Legal and legal tech conferences have shied away from using avatar platforms for fears their constituents won’t accept them. They shouldn’t.

 

Like most of you, I’ve been to more virtual conferences the past year than I care to count. You know the drill: you sign up thinking you will diligently attend. The conference starts, and your attention wanders. You look to the exhibit hall, and it’s a bunch of videos or chat rooms populated by God knows who. As the conference drags on, it’s harder and harder to keep engaged. As the day closes, there is the proverbial zoom happy hour. This is a usually pretty dreadful affair with a bunch of talking heads interrupting one another. I’d rather drink alone.

 

Gone are the intersections we used to see, the networking we all loved. The chance encounters, the ability to move around, the ad hoc discussions in the hallways.

 

But there is a better way than Zoom. I attended an EDRM (Electronic Discovery and Reference Model) conference last year where the participants attended as avatars. We could have our avatars roam around a campus. We could attend the sessions or get up and leave. We could wander around an exhibit hall, bump into people you knew (each avatar is identified by name), and have actual conversations. If you were bored, you could explore the campus, go to a virtual beach, even drive a virtual boat. Happy hours? You were free to walk around, meet up with people, walk up to people in small groups and join the conversation.

 

ERDM described the conference as an “avatar based immersive virtual venue providing a shared social experience, virtual booths, conversations in the hallway, networking events, and EDRM’s signature bespoke events.”

 

Here’s a link to the description and instructions that EDRM provided for its avatar conference back in December 2020. Also see the news release announcing it. It was the best conference I attended all year. (The picture above is my avatar. Nice resemblance, isn’t it?)

 

 

But since December of last year, no one, to my knowledge in the legal ecosystem, seemed to want to try it. Too nerdy. Too experimental. The attendees will think it’s too complicated to download and navigate. If the more sophisticated legal tech conferences aren’t willing to do it, surely bar associations wouldn’t be interested. Nor could they succeed with it.

 

Think again. The Monroe County Bar Association, based in Rochester, New York, recently held its annual small firm and solo conference over two afternoons. The meeting was not only held virtually but used the ERDM avatar campus. With the help of Mary Mack and Kaylee Walstead of EDRM and the leadership of Monroe Country Bar Association executive director Kevin Ryan, this first of its kind bar association event was, by all accounts, a rousing success.

 

Would lawyers and legal professionals’ be reluctant to accept and embrace this kind of approach?

 

I had a chance to talk to Ryan about the conference mainly because I was interested in the reaction of local attorneys to the setup. I also was curious whether the naysayers were right. Would lawyers and legal professionals’ be reluctant to accept and embrace this kind of approach?

 

Ryan couldn’t have been more enthusiastic about how the conference went. He thought that it was much close to an in-person event than the standard zoom based confab. It was, in his words, as close to life-like as you can get in the virtual world. He stressed to me that the attendees, primarily small firm and solo lawyers loved it.

 

Some things Ryan liked in particular: the ability to move around, bump into people, and talk. He said the platform provided a way for attendees to get away from the Conference sessions themselves yet still be connected. Ryan also liked that the break out sessions were much more interactive and engaging than they would have been on Zoom. He told me plenary sessions went well too. Attendees could see the presenter avatar on stage or direct their attention to the slides or even to other attendees around the room.

 

Ryan also told me, much to my surprise, that he got almost no push back from his constituents. That was a little surprising only because you have to download some special software and then learn how to navigate the campus. Lawyers aren’t particularly well known for spending the time to learn new things. And Ryan noted that many of the attendees were not particularly computer literate. In fact, those he thought would have been the least likely to master the platform had no trouble.

 

There was no grumbling or complaining from any attendees either before or after the conference.

 

He pointed out that Niki Black, the Director of Business and Community Relations at MyCase and member of the Association, recommended and shepherded the use of the software. Wisely, Black did a training session some 30 minutes before the conference, which Ryan said helped a lot. The attendees mastered the platform really quickly. He heard no grumbling or complaining from any attendees either before or after the conference. For a good description of the Conferance, itself and how it went, see Black’s recent post.

 

Ryan did say if he had it to do over, he would have done a little more advanced training. He would have, for example, taken steps to ensure attendees successfully downloaded the software. He would have tried to better insure participants tested the system in advance. What few glitches the Association had –and he stressed there were not many—stemmed from issues associated with the downloading process.

 

Ryan and I both agreed that the platform might not work for a hybrid conference—it’s really not set up for that. But for webinars and remote meetings, it could be helpful if and when the pandemic subsides. He noted correctly that for national and state organizations with diverse geographical members, the avatar platform would be ideal. It would allow attendees to have a life like conference experience without the cost, time, and burden of travel. It would be a good way to engage more people who might not otherwise be willing to attend at a relatively low cost. He specifically singled out state bar associations as candidates for this kind of conference.

 

After all, if a local bar association and its members are willing to embrace avatars, it’s likely that everyone can

 

I think Ryan is right. It’s a virtual platform more organizations should embrace without fear or hesitation. I mean, after all, if a local bar association and its members are willing to embrace avatars, it’s likely that everyone can.

 

By the way, thanks to the Association for hosting Bob Ambrogi’s weekly Legaltech Week Journalist’s Roundtable. The Roundtable was held on the campus in avatar form on the last afternoon. The panelists included Bob, Joe Patrice, Zach Warren, and Victoria Hudgins from Legaltech News, media consultant Molly McDonough, Niki Black, and last (and probably least) me. All appearing as avatars.