Law firm seminar

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The anthropology of the office™

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The JC puts on his pith-helmet, grabs his butterfly net and a rucksack full of marmalade sandwiches, and heads into the concrete jungle

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WHY ARE LAW FIRMS SO BAD AT PRESENTING SEMINARS?

The JC once asked a magic circle partner, in exasperation, “for the love of all that is holy, why don’t you make your associates go on public speaking courses?”

Came the wounded reply: “we do”.

All right, my little chicklings. This heartfelt plea comes to you on behalf of we who’ve been in this game for years and are obliged, by regulation,[1] to sit through continuing professional development seminars.

We ask merely this: make them at least tolerable and, if you can, entertaining.

As a matter of fact the JC is sitting though one this very moment. It’s about — and he had check the invitation, because forty minutes in, he’s absorbed nothing — “Brexit and beyond”.

So, to those who would presume to present legal seminars: we tell you this not primarily for your own good, but ours. We, your audience, crave enlightenment; failing that, entertainment; failing that, mere distraction will do — but preferably we’d like all three: having bent our ears for an hour to your message, we yearn to depart with something for our trouble: some kind of enrichment to our “lived experience”, to borrow a vogue expression.

We want to be in some way better equipped, better informed, better armed with anecdotes, even if it won’t realistically move the needle on our professional acumen.[2]

IS THIS REALLY TOO MUCH TO ASK?

After all, what is good for us is good for you: if the lords of our profession declare that every member must be spoken at on topics of professional advancement, for an aggregated period each year — and, okay, they don’t really, any more, but this hasn’t stopped the military industrial complex of law firm seminars — this the chance for those speaking to do a bit of marketing.

Sell yourselves, friends. PLEASE. Transport us, for an hour, away from our tedious mortal shells. Telescope us into a wondrous new world where we are piqued, thrilled, bettered and, mostly, entertained.

Brexit and Beyond: there is so much scope for levity here. Put Dominic Cummings in a Buzz Lightyear outfit! Something! Anything!

So, some thoughts as we go:

Speak to your audience, not to your PowerPoint

It should go without saying, but clearly doesn’t, so let me say it: don’t read out your goddamn slides.

We can read quicker than you can speak. If you’ve put all the information you plan to deliver on the slide, we don’t need you. Just send us the slides and we can read them at our leisure.[3] Remember the point of the exercise, from your perspective: to give us the impression we need you.

Blessed as most in-house lawyers are with basic literacy levels, generally we don’t need someone to read out loud to us, and if we did we would choose Martin Jarvis or David Horovitch, not a mumbling LLB (hons) from Bristol.

Don’t clutter your slides

Limit yourself to a sentence per slide. One short sentence. Try it. This will help you to speak naturally to your audience, not to your notes.

The best exponent of excellent, uncluttered slides is Lawrence Lessig. Watch him in action here.

Vary your tone

You are not a Gregorian monk. Nor is anyone in your audience. Speak with some animation. Bring that personality. Make one up, if you haven’t got one of your own. Moderate your range. Pause. Punctuate. Be dramatic. Be hyperbolic. This is a performance, not a root canal.

Speak in idiomatic English

Of course it is hard, since legal discourse has been beaten into you, but try not to speak like a lawyer. Don’t speak the way you draft. (Come to think of it, don’t draft the way you draft). Say less, perform more. Build rapport.

Keep out of the weeds

This may be the worst crime of all. Your objective is to give a high-level overview: to present issues in stark, apocalyptic terms, apt to terrify your audience into calling you, and only you — you are marketing, remember? — as the one respected authority on this cataclysmic risk, and thereby paying you for your sage counsel. You are not meant to be reading out your internal knowhow folder. If your slides are densely packed with point font, ask yourself: “am I missing the point of my own seminar?”

This ought to be a rhetorical question.

Be funny. If you can’t be funny, be interesting.

Now not everyone can be spontaneously witty on the fly. To be fair, most commercial lawyers have trouble being witty in any circumstances. So prepare something that might raise a chuckle beforehand. No-one is expecting Richard Pryor. And, okay, “Security and Enforcement in the Cayman Islands” is tough material, BUT YOU ARE THE BEST IN YOUR BUISINESS, RIGHT? That is why people are prepared to hear you out, isn’t it? So this is your challenge. Find something fun or outrageous or at least interesting to say about your topic: something your audience will remember.

If there really, really isn’t anything like that — and “Security and Enforcement in the Cayman Islands” may be just that topic — then consider: why are you giving a seminar about something so dull in the first place? Who needs to know? Who benefits? What will you, or anyone else, get out of it? Will it really lead to a flood of instructions?

Questions

Encourage questions. Get a dialogue going — dialogue equals engagement — but realise that, in doing so (i) you may wander off your own agenda (and this may be no bad thing, if your agenda is as dull as it is likely to be) and (ii) you may get random questions about things you don’t expect, especially if you have a dull agenda, since no one will have been paying attention, and they may be asking questions just out of politeness, and to reassure you that the hour you have just spent was not quite as wasteful for everyone as it in fact has been.

Whatever you do, don’t ever say, “well, I’m not an expert, but —”. If you are not an expert, you have no business talking.

In a nutshell: you are marketing yourself.

Be someone your clients would want to spend time with. Remember what your audience wants and what you want, and be careful not to invert them. Your audience wants to be entertained, first, and enlightened, second — but enlightenment, not entertainment, is the optional extra.

An audience will not begrudge an entertaining hour, even it learns nothing. It will deeply resent an hour of needless tedium.

What you want is for your audience to think: “hey, she’s pretty neat. She’d be fun to work with (first) and hey — she knows tons about the regulatory environment post Brexit!!! (second). She is definitely who I will call!”

See also

References

  1. All right this isn’t strictly true anymore, but it sort of is.
  2. Well, let’s face it, it won’t will it?
  3. Or save them for reading “later”, of course.