop her first virtual event—an online webinar—just three weeks after widespread shutdowns. Webinar topics at first centered on COVID-related education and law practice management, which soon rolled into online CLE and bar operations.

“We got our calendar up and running and just started cranking out more programs than we would have been able to do in person,” Dichiara says. “It’s crazy, but we could do two a day. We could host a committee meeting and a CLE simultaneously.”

In a typical pre-COVID year, the bar hosted about 45-50 CLE and networking events. By the end of 2020, the number of annual virtual events had swelled to 165, with membership growing by about 5 percent. 

“It was remarkable to see members that I would only see at the banquet or the golf outing starting to come to CLE,” Dichiara says, echoing DeMarea’s experience.

Learning together

Dichiara was also buoyed by partnering with community organizations, local affinity bars, nearby regional bars and the New York State Bar Association not only to grow CLE offerings, but also to work on related programming.

“It gave us an opportunity to be really collaborative, to everybody’s benefit. We were all stressed,” Dichiara says. “Those relationships would not have been there two years ago, and now they are. It’s odd to say these kinds of things have been positive, but they really have. I really do see that we have the ability to engage with more members in a different way, and it’s helped develop relationships.”

Bar collaboration was not limited by region. In addition to partnering with The Missouri Bar on two CLE programs, DeMarea drew on her National Association of Bar Executives colleagues for help in learning and understanding virtual operations. She recalls a meeting early in the pandemic that she and Sarah Coole, chief operating officer of the State Bar of Georgia, had with Brandon Vogel, the social media and web content manager for NYSBA.

“Brandon said, ‘Hey, log in here, I’ll send you a link.’ And suddenly, we saw each other on a screen and he talked us through how to set up Zoom meetings compared to Zoom webinars,” DeMarea says.

For NYSBA, helping members—and bar colleagues—maneuver through the technological challenges posed by COVID-19 was second nature.

“We value the importance of not only serving our membership but serving the profession, and our team knows that there's an open-door policy to other bar associations,” says President T. Andrew Brown. “If somebody calls us and says, ‘Hey, how do you do this?’ we're going to help them.”

NYSBA had extensive experience in remote meeting technology and with Zoom in particular prior to the pandemic, Brown says, enabling the bar to quickly pivot to the all-virtual CLE format, despite the typical small bumps along the way.

“By no means am I an IT person, but in the world of CLE, you become IT,” says Katherine Suchocki, the bar’s senior director of continuing education and law practice management. “Remotely, our staff was there, holding [members’] hands, walking them through the steps to make sure our programs were going off without a hitch.”

Technology investment pays dividends

Leadership and preparation were also key to success for the State Bar of Wisconsin, the largest CLE provider in the state, according to Theresa Elliott, the bar’s director of professional development. With 80 percent of the bar’s CLE offerings already virtual, Elliott and her staff were able to quickly test technologies and develop plans for maintaining a full offering of programs that saw no drop-off in revenue.

“One year later, what we learned is: This works,” Elliott says. “This works very well for us.”

An important investment the bar made, she says, was in the virtual event platform 6Connex, which bar staff and members found to be easy to use in creating more interactive online engagement that was “as close to live as possible.” Not only was the platform a boost to CLE programming, but it also proved useful for other virtual events, such as the bar’s annual solo and small firm conference.

“We’ve started to think about, how do we help our members get better connected to all of the products and services we have, not just CLE?” Elliott says.

Realizing the continued need to integrate the networking elements of “live” CLE and other programming into virtual platforms, the State Bar of Wisconsin recently signed on for another year of the 6Connex platform, with plans to delve even further into its interactive elements.

“They are very cutting edge in how to create that very dynamic interactive platform. It’s attractive,” Elliott explains. “There are a lot of features. You can customize the templates and make it feel like you’re actually at a conference, where you can talk, you can engage in polling, do gamification. There are all sorts of networking rooms and an exhibit hall for all our vendors, and we probably learned about a quarter of the capacity of that.”

Sustainable new revenue

“I was scared for us providers, that we weren’t going to be able to bring ourselves to the point where we can do this,” recalls Tara Phoenix, director of continuing legal education at the Philadelphia Bar Association. “If you build it, will they actually come?”

One of the most immediate challenges at the beginning of the pandemic was communication, Phoenix says. With most CLE and related programming previously being live, many members forgot about the virtual component—which is a requirement for CLE in Pennsylvania. That’s when the bar turned to email blasts, social media and word-of-mouth to plant reminders.

“We said, ‘We’re going to remind everyone we’re here. We’ve always been here. We’re your bar association,’” Phoenix recalls.  

The messaging worked. After an initial steep drop in CLE attendance and income, the bar has made steady progress and a return to profitability through numerous offerings that gathered more and more attendees.

And not only has the bar been successful in reaching more of its own members, she adds, it is also succeeding in providing CLE in partnership with other organizations with legal affiliations—a partnership that provides a new source of nondues revenue.

“We are the administrative CLE provider for those organizations. They pay us to administer their CLE programming,” Phoenix says. “They do registrations, we have the content and stream. Now we’re building another base. We’re always trying to make sure we sustain.”

‘The genie is out of the bottle’

For a long time, many in the bar world and elsewhere have been saying “the future is hybrid.” The next step may be to figure out exactly how to make that happen—and, like DeMarea and the Johnson County bar, to make the investments that will help bring it about so that everyone can learn in the format that suits them best.

“In-person learning is generational,” DeMarea says. “I think the younger, newer attorneys who do not have the time to get in the car, drive, sit somewhere for 50-55 minutes and then get back in their car and go home again, they value this. They need their CLEs, and now they’re just logging in and getting them.”

The State Bar of Wisconsin has had “heartfelt discussions” about generational differences and the important role for in-person programming in the future—but that doesn’t mean things will ever be quite the same, Elliott says.

“The genie is out of the bottle. It’s not going back in,” she explains. “We’ve just got so many more benefits from a learning event being held virtually. But we still have to figure out the networking and relationship pieces. The networking piece can’t go away.

“Is it connected to education? I don’t know. We’re having those discussions now. We’re at a transitional moment in learning, and we need to shift.”