The 2013 Annual Meeting of the American Bar Association (ABA), held Aug. 8-13 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, brought together more than 8,000 legal professionals and members of international bar associations. With more than 150 continuing legal education (CLE) sessions offered, it was possible for attendees to earn an entire year's worth of CLE credits over the course of the five-day event.
This year's Annual Meeting was mostly business as usual for ABA, but big changes are ahead. (Read our Pre Con profile of the meeting at convn.org/aba-pre-con
.) Two months before the conference, ABA's Board of Governors approved a plan to reorganize the entire meeting “with slight modifications,” said Martin Balogh, ABA's director of meetings and travel.
The Annual Meeting had suffered from declining attendance in recent years — seeing about half of its numbers from 20 years ago. And with more than 3,000 different entities coming together at the meeting, all focused on distinct areas of law, some groups were spending a lot of time and resources developing CLE sessions and “feeling that they weren't getting the return and weren't getting the audience,” Balogh said. “Some of the concern was coming from the people providing the content at the meeting, and some of it was, as an organization as a whole, we were concerned about dwindling numbers.”
ABA doesn't anticipate that participant numbers eventually will return to the levels they were at in the mid-1980s. Rather the goal, according to Balogh, “is to make it a better meeting and more impactful to the profession.”
What we did have in San Francisco,” Balogh said, “were incredible speakers. Which is also part of the plan going forward.” This year's guests included U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Attorney General Eric Holder. The addition of these high-profile speakers had the added benefit of attracting more local and national media than over the past several years. “Instead of the usual 30 to 40 reporters, we had 155,” Balogh said. “So everything that happened at the meeting was in everybody's news outlet over that weekend.”
For the past two years, a special Annual Meeting task force convened to devise the reorganization plan, but now ABA's standing committee on meetings and travel has reassumed responsibility for planning and logistics. Next year's meeting will see a reduction in the number of CLE sessions — down to 36 — with each session designed to be broader in scope to attract more attendees. “In the past there was just too much being offered,” Balogh said.
While ABA's aim is to grow the number of people who attend the Annual Meeting, Balogh said he learned an important lesson this year. “Sometimes I think groups get obsessed with the numbers...,” he said. “[B]ut what's equally important is the impact that your meeting is delivering on a national level. Without a doubt, the country — and probably the world — knew we were meeting.”