We are currently passing one of the regular milestones of the legal year – the annual conference of the International Bar Association (IBA) – which has inevitably shifted online this year. It is as good a time as any to reflect on the advantages and disadvantages of our new life under the pandemic.
Instead of its usually intense week of sessions and networking in a far-flung venue, the online version happens over an extended period of weeks, with small bite-size sessions, each lasting an hour or an hour and a quarter. The timing is such as to suit as many people as possible across the diverse time zones from which the IBA draws its membership. Nevertheless, some have to suffer. In a session in which I participated, a speaker in Honolulu had to keep his eyes open at 2 in the morning.
The format has been good: short sessions with short speeches, followed by a short question and answer session, which are all that humans can take over video (via Zoom). Each panel is followed by a networking session on another platform (Remo), in which participants can meet each other on tables of no more than 8. They are like video conferences with eight other people, with the ability to move from table to table.
Before looking at the advantages and disadvantages of this new format, it is worth reminding ourselves of how an audit of the old-style sessions would have turned out. Yes, there would have been people close by, with all the comfort and business opportunities of meeting lawyers in person and sitting together with them.
But let us not pretend that the old way was ideal. At any session at which I spoke in the past, about two-thirds of the audience were reading their phones, and coming and going, with little groups standing and chatting outside the doors, drinking coffee. And the attendance at each session was not good – around 20 on average, with a well-attended session numbering around 50.
In the virtual sessions I have attended so far, the numbers of participants has been much, much larger, ranging from 100 to over 150. A climate change session attracted over 350. They come from all around the world, with ‘Hello from Pakistan!’ and ‘Greetings from Russia!’- or California or Brazil or Fiji or wherever - appearing in the chat-box. It is true that the ones I have experienced have all been part of the bar programme, and so free to registrants.
The downside is that I have no idea what the participants were doing during the sessions, since the only people visible on the screen are the panellists. For all I know, none of the participants was listening – they were playing video games, or had gone to another room, or went shopping while the session played out to an empty room, just so that they could get the CPD certificate afterwards.
But there have been interesting questions from the audience written in the special box for them, and other commentary in the chat-box. The panels are recorded, and so able to be viewed afterwards. It is even possible to take votes of participants as the session unfolds (‘Do you think the bars are doing enough to support their lawyers on climate change?’ or equivalent).
Personally, I have found the sessions instructive, and the networking sessions afterwards entertaining and with the capacity to meet new people. Yet is also true that it is more difficult to have a quiet one-to-one with someone about business opportunities when you are in a video call with six others.
The most interesting question is what this means for the IBA and similar organisations going forward. The question applies generally to much of our lockdown life: how much of what we do now will continue after the pandemic has disappeared, and we are able to meet again in person?
The business model of the IBA depended in the past largely on income derived from in-person conferences. It has been temporarily decimated by the pandemic. But will such a business model ever be resurrected unchanged?
The registration fees for the old-style conferences were high. Numerous firms registered one lawyer, and sent along multiple others for the parties and networking opportunities. The cost per person was high: not only the registration fees but the travel to far-flung places with hotel and subsistence costs. Many more can participate from poor countries with the lower or non-existent online fees.
Doubtless the IBA is undertaking a cost-benefit analysis. Yes, there is a substantial loss in not meeting human beings in physical settings. But the IBA has proved – and is to be congratulated for it – that the sessions and meetings can take place virtually at a very low cost, and with nearly the same benefit.
So shall we just return to the old normal?
Jonathan Goldsmith is Law Society Council member for EU matters and a former secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe. All views expressed are personal and are not made in his capacity as a Law Society Council member nor on behalf of the Law Society