A few months ago, I wondered if it even makes sense to go to conferences any more. I understood the appeal, at least historically. You can grow your network, meet new friends, and learn from all the sessions. There are probably some pretty good reasons why people shell out hundreds or even thousands of dollars to attend — if only to get out of work without using your vacation days.
But then the pandemic happened. Over the past two years, I’ve grown my network through conversations on LinkedIn and coffee chats and meetups on Zoom. I’ve learned a lot from webinars and online courses. All of it was incredibly convenient because, as a father of a young child, I didn’t have to deal with all the complications of traveling or arranging for child care.
Are conferences still worth it, in this new digital world? I had to find out. With many conferences coming back online, I decided that I’d go to a few, just to see if it’s still worth it. So a couple of months ago, I went to the CLOC conference in Las Vegas, and last Friday, I swung by the South Asian Bar Association (SABA) in San Francisco.
And I’ll tell you what. It’s still totally worth it. Here are three reasons why:
Meeting Your Online Friends In Person
There’s just something different about hanging out with your friends in the real world. I can’t deny it. Now sure — that by itself might not be a reason to immediately recall everyone back to the office for work. But there’s something very real that happens when you meet up with people.
I found myself sharing more than I normally would during a Zoom call. At SABA, I met so many of my old friends and found myself confessing to them some of the challenges of being a content creator. Or my views on the legal tech market. And they reciprocated! They told me things I never expected to hear from them. I guess some things are much easier to say in person than on Zoom.
These “real” conversations led to some pretty important insights. For example, I spent a lot of time speaking with in-house lawyers and law firm associates, and heard about how they really felt about their day to day, their frustrations, and how they feel about what’s happening in our profession. And they had a lot to say — most of which I’ve never seen in any of the legal industry’s media outlets.
I’m still processing what I heard — but there is no doubt in my mind that we wouldn’t have talked about such charged topics on Zoom.
Improving Your Communication Skills
At a conference, you just meet so many people in such a short time. And that forces you to learn how to talk about yourself, your work, and what you do. Quickly. There is no better way to practice your personal elevator pitch, especially to other lawyers.
Ever since I left the practice of law, it has become more challenging for me to explain what I do. Or what my company does. Most attendees at SABA were from law firms, and while some knew who I was (from my incredibly active social media accounts) many didn’t really understand my job, or what Ironclad even does — even though we’ve been covered by Above The Law for years!
I learned firsthand that these conversations are critical in learning how to talk about yourself. When lawyers used to ask me about Ironclad, I often fell into the trap of describing workflows, integrations, or other contract management minutiae. I can tell I’m not being clear because I get a lot of glazed eyes.
So I adjusted. And have learned to keep it simple. Now I just tell people that “we help businesses execute contracts more quickly.” And people just get it.
Engaging With Your Community
At both SABA and CLOC, people said the same thing. “Sure the programming is decent, but the real fun of this conference is getting to see my old friends.” Like, it was so striking how similar the comments were. I wonder if this is common at most conferences. It made me think that maybe the power of conferences has nothing to do with the sessions or panels.
It’s just about who you hang out with.
I don’t think this is a particularly unique insight. But the business implications are pretty important. One-on-one conversations, late nights at the bar, or sharing a laugh at dinner with someone you never met — these are the most valuable parts of being at a conference. Because they set you up for the next one. Where new friends become old friends.
That’s how the magic works, I think. All the “action,” whether you’re networking or selling, takes place “off campus” at events not listed on the official conference schedule. I think this is why Biglaw firms sponsor these events but keep their booths and tables unstaffed — which is something I’ve been very curious about since I noticed it for the first time at CLOC.
As one in-house lawyer told me off the record (because, yup — it was in person): “They always mysteriously show up at our dinners, and I don’t know how, but they’re always the same firms we end up using.”
You can’t just show up to a conference one year with a big splash, and then expect good things to happen. You have to continuously engage with the community over the years. By doing that, you become known — and people will seek out ways to help you.
At the end of the day, we all have our own unique situations and risk tolerances. I know it took me a long time to feel OK with going to an in-person conference — and part of me still isn’t completely comfortable, especially given what’s been happening with the latest COVID-19 variant. Besides — a lot of my networking can be done virtually, through social media or Zoom calls.
But if you’re up for it, I’d recommend going to a conference. At least once. And if you enjoy it, hell, do it again next year! There’s something really different about engaging with your community in person. I can’t explain exactly what, but there’s definitely something special there. As for me, I’m excited to go to my next conference — which might end up being the NAPABA Convention in Las Vegas this fall.
Stay tuned, my friends.
Alex Su is currently the Head of Community Development at Ironclad, a leading legal technology company that helps accelerate the contracting process. Earlier in his career, he was an associate at Sullivan & Cromwell and clerked for a federal district judge. Alex graduated from Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, where he was an editor of the law review and the student commencement speaker. In his free time, he writes about his career journey and legal tech in his newsletter Off The Record. You can find Alex on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and yes, even Tik Tok.
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