Vol. 39, No. 4

Smart boards: A smart choice for your bar?

by Dan Kittay

Interactive whiteboards are helping some bar associations handle planning and presentations for internal projects, as well as conduct meetings and training sessions.

The D.C. Bar has seven smart boards that it uses for “collaborative design” meetings, says Ranabir Dey, the bar’s director of enterprise solutions. For example, designing network infrastructure is made easier by use of the boards, Dey says.

A smart board—or SMART Board, depending on the source—is an interactive whiteboard that allows users to control what is on a connected computer by using fingers or a stylus to act as a mouse. The original SMART Board was developed by SMART Technologies in 1991, but there are other vendors today, and the term smart board, or smartboard, has become a generic name for the devices.

The D.C. Bar’s smart boards are generally connected to a desktop computer running Windows, although users can also connect a laptop. Once the computer is connected and running, users can take advantage of the whiteboard features built into the boards to help them with presentations. In the case of network design, for example, they can draw lines connecting different computers, and then change the connections to try different configurations.

The boards cost $18,000 each, Dey says. They are generally used for internal purposes, but the bar may consider making them available to members at some point.

Many different uses

At the Maryland State Bar Association, a search for videoconferencing equipment led to the purchase of a full smart board system. After the bar had settled on a conferencing system, a vendor proposed some virtual meeting software that the bar could use on the system. The demo for the software was running on an InFocus Mondopad smart board, and that sparked the idea to buy a Mondopad instead, says Lawrence Hicks, director of information technology.

“Not only can we use it for videoconferencing, but we can use it for a whole lot of other things too,” Hicks says. “It's got whiteboarding, and you can do PowerPoint presentations. Basically, it’s a 70-inch tablet with a PC in it.” The MSBA bought two of the $10,000 units, one for each end of its conference room.

“They’re fabulous,” says Pat Yevics, director of law office management assistance. The boards are used mainly by section councils and committees to conduct meetings, she adds, noting that she also uses them for webinars. Yevics is hopeful that more groups within the bar will take advantage of the technology. “What’s important is that it doesn’t take a lot of training to get members comfortable in using it,” she says.

One feature Hicks enjoys is that he can use either of the Mondopads to control the other one. In a crowded conference room, the presenter can put a presentation onto both screens and walk to either one to advance slides, draw on the screen, or use any of the other features. Whatever is put on one will then be put on the other. People at either end of the room get a full view of what’s on the screen.

Both Hicks and the D.C. Bar’s Dey said they use GoToMeeting for meetings where people are connecting remotely to the presentation that’s on the smart board. For Dey, it was a matter of economics. The software that his smart board offers for remote connection costs $2,000 per smart board, while GoToMeeting is much less expensive. Software features are comparable, for his purposes.

A similar idea

While not yet in the full-fledged smart board world, the ABA’s Washington, D.C., office makes good use of display screens in its new facility, says Ken Goldsmith, legislative counsel and director for state legislation.

A big use is for training people who are coming to Washington to talk to lawmakers on ABA Day in Washington and other occasions. The screens are particularly helpful for explaining talking points about legislation. “It’s one thing to have a talking head saying, ‘Here are three points you should hit,’” Goldsmith says. “It’s another thing to take out that document, which can be dense at times, and go through it line by line.”

Being able to highlight key phrases, give examples that advocates can cite, and show infographics to the advocates all makes for a better understanding of the issues. This allows the advocates to make a clearer presentation to the lawmakers, he says.

The ABA uses GoToMeeting to have remote conferences where an invited lobbyist discusses an issue with ABA state captains from around the country, while showing charts and other information that help reinforce the message. “The visual component is powerful and helpful,” Goldsmith notes.

Lots of interest, few purchases

There appears to be a lot of interest among other bars in adopting smart board technology, but that interest has not led to many purchases of the products to date. A recent post on the Listserv for the National Association of Bar Executives Communications Section asked for experiences from bars that had bought smart boards, about how they decided on which ones to buy, features to look for, and other guidance. A number of staff members from other bars chimed in that they would also like the information.

A follow-up with those bars seeking information showed that none had gone on to purchase smart boards, and they did not have any immediate plans to do so.

“After looking into it, we decided not to buy them,” says Greg Martin, deputy executive director of the Colorado Bar Association. “Our analysis of our meetings, and how our members work, showed that we didn’t think our members would use them that much.”

When working on drafting of reports, for example, most groups prefer to use paper copies, which they can revise and send out for comments, Martin says. Internal staff meetings tend to be in small groups, where the smart board features aren’t needed. The bar also does not do a lot of videoconferencing. While there are a lot of meetings with telephone conference calls, most of them don’t involve a presentation where a video presence is needed, he says.

After deciding not to buy smart boards, the bar ended up buying some video screens that can be used to connect to a computer, if needed.

Deciding factors

That decision fits with advice that Hicks and Dey offered to bars considering whether to buy smart boards. “They should look at their business process of what they are trying to accomplish,” Dey says. “If there are lots of design types of discussions, then a smart board can be helpful. If they are mainly interested in showing PowerPoint presentations, then a 72-inch TV will work well.”

Yevics says that smart boards are probably most useful for state bars. “It’s hard to get members from throughout the state” to attend events or meetings at the bar headquarters, she explains. “Local bars tend to be centrally located, so it’s not as hard to get to bar headquarters.”