How to Produce a Successful CLE Seminar
By Mason Wilson
Mason Wilson is an Associate Editor of The Affiliate and an Associate in the Memphis, Tennessee, office of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC.
Most well-regarded CLE seminars share a number of characteristics—good organization, timely topics, dynamic speakers, good bang for the buck, and so forth. On the other hand, there’s a laundry list of ingredients that make for a bad seminar—poor planning and publicity, an inconvenient location, a tired topic, and so on. Here are a few tips you can use to ensure that your next CLE seminar is a resounding success.
And don’t forget to contact your state bar about the CLE accreditation process in your state. See Jodi L. Cramer, How to Put on a CLE: Getting Your CLE Accredited , The Affiliate (Mar./Apr. 2006), at 4.
Do Your Research
Many local, state, and national bar organizations have an annual slate of CLE seminars that are produced by the organization’s staff or by committees of its members. Many of these seminars recur from year to year because they have proven to be successful. Talk to past and present staff members or CLE committee chairs to find out what has worked in the past and what hasn’t. What topics garnered the most interest? What location seems to work best for busy lawyers who may be spread out over a large city or county? The answers to these and similar questions should give you a good starting point from which you can begin planning your seminar.
Assess the Legal Community’s Needs
Consider the needs of your legal community when evaluating seminar options. If your local bar or legal services organization enlists volunteers to provide pro bono representation for indigents, perhaps a seminar to educate lawyers on the basics of landlord-tenant laws or the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act is in order. Maybe your city or region has been hit hard by the economic crisis and demand for labor and employment advice or bankruptcy and foreclosure counseling has surged. If that’s the case, many lawyers are likely looking for refresher courses in those fields. Take a hard look at what type of seminar can fulfill a need or fill a gap in your community.
Select a Relevant and Timely Topic
Choose your topic wisely. It can have a significant influence on attendance, venue, and fundraising. For example, an annual update on a specific area of the law can be useful for practitioners in the chosen field, but it may not have wide-ranging appeal that will generate significant buzz or even enough money to cover costs. Look for something fresh. Trial practice seminars are a dime a dozen these days, but seminars focused on the rules and regulations that have been or are expected to be promulgated under the new administration are few and far between. Be creative and offer a topic that hasn’t been presented before. You’ll be surprised at how many lawyers will sign up to listen to a philosopher or martial arts expert explain how to apply the principles of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War to the practice of law.
Solicit Sponsors and Co-Producers
This tip is particularly useful if you’re operating under a tight budget. Many bar committees, law firms, and even vendors are willing to pitch in and sponsor or help produce CLE seminars that are related to their mission or the services they provide. If you’re putting on a trial practice seminar for new lawyers, ask your bar’s litigation section if they would be willing to help. If your seminar is about electronic discovery, contact a third-party vendor that offers e-discovery assistance and support. And don’t forget grants and other sources of funding for legal education programs like the ABA YLD’s subgrant program. Tap into these resources—additional funds are useful for advertising and materials.
Enlist a Knowledgeable Speaker or Panel
Don’t shortchange your audience. Get the guru. Every legal community has its stars and many of them are more than willing to share their knowledge and expertise, particularly with young lawyers. These lawyers are frequently called on to speak because of their unique experiences and dynamic personalities. You know who they are. They’re usually good speakers and provide for an entertaining morning or afternoon. Their name recognition and reputation alone are worth their weight in gold when it comes to drawing attendees. Whether they just share their war stories, talk substantive law, or even discuss the literature that has influenced their lives and legal careers, the “legal lions” of your bar won’t disappoint.
Avoid Conflicts
This one should be self-explanatory, but with the great volume of competing seminars, bar functions, and other distractions, it’s worth your while to make sure that your selected date and time don’t conflict with any other big events in the area. Your best bet for good attendance is to try and schedule the seminar on a date when there is little or no competition at all. Know when your local bar is having its annual “summer school” or when a large legal convention is in town and plan accordingly. Avoid scheduling your seminar when a large number of lawyers will be occupied elsewhere. The end of the bar year is often viewed as a good time to put on a seminar to accommodate lawyers looking to meet their annual CLE requirements, but this usually creates a glut of programs that will sap your attendee list.
Offer Free Food
Don’t laugh. A “free” breakfast or lunch (included only with the full seminar fee, of course) will draw lawyers to your seminar like chicken liver bait draws mudcats. ‘Nuff said.
Publicize Your Seminar
Marketing makes a difference. If you build it up, they will come. Advertise your seminar in your bar’s newsletter or magazine. If your legal community has an attorney listserv, put up a notice. Post signs in the law school lounge or on court bulletin boards. Send out flyers. Make sandwich boards for volunteers to wear to court on the day of the seminar. Just kidding on that last one. Mostly. The point is that you should use all means at your disposal to get the word out and make sure your target audience is aware of your seminar. And to pique their interest, be sure to use words like “dy-no-mite,” “stupendous,” and “flabbergastastic” to describe your seminar. Kidding again. But you get the point.
Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
Can the attendees find the seminar room easily? If not, make signs. Is the room too hot or too cold? Adjust accordingly. Got enough chairs? Where are the bathrooms? It’s the little things that count. A good seminar can be quickly ruined if everyone is uncomfortable or if people are constantly arriving late because they couldn’t find the right room. Scope out your location a couple of days beforehand and think about these things to be well-prepared on the day of the seminar.
Follow Up and Solicit Feedback
So you used all the tips set forth above and your seminar was well-attended, the speaker was great, and all the lawyer frowns were turned upside down. Now what? If you plan on producing a seminar on a recurring basis, your work’s not done. Give the attendees an evaluation form to fill out or, better yet, pull a few of them aside after the seminar and ask them what they liked about the program and what they didn’t. Ask them for suggestions to improve the seminar or for other topic ideas. Get the feedback you need to make the CLE experience you offer an enjoyable and informative one.
Most importantly, have fun. When lawyers hear “CLE,” many times they’re more likely to groan than grin. With the proper approach and adequate preparation, however, you can change that attitude.