There Are Useful Conferences, Then There Are REALLY Useful Conferences

Each year I’m faced with the decision which, if any, industry conferences to attend.  A shortage of time and money dictates that I cannot go to every conference I would like to attend.  Even if I could cobble together enough money to attend more conferences, my time is severely constrained and every hour spent at a conference is an hour that cannot be spent working for a client.

I’ve attended Defense Research Institute (DRI) conferences just about every year I’ve practiced, even though I’ve migrated committees from Young Lawyers, to Products Liability, to Commercial Litigation, to the Labor & Employment conference.  I’ve found these are well-organized and pretty useful.  I would recommend a DRI conference to colleagues.

A couple of weeks back, though, I attended a completely different kind of conference, which was an exponentially better use of my time.  I’m not going to discuss the specifics, because I was a guest and, unlike DRI or ABA, this industry group doesn’t maintain a website, publications and huge membership.  But it is precisely because of this concentrated scale that the meetings were so productive.

First, actual membership in the group is limited to in-house general counsel or legal staff members of companies in industries that routinely face the same or similar employment issues.  Actual members can bring guests who are outsiders, but membership will never be available to us “outhouse” lawyer.  This alone sets it apart from large industry or bar association conferences.  There are no sponsors or exhibitors.  More importantly, the conference does not become a “feeding frenzy” where hundreds of outside lawyers showboat or compete for the time and attention of a handful of in-house counsel.  There may be some marketing component to the conference, but it is low-key–limited to maybe buying someone dinner–and definitely not the focus or sole reason to attend.

Second, the group is smaller, but it is also comprised of industry leaders.  Sure, war stories are traded, but they tended to be fresh, relevant and real.  Because of the tighter group size, it permitted the agenda to be loose and unstructured in a way that permits the group to spend more time on topical topics.

Another advantage of the limited group size was that the actual members (and some of the guests) knew each other pretty well.  I observed that this led to a candidacy of the discussion that I would never expect to see at a larger group function.  Anyone who’s tried to build a better mousetrap by committee knows that familiarity breeds comfort which tends to lead to better end product.  That’s what it looked like to me, anyway.

It was a good experience; I hope I am invited back.  I would surely counsel anyone lucky enough to be invited to attend one of these smaller, more concentrated industry conferences to jump at the chance.

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