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State Bar dumps annual convention

By Jack Zemlicka
Wisconsin Law Journal

The buffet of Continuing Legal Education known as the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Annual Convention is being replaced by a more refined menu.

Declining attendance prompted bar leadership to abandon the traditional convention format and develop a handful of practice-specific “institutes” to be held in various locations throughout the year.

“The convention as we understood it no longer exists,” State Bar Executive Director George Brown told the Board of Governors on Feb. 4. 
He noted that several states have discontinued their conventions in recent years, seen dramatic drops in attendance or lowered expectations. Brown referenced his discussions with Louisiana State Bar leaders, an organization with about 21,000 attorneys, comparable to that of Wisconsin’s approximately 22,000 members.

“For them an extremely successful convention is 300 attorneys,” he said.

Last year, Wisconsin’s convention drew just more than 1,000 attendees; it’s most in four years. But some attributed the numbers to the presence of former United States Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, rather than the depth of CLE.

Board member Arthur J. Harrington applauded the initiative and said the switch is a sign of the times.

“Attendance was declining to point that it did not seem useful and a wise expenditure of resources for the State Bar on behalf of members,” he said. “This is a positive shift.”

But Harrington also expressed concern that the specified institutes will alienate members who don’t practice in the areas targeted during the programs and reduce camaraderie often seen at conventions.

The first institute will take place May 5-6 in Milwaukee at the Frontier Airlines Center. The program is titled “Litigation, Dispute Resolution and Appellate Practice Institute: From Claims through Appeals.”

The bar’s annual meeting June 9-10 at the Kalahari Resort in Wisconsin Dells will include a Real Estate and Business Law Institute.

“We are focusing these symposiums on what we think will be the widest interest areas, but the problem is a lot of other specific areas will be missed,” Harrington said. “Frankly, that’s a big challenge.”

Admittedly, Harrington was not a regular annual convention attendee, often stopping by years in which it was held in Milwaukee and there was a seminar relevant to his practice.

Brown said the primary goal of the institutes is to give members more for their money.

Cost for the May institute is $295 for State Bar members prior to March 31 and $345 for members after, although attorneys who purchased the CLE Ultimate Pass (an annual one-time fee of $699 for members to attend all the CLE they want) can attend for free.

The cost to attend the annual convention was $399 for members and $145 for members (and nonmembers) who had purchased the CLE Ultimate Pass. The nonmember rate to attend the convention last year was $499 without a pass.

“The idea of the institutes is to focus the CLE and not just have the smorgasbord,” Brown said. “So if you go on Thursday you might get one program you are interested in and the rest doesn’t pertain to your practice area.”

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