Vol. 45, No. 2

Information, connection, and fun: Bars help solo, small-firm lawyers meet and learn together

By Marilyn Cavicchia

No doubt, being a solo or small-firm lawyer can be a bit lonely. Some bars have found that their solo and small-firm members crave not only practice management assistance or CLE credits, but also a chance to meet in person—and maybe even have some fun.

Whether brand new, newly revamped, or longstanding, here’s a look at the latest from a few bars’ solo and small-firm conferences. Also, a recent website redesign helps solo and small-firm lawyers easily navigate and access the resources they use the most.

CBA-CLE offers Colorado solos a buzzworthy first

When he talks about the Colorado Bar Association’s first-ever Solo-Small Firm Institute, one word that Vince O’Brien, executive director of CBA-CLE, uses more than once is “fun.”

And no wonder: Held in June 2019 at Cheyenne Mountain Resort, the institute—which also offered 15 general CLE credits and 4.2 ethics credits—had everything from axe throwing to a silent disco. Besides the creative social events, the institute featured a mix of plenary sessions, breakout sessions, and one-on-one workshops.

But perhaps the most fun was the chance for solo lawyers from other parts of the state to connect with each other and with lawyers from metro Denver—without having to go into the city. Solo and small-firm members had been very vocal about missing this type of interaction since a previous solo conference was discontinued about 15 years ago and the bar's annual meeting folded about 18 years ago. 

“Often on our Listserv, we see requests for recommended attorneys and attorney referrals outside of the metro area,” O’Brien says. “People might know 10 family law attorneys that they would recommend in Denver, but not know anyone practicing in Grand Junction.”

The CBA’s board of governors held its meeting at the institute, which Heather Folker, the bar's director of communications and marketing, says helped show how much the bar values its solo and small-firm members, who make up between 50 and 65 percent of the total membership. Many board members are solo and small-firm practitioners, Folker notes; O’Brien adds that some of them attended the full conference rather than just their meeting.

Along with CBA-CLE (the nonprofit educational arm of the CBA and the Denver Bar Association), the El Paso County (Colo.) Bar Association helped plan and promote the event. For the 2020 institute, to be held at that same resort, the planning committee includes representatives from the El Paso bar, the CBA Solo Small Firm Practice Section, Women Owned Law Firms (WOLF), and 2019 attendees who were especially “involved, perceptive, and enthusiastic,” O’Brien says.

Including members of WOLF, O’Brien notes that a significant number of women lawyers found the institute’s curriculum and social opportunities valuable, and that they are offering a fresh perspective that is helping to shape next year’s event.

“In terms of attendance, having 150 attendees at a first-year CLE conference was a great measure of success,” O’Brien says, adding, “The conference really created ‘a buzz’ in the solo-small and greater CBA community, and we have heard from many people who don’t want to miss it in 2020.”

Oregon State Bar refreshes its conference to meet members’ needs

As appealing as a resort location is, some bars find that their solo and small-firm lawyers consider it too difficult to leave their practice for this type of conference. The Oregon State Bar is one example: After two years of being held in a “destination” setting, the bar’s Solo and Small Firm Conference (which is cosponsored by the Solo and Small Firm Section) took a year off to regroup. When it returned, in September 2019, it was planned for a hotel that was closer to Portland.

“It's expensive to go to a destination resort, even though we had very competitive guest room rates,” explains Karen Lee, the bar’s director of CLE seminars. “If you're coming from the Portland metro area, it's about three hours to get there, so you're looking at accommodation expenses and time away from the office.”

Lee notes, too, that just because they’re all solo and small-firm practitioners doesn’t mean that the potential conference attendees have the same priorities or work situations—and younger lawyers who went straight from law school into their own practice might find it especially difficult to take time away.

Because of unforeseen circumstances—a construction delay that led to a cancellation by the hotel—the 2019 conference ended up being held at the bar center. Lee says that one advantage of the change in plans was that because the bar center’s meeting rooms are fully equipped, the conference was webcast. This is not typical for Oregon State Bar events of this type, Lee adds.

