Legal and industry conferences can provide great educational and networking opportunities for solo and small firm lawyers, particularly those just starting out. Sure, there are some conferences that are a complete waste of time, but in some fields, simply doing face time at conferences year after year is critical to keep business flowing. And in other practices, conferences may offer high-level, substantive training on new legal developments.
Of course, back in law school, you could take advantage of your student i.d. card to access almost any conference you wanted to attend. And if you ever worked for a firm, your employer willingly footed the bill for conference attendance.
But now, as a solo or small-firm lawyer, conferences are on your dime. And as many solos quickly learn, conferences can take a toll on your wallet….
For some practice areas, the cost of admission to many conferences and trainings can start at $500 and run to several thousand. And that doesn’t even count travel costs for an out of town event, not to mention the opportunity costs associated with being out of the office and losing a couple of days of billing.
True, you can find lower-cost events — $250 or less — sponsored by local or solo and small-firm bar associations. If you have a state-specific or even general practice, these conferences can be a great way to stay up-to-date and collect ethics CLE credits. But for lawyers with a more specialized or traditionally “big firm”-oriented practice area, or even those seeking to hone their skills further, many of the local conferences aren’t as useful.
Still, there are many cost-effective ways to gain admission to a legal or industry conference or access to the materials. Here are five suggestions:
1. Try to snag a speaking spot on a conference panel. Often, that’s a long shot if you’re not on the conference planning committee or a conference sponsor. But in most cases, a speaker’s spot entitles you to discounted or free conference admission and potentially even reimbursement for travel costs.
2. Ask about hardship rates or scholarships. Many state and industry bar conferences have special discounted pricing for lawyers who are unemployed or experiencing financial hardship. However, these programs aren’t widely advertised; instead, they’re only available on request. And while many lawyers may feel embarrassed or too proud to ask for a discount rate, if you can’t afford the event and believe that it will make a difference, then just ask for it. When your business turns around, you can pay it forward by sponsoring another lawyer in need.
3. Volunteer in exchange for admission. I’ve noticed that many technology conferences like TechCrunchDisrupt offer free entry in exchange for free labor. Legal conferences seem less inclined to do so — but still, many events do need additional support to register attendees and shepherd them from place to place, so it’s worth asking whether you can volunteer to help out. In addition to administrative tasks, you could offer to live-tweet different sessions, take photos and update the conference Facebook page, or promote the conference through your social media channels.
4. Ask for a media pass. Many legal and law technology conferences frequently grant bloggers media passes to attend in exchange for a couple of blog posts covering the event.
5. Barn-raising admission. If you’ve studied U.S. history, you may have come across the concept of barnraising — where members of the community pool their labor and resources to build a house or barn for a neighbor, continuing the cycle as needed. The same concept can be transferred to conference admissions. If you’re a solo, you could get together with two or three other colleagues with a common interest in a particular event and split the cost for one member of your group to attend. That member could take notes on each session and share conference materials upon return. Although you wouldn’t get the networking benefits, you would still get value from the substantive materials.
6. Check out pro bono trainings and meet-up groups. If even the less expensive local conferences are out of your range, consider free options – such as pro bono trainings or informal meet-up groups. For pro bono, many state bars and legal aid groups offer training programs for a small fee (you’ll have to commit to accept a case, but many people are never called). Taught by experienced practioners, pro bono training programs often cover topics that a lawyer might use in a profit-generating practice: foreclosure law, consumer law, bankruptcy law and public benefits. As for meet-ups, you can find groups for virtually any demographic and industry – from start-up technologists, artists or parents. You may not meet many other lawyers at meet-ups, but you have a chance to get to know potential clients, which is probably more productive from a business development standpoint.
With the rise of online CLE and programming and social media, lawyers theoretically never have to leave the office to obtain many of the benefits provided by conferences. Except for one: face-to-face interaction. Although conferences can be costly, the price you pay for never attending in-person events can be even greater.
Carolyn Elefant has been blogging about solo and small firm practice at MyShingle.com since 2002 and operated her firm, the Law Offices of Carolyn Elefant PLLC, even longer than that. She’s also authored a bunch of books on topics like starting a law practice, social media, and 21st century lawyer representation agreements (affiliate links). If you’re really that interested in learning more about Carolyn, just Google her. The Internet never lies, right? You can contact Carolyn by email at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @carolynelefant.