Having just participated in an “un-conference” for the Law Practice Management Section of the North Carolina Bar Association, I am sold on the un-conference format. I suppose that different un-conference organizers orchestrate these in different ways, but here is how it worked in N.C. We kicked off in the morning with a featured speaker, Reid Trautz. Before Reid started, conference organizer Lee Rosen tacked up sheets of paper in the meeting room with various topics pertaining to law practice management (paperless office, blogs and web sites, etc.) Each attendee was given four or five sticky notes and asked to put their names on the topics that most interested them.
While Reid was speaking, Lee was going through the sheets to identify attendees’ top topics. He then set up discussion tables for each of the top five topics and assigned a moderator to each. After the morning speaker finished, we all went to whatever table we wanted, although no table could have more than 10 people at a time. There was no agenda and anyone could get up and move to another table at any time. We continued this format through an informal lunch. Just after lunch, I spoke for 90 minutes. We then reconvened for another round of informal discussion sessions, with different topics for the most part. At 4 p.m., we did another round.
What made this so successful was how lively and interesting were these discussion sessions. People at each table had really good and practical questions, but they also had an equal amount of good and practical advice to share. Rather than hear from one speaker for an hour, the participants got to hear and learn from a number of people, all their peers and all lawyers who had faced and addressed these issues in their own practices.
One other point worth noting about the un-conference format is its flexibility. The night before the conference, the speakers and organizers (Reid, Lee, Erik Mazzone and me) got together over dinner to discuss the plans for the day. The original format called for me to speak at 9 a.m. and Reid at 3:20 in the afternoon, with the discussion sessions sandwiched in between. As Reid and I discussed our presentations, Reid suggested it would make more sense for him to go first. Everyone agreed, so we swapped. Then we thought it might stimulate more afternoon discussion if I spoke just after lunch instead of later in the day. So we agreed to do that. The schedule juggling worked.
My feeling at the end of the day was that this had been one of the most successful conferences I’d been to in awhile. Turnout was smallish — about 50 registrants — but that number fit well with the format. I think the conference provided everyone who attended with invaluable opportunities for networking, sharing and learning. I can’t imagine that a single person left when it was over and wasn’t glad to have participated.