Speaking of technology, the planning committee for this year’s conference made an unusual decision with the theme: Whereas the conventional wisdom is that solo and small-firm lawyers are in particular need of assistance with law practice management and other forms of tech knowledge, the feedback from previous attendees was that they were “teched out” and wanted to hear about something different. So, while it did still include technology, the theme for this year’s conference was Success Beyond Tech. Other topics that were covered included tax matters, successful writing, and rainmaking.

Though the sudden change in venue was a challenge, Lee notes that the event did break even and that attendees seemed to appreciate the focus on relationship building and other aspects of business development besides technology.

The Missouri Bar maintains its model but keeps pace with changes

Often cited as a model by those planning solo conferences at other bars is The Missouri Bar Solo & Small Firm Conference, first held in 1996. Lucas Boling, The Missouri Bar's director of membership services and law practice management, notes that the bar freely shares information about its conference through ACLEA (a network for CLE professionals) and also by hosting representatives from another state bar who were looking for ideas. 

As in Colorado, the Missouri conference uses a model that encourages members to bring their families and enjoy a vacation (while also earning all of their mandatory CLE credits for the year). Except for three years in Branson, the conference has always been held at Lake of the Ozarks, a resort location that allows for signature events such as a luau on the shore and a sunset cruise. Over the years, other models and locations (such as a more straightforward conference at a metropolitan site) have been considered, Boling says, but ultimately, the original model prevails. 

"Feedback from attendees, both from surveys and conversations attendees have with planning committee members, confirms that many find value in getting away from the office for a few days to learn, recharge, relax, and reconnect with colleagues from across the state in a central Missouri location," he explains.

While the basic formula of learning and fun has remained the same, the bar does make incremental changes each year to keep the conference fresh. For example, as attendance at a formal dinner and dance dropped off, other events have been added, such as team trivia, karaoke, and free on-site bowling and arcade games (which Boling says are a particular hit with children). In terms of marketing, the conference has moved away from the idea of annual themes and now uses a consistent tagline: "CELEBRATE. COLLABORATE. CONNECT." New in 2019 was that the Starting a Practice Boot Camp track was redesigned in collaboration with law school faculty, to ensure that it met the needs of the 57 law students who attended.

Boling says the conference is a success by a number of different measures: For example, it has always been self-supporting, attendance has grown from 250 in 1996 to 700 in 2019, evaluations remain strongly favorable, and robust sponsor and exhibitor support has kept the registration fee low. However, Boling says his bar and others should never become complacent; there are always ways to improve even a very strong solo and small conference.

"The practice of law is evolving, and there is increasing competition for members’ time and investment in professional development," he says. "A successful solo and small firm conference must keep pace with those changes."

Illinois State Bar Association redesign eases web use for solos, others

The Illinois State Bar Association has a solo and small firm conference, too, but a more recent development—and one that has garnered a lot of attention—is its recent website redesign. A primary goal for the first major redesign since 2012 was to reduce clutter on the home page, says Douglas Knapp, the bar’s director of electronic communications.

“We have an area at the top of the page that focuses on those things most members come to site for, or things that have strategic value for us to promote,” Knapp notes. “Almost all of the items in that section are the items that are especially useful for solo and small firm lawyers.”

Two areas that are frequently visited by solo and small-firm lawyers are ISBA Central, a third-party site that hosts discussion groups for members; and Practice HQ, a microsite focused exclusively on solo and small-firm practices at every point from starting a firm to winding one down. The redesign has made it easier for users to navigate between these areas and the bar’s website.

Because usability was a key focus of this redesign, Knapp says, the bar brought in usability consultant Sage Research & Design. Along with interviews, a survey, and an expert review, the research involved two types of studies:

  • A card sort study, where all the menu items were on virtual cards and members were asked to group them logically and label the groups. During the first of a few rounds, Knapp says, the consulting firm observed as members talked through why they were sorting the cards the way they did.
  • A treejack study, in which members were presented with a simplified text version of the site structure without the influence of visual design. They were then asked to perform a task like “find free CLE” or “purchase a book,” and the software recorded how easily they found what they needed.

Though the redesign benefits all ISBA members, not just those in solo and small firms, Knapp says that those members and their needs were considered a high priority.

“A little more than half of our members are solo and small-firm attorneys, so they are our bread and butter,” he notes. “For this reason, the ISBA focuses on helping lawyers practice more effectively and efficiently.”