Vol. 30, No. 6

The portable bar association: Podcasts help members stay connected

by Dan Kittay

While you probably shouldn’t expect to see commercials with business-attire-clad attorneys dancing with white earbud cords dangling from their ears anytime soon, a growing number of lawyers are getting CLE and other information from podcasts, digital files that can be downloaded and played on an iPod or similar device.

Bar associations, either on their own or in conjunction with providers of online CLE, are starting to offer their members the option of taking their CLE and other programming with them, to listen to while at the gym, traveling, or wherever else they have free time.

“We’ve geared this to younger members, those who have a good sensitivity to technology, who see the opportunities but may not be able to come to bar association events,” says Ken Shear, executive director of the Philadelphia Bar Association. “Why don’t we try to take the bar association directly to them?”

The PBA recently began offering members podcasts of original material created just for this purpose, Shear says; the content is available at www.philadelphiabar.org/page/Podcast. In addition to legal-oriented subject areas such as “law practice management” and “legislative update,” the site also offers “hot interviews with very cool people” and “career corner.” The interview section features such diverse figures as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles football team, and the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“We’re approaching our members as whole human beings. We’re always thinking out loud when we’re planning this, ‘Who would be interesting?’ ” Shear says.

There is also a podcast section regarding PBA membership benefits, which allows members or prospective members to hear short explanations of items such as liability insurance or health insurance.

In deciding to offer podcasts, the PBA had to consider a number of questions regarding how they could help attract and/or retain members. The bar does not charge for any of the podcasts, and they are open to anyone who visits the site.

In addition to wondering how something that is freely available could be an inducement to join the PBA, Shear says, the bar also faced the questions, “ ‘If you’re podcasting your committee meetings, what are you doing with regard to encouraging people to come to your meetings? Doesn’t this put a damper on that?’ ”

In answer, he recounts an article he read about a minister who offered his sermons as podcasts, and was asked whether that would cut down on attendance at the church. The minister said that if the sermons were good, they would attract people to come to hear future ones.

“If you’re doing something that’s interesting, people will retain their membership or join. They’ll see it as a member benefit. If it’s free to the world, then other people can see what we’re doing,” Shear says. To take advantage of member benefits, lawyers still need to join the association, he notes.

The bar hosts the podcasts on its own servers. The investment in the new hardware was part of a “complete rebuild” of the Web site. Shear did not specify how much the project cost, but says it was “a lot of money.” The podcasts themselves are inexpensive to produce.

Podcasting CLE

The Los Angeles County Bar Association also offers podcasts, but only of its CLE programming (www.legalspan.com/lacba/cletogo.asp?UGUID=). The bar has been working with Legalspan, a provider of online streaming CLE programming that has recently begun to offer podcasts of its streamed seminars.

“You don’t have to sit in your office to take advantage of it,” says Joanne Williamson, director of Internet services at the LACBA.

When Legalspan decided to offer podcasts, the LACBA had the company convert its entire catalog to the newer format, to be able to give members another way to partake in the bar’s CLE programming, Williamson says. There is minimal work on the part of the bar, as Legalspan handles the conversion of the tapes to both streaming and podcast formats. The bar charges members the same for both formats, $25 per credit hour.

The service went live on the LACBA Web site at the beginning of January, and from that time to mid-April, the bar had sold 200 streaming programs and 88 podcasts, Williamson says.

Legalspan got the idea to offer podcasts when company President Kevin Hodges took an online class about a year and a half ago. “I found that it was very hard for me to sit down and go through the class at my computer,” he says. “I was out of the office a lot, and didn’t have a lot of time to just sit in front of my computer.”

Hodges got the audio files of the class and converted them to a format he could use on his portable media player and listened to them while driving around. He found that he was able to listen and learn much more easily than while “parked” in front of his computer.

Hodges figured that if he found the portable solution more useful, lawyers who listened to CLE might, as well, so Legalspan decided to offer its affiliate bars the option to present their programming in podcast format.

Technologically speaking, it is a fairly simple matter to take the audio portion of a taped program and convert it to a format that most audio players can use, but some formats are not yet universal. As of press time, while people using Windows and an iPod can load the Legalspan podcast onto their player, those using a Macintosh can listen to the podcast on their computer but cannot transfer it to their iPod. The company hopes to have the problem solved soon by offering an additional format.

To try to ensure that lawyers who download the seminars actually listen to them, the company inserts a random selection of letter codes into the podcast, and the user is required to go back to the Web site and enter the codes before getting a certificate of completion, Hodges says.

In addition to the LACBA, associations such as the State Bar of Arizona and the North Carolina Bar Association have signed on to offer their catalogs in podcast format, Hodges notes. Legalspan calls its product CLEtoGo, but some bars have modified the title for their own offerings. Since the beginning of the year, a total of 600 programs have been downloaded from all the associations combined. There is currently no way to know whether those who download are new customers, or people who would have streamed the seminars before, Hodges says.

Coordinating with online articles

North of the border, the Canadian Bar Association (www.cba.org/cba/practicelink/podcasts/) offers five-minute podcasts as part of its PracticeLink site, says Mark Kuiack, PracticeLink Web producer. The podcasts focus on specific topics and are often produced to coordinate with a substantive article that will appear on the site, Kuiack says. Topics of the articles are often generated from member requests.

The CBA uses a company called eLawMarketing to create the podcasts. Kuiack writes a script and produces a PowerPoint presentation that illustrates the podcast on the CBA Web site, and sends them to eLawMarketing. The company uses professional voice talent for most podcasts, but on one occasion it used the article’s author. The cost for CBA is “in the hundreds of dollars” for each podcast, Kuiack says.

The podcasts are open to any site visitor for a few months, and then become part of the site’s member-only area. In the future, Kuiack hopes to produce at least one per month.

—By Dan Kittay

 

HOW DO WE DO THAT?

So you’ve got something to say that your members will want to hear, and you’re ready to make your own podcasts. Now what?

As noted, companies such as Legalspan and eLawMarketing can do it for you. That makes it easier, but there is the cost of sharing of revenue involved. Or you can do it on your own.

If you are not planning to tie your podcasts into the e-commerce section of your Web site, creating and posting the files is as simple as recording your program, converting it to a compatible format, creating a file that describes it, and uploading it to a Web server.

Your recorder should have the ability to create digital files that can be transferred to your computer. If you really want to go bare bones, you can plug a USB microphone into your computer and use free or low-cost software to record directly.

Once you have the recording in your computer, you’ll need to be sure it’s in a format that’s compatible with media players. MP3 is the most common and is the only one likely to play in all iPods, as well as other brands of players. There is free, open-source software for recording and editing podcasts. Audacity (www.audacity.

sourceforge.net/) runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux.

The next step is to create an RSS file that describes the podcast. This is the same technology that many sites are now using to make members aware of association news. Examples of how to format the RSS file, as well as other useful instructions, can be found at www.podcastingnews.com/articles/How-to-Podcast.html.

You then post your MP3 file and RSS file to your Web site, and let your members know they exist. Then sit back and let the accolades roll in.

If you’re feeling particularly cutting-edge, you can experiment with vodcasts, which are video podcasts. These files can be played on video-enabled iPods and other players and computers. In general, it’s a matter of using a different conversion format, and then posting the files to your Web site. For more information, check out www.playlistmag.com/features/

2005/07/howtovodcast/index.php?lsrc=mwtoprss.