How to produce a great legal event
Ari Kaplan speaks with Rob Ameerun, the founder of the Lexpo Conference in Amsterdam; Paula Edgar, the CEO of PGE and the president of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association; Silvia Hodges Silverstein, the founder of the Buying Legal Council; and Jimmy Vestbirk, the founder of Legal Geek, a startup community in London.
This Q&A has been condensed.
Ari Kaplan: Tell us about your background, organization, and the most recent legal event you organized.
Rob Ameerun: For the last five years, I have consulted with law firms in The Netherlands. I run the Legal IT Professionals website, publish Legal IT Today magazine, and produce Lexpo, a conference focused innovation for continental European law firms. The last one we organized was in May of 2017.
Paula Edgar: I am a speaker, consultant, and executive coach. I am also the president of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association. The most recent event that I organized was a fireside chat with Dick Parsons, the former CEO of Time Warner at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
Silvia Hodges Silverstein: I am the executive director of the legal procurement association, Buying Legal Council, the global trade association for those tasked with sourcing legal services and managing supplier relationships. I also am an adjunct Professor at Fordham Law School and Columbia Law School, where I teach law students about business and management. I have also authored books and articles on the purchasing of legal services. Our goal, through our events and conferences, recently held in London, Sydney, and New York, is to make legal procurement professionals more sophisticated buyers of legal services. We really seek a constructive, useful dialogue between the buyers and sellers of legal services.
Jimmy Vestbirk: I am the founder of Legal Geek. I ran a dating website for 10 years, and then I got interested in law from a client perspective. I started Legal Geek as my market research to create a legal startup. Then, it became a community with a really strong startup blend in everything we do. It’s been good for startups, bringing about positive change through technology and a full spectrum of the legal profession. Our last event was the Legal Geek conference in London, which had over 1,000 attendees from 20 different countries and showcased all of the coolest things that are happening in legal tech.
Ari Kaplan: What makes a great event?
Jimmy Vestbirk: For us, it’s about being fun and being different. There’s actually a wave of change happening now in the legal profession. I personally believe in directing as much of the conversation around innovation as possible. We do practical things like hackathons, as that’s kind of where the market is right now.
Rob Ameerun: The title of our event is Lexpo, the Legal Innovation Event. We focus on innovation, and I think that concentration is what makes it a great event, especially these days because there are so many new conferences popping up, especially in Europe—every country now has its own international legal tech or legal innovation conference—so It’s really difficult to stand apart from the rest. Focus on a specific target audience that you have in mind, and try to serve them with what they want to hear, what they want to know, and learn. As long as they go home happy and learn a lot, it’s a great event.
Silvia Hodges Silverstein: What’s really important for any event, whether it’s in London, Amsterdam, or anywhere else, is a good mix of veterans and fresh blood, so to speak. You need to have buyers and sellers, practitioners and academics. You also need the right audience involvement, so try to get people out of their comfort zone to participate. We do that through case studies, ask-and-answer sessions, and networking. The fun part is also really important. And finally, determine the right size, which can be a really large conference, but it can also be one that is really focused, where you don’t get lost in a sea of people. As long as people walk away saying: “Wow! That was worth my time. I learned something new, I met new people.” That is, for me, a great conference.
Paula Edgar: I’m a big fan of social media engagement around every event. I think event marketing is important before, during, and after. All of the events that I plan have a hashtag affiliated with them in order to encourage registration, but also to fuel engagement prior, during, and hopefully after the event. There is also always a visual and photo component. I highlight speakers using photos and social media so that people can not only know the content, but also see the faces of those who are going to be participating since we are very visual learners. I also like to make sure that there is some teaser content, and an app, if possible, so that there is one way to access all of the information. At the actual event, there are ways to engage people by utilizing color-coded name tags. If there are new attendees in the crowd, they’ll have one flag, or something that’s on their name tag, to encourage people who have been there before to engage with them specifically, knowing that they may not know the ropes and how to navigate the space.
Ari Kaplan: What would you differently or what lessons have you learned in producing events?
Silvia Hodges Silverstein: My big takeaway is stress less. When I put the first conference together, I couldn’t sleep for three or four weeks prior. If you pick the right people, topics, and involvement, it will work out.
Jimmy Vestbirk: We’re always trying to do things differently, and it’s hard. I think one of the things we can do better is to not always focus on BigLaw. There is so much happening in tech around disruption or change across the market. We just need to have a better spread. One thing, on a personal level, we have a “no tie” policy because it’s really hard to get lawyers to take their ties off.
Rob Ameerun: Well, you can put away your tie at our conference. I think we have a different target group as well. We never hire the same speakers and we never have the same themes or subjects because we want to really present our attendees with fresh content.
Paula Edgar: Use evaluations. If you have an app, you can use push notifications to help attendees evaluate after each session and then after the full conference. Also, distribute an evaluation immediately after the conference to secure timely feedback. Then, immediately start the planning for the next event.
Ari Kaplan: Do you have advice for those seeking to develop their own events?
Paula Edgar: My advice is to innovate always. Think about what’s new, and utilize your board of directors. Also, think about what might be coming down the pipeline so that you can have content that is always fresh, thoughtful, and responsive to the needs of your audience. In terms of minimizing the stress factor of actually planning, delegate. Make sure that you are not the one that is required to do everything. You should be the thought leader, who delegates and engages others around your initiative. And motivate people to attend.
Rob Ameerun: Focus on your target audience and don’t be a generalist. Do really good research. For example, picking a date for an event is actually quite difficult when you take into consideration local holidays. Also, pay attention to the variety in your speaker lineup. It’s very easy to end up with a lineup of white males, but there are so many good speakers from so many different backgrounds. I think it’s well worth investigating to have a really good balance.
Silvia Hodges Silverstein: We always have to be aware that there is competition for time. Everyone is busy, so every moment has to count. Once people start to play around on their phones, you have lost them. You really need to make sure that your event hits the spot and talks about the things that keep them up at night. As long as you have that and an exciting schedule, you will find success.
Jimmy Vestbirk: It’s really important to listen to attendees and develop programs around that. There are a lot of legal conferences in Europe. When I started, people encouraged me to speak to some of the established organizers of events. But if you do that, you’re just going to get the same old events again. Don’t be afraid to do things differently. Events are really competitive so building a small community is a good way to start, rather than going straight after a big event.
Listen to the complete interview at Reinventing Professionals
Ari Kaplan regularly interviews leaders in the legal industry and in the broader professional services community to share perspective, highlight transformative change, and introduce new technology at his blog and on iTunes.