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Trends in CPD Program Attendance

Posted By Andrea Johnston, Director of Admissions & Education, Law Society of Saskatchewan (International SIG, Wednesday, May 29, 2019
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event attendees

Decreased In-Person Program Attendance

There are many considerations that go into making continuing professional development (“CPD”) events successful, so keeping tabs on all the trends and changes in the industry is crucial if we are to provide the most useful and effective programming possible. Of course, the most important feature of any program is having people actually show up. Unfortunately, overall attendance at in-person CPD events has been declining for a couple years now, and that trend has become even more pronounced recently in Canadian jurisdictions (and I suspect internationally as well). There are a number of potential reasons for this, to name a few:

  • The convenience of on-demand CPD;
  • Alternative delivery methods resulting from technological advances;
  • Increased competition as improved technology allows members to attend CPD events remotely from other jurisdictions; and
  • The availability of recorded versions after live CPD events.

CPD Program Topic Preferences

Statistics tell us that program content remains an important factor in CPD attendance numbers. Despite the fact that we have increasing data to show that most complaints and insurance claims faced by lawyers relate to practice management issues and other non-substantive law topics (e.g., communication, technology, time management, resilience, etc.), most members do not want to pay for that type of training. Many lawyers will acknowledge that those are all important skills for lawyers to possess; however, very few think that they need training in those areas. While free sessions still generate decent attendance, the majority of members only seem willing to pay for substantive law topics, even though “soft-skills” training is clearly an area where many lawyers have the greatest room for improvement.

What are we doing to adjust to these trends?

Live-Streaming

Typically, at the Law Society of Saskatchewan, we have delivered most of our in-person seminars in both of our two major urban centers. Starting this month, however, we are offering some in-person seminars in just one location and live-streaming it for people in other locations. Hopefully, the registration figures for each alternative will provide guidance as to where we should focus.

Of course, if it turns out that most members prefer the live-streaming option we could end up having presenters speaking to rooms with only a handful of attendees. If this is the case, it may be advisable to switch to fully remote presentations for some seminars. And, while this would reduce costs (facilities, catering, staff travel) and increase flexibility for attendees, presenters who are used to traditional seminars may not be supportive of the change which could lead to a decrease in the availability of volunteer presenters.

Adopt Other On-Demand Delivery Methods

As we see our members’ preference for on-demand CPD increase in a world where new technology is being introduced at an astronomical rate, we can (and should) be adopting new delivery methods for our CPD programming. Of course, as is the case with many things, that is easier said than done. In an ideal world, we would offer a comprehensive suite of interactive, online, on-demand programming to our members which they can work through at their convenience in an engaging and reflective manner. The challenge is the time, money and expertise it takes to develop this type of programming. In Saskatchewan, we are hoping to roll out an online, interactive course sooner than later, but at this point we have not even settled on a platform … so there is still plenty of work to do.

Reduce the Cost

No matter the industry, nothing increases demand like lowering the price. As the Law Society of Saskatchewan, we are both the governing body as well as a CPD provider, which affords us some flexibility that other CPD providers may not have. We can offer free (or discounted) CPD events related to non-substantive topics that, as a governing body we feel are important for our membership, but which don’t typically generate high attendance if we charge full price for them. Examples are topics related to indigenous cultural competency training pursuant to the Truth & Reconciliation Calls to Action; Law Society initiatives; pro bono services; equity, diversity & inclusion; working with victims of sexual violence; and the integration of internationally-trained lawyers.

Problems we face by applying this approach are that it devalues the education we provide generally, and we see members specifically waiting for the free sessions rather than registering for those they have to pay for (even if a particular paid session is more relevant to their practice). This could both further reduce the attendance at our full price sessions and result in potentially less relevant training for our members. So, although we have the flexibility to offer free (or discounted) CPD programming, we are finding that doing so may cause more harm than good in the long run.

Make Programs Mandatory

Another option available to us (because we are the governing body) is to make certain topics or specific programs mandatory. The Law Society of Saskatchewan is considering adopting an expanded definition of competence that could include areas such as cultural competency, technology skills and/or mental health & wellness training. Making these types of CPD programs mandatory would obviously result in a dramatic increase in attendance, and hopefully an increase in competence in those areas. It could be done either by prescribing specific programs or by prescribing a minimum number of hours to be accumulated in each area while allowing the members to choose among a variety of programs. However, there are always risks with forcing education on our members, the most problematic one being the risk of generating member resentment towards these important topics, or CPD generally.

Strike a Balance

Although the mandate of the Law Society of Saskatchewan CPD Department is to “fill the gaps” in member training, the gaps seem to exist with non-substantive topics, which many members are not willing to pay for. The gaps tend to exist because very few providers are interested in delivering training that does not draw a crowd. So, our challenge is striking a balance between both substantive and non-substantive topics, as well as, in person, remote and on-demand programs, in order to satisfy member preferences, while also increasing member competence and “filling the gaps”…not an insignificant task.

Every industry needs to embrace change in order to remain current, relevant, and effective—CPD is no different. It is important that we deliver programming that delivers topical and relevant information while still drawing enough members to be viable. Each of the above options includes its own set of pros and cons but the one thing we can’t afford to do is remain static.

Tags:  attendance  continuing professional development  cpd  on-demand  professional development 

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Frederick Petillo, State Bar of Wisconsin says...
Posted Thursday, June 13, 2019
As a newly minted member of ACLEA, I am delighted to see substantive and useful discussion of this topic. I applaud Director Johnston's plea that we not be complacent. Yet as a marketing professional, I suspect that we are not yet at the core of the issue. Doing more of “pulling on the usual levers”---those listed in the post---to attract buyers to us is likely to produce unsatisfying results. It simply isn't enough to observe that members seem to be willing to pay only for substantive law topics and not topics in law office management and soft skills. What remains unanswered is why that is so. I haven't yet seen data-based insights as to why that is the case (though I will now make that my mission to find out!). An interesting article by Thales Teixeira was published online on June 6, 2019 by the Harvard Business Review. The author makes a compelling case that disruption starts not with technological innovation but rather with unhappy customers. If that is right, then modifying our technological channels of distribution, changing prices, and (perhaps worst of all) requiring attendance seem not to get to the heart of why lawyers are not flocking to our excellent offerings outside of substantive law. To make any substantial progress, we will have to penetrate well beyond observing patterns of behavior and instead get to a deep understanding of our customers' attitudes, beliefs, and motivations around the roles of different kinds of educational content in the life of a successful law practice.
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