The beautiful city of Lagos played host to about 13,000 lawyers from across Nigeria during the recently concluded 2017 annual general conference of the Nigerian Bar Association. Against all odds, the planning committee pulled off a successful conference themed: “African Business: Penetrating through Institution Building.” With the conference behind us, it is time to reflect on raising the bar for future conferences.
Weeks before the conference, there was a lot of apprehension about certain issues. First, there was a big debate about conference fee increase which many considered inappropriate in a recession year. The leadership of the bar managed to convince members that the quality of the conference would be worth the fee. After this was sorted, there was the challenge of “sold out” seats during the “early bird” belt of conference registration. This was troubling for a number of reasons including the fact that the seats appeared to have sold out well in advance of the “regular” and “late” registration belts raising serious questions about planning. As it turned out, the planning committee was originally aiming to host 5000 conferees but did not communicate that ahead of time.
One of the big benefits of the conference fee increase was the provision of conference-branded tablet computers to all conferees. Unfortunately, access to these tablets appeared to have been dogged by poor communication. The planning committee advised conferees to await text messages notifying them of pick-up point and dates. To their credit, this happened in a great many cases. However, many conferees were surprised to discover that they had to pay to have sim-cards of a particular service provider enabled on the tablets. They also found that the tablets could not function with sim cards from other network providers. While paying for data appears a fair deal, communicating this ahead of time might have made the process a lot easier. If I was asked to craft a lesson from the scenarios described above, it would be – lay your cards on the table: communicate fully and proactively.
Beside the initial hiccup, the conference itself proved to be a huge lesson in excellent planning. The access cards really provided access to event venues and the security provided at these venues ensured orderly entry and exit. Traffic control was also pretty good although Lagos is an experience when it comes to traffic management.
For me, the most important aspect of the conference is the academic content. It was great to participate in sessions with topics ancillary to law. To this end, I think the session on “succession planning and managing talent” was a useful addition as was that on using social media to advance practice. I also enjoyed the session titled: “The great economic debate: we need help to grow” and “The Conversation with the Vice-President” anchored by CNN’s Zain Asher – which could have been better had the public address system functioned optimally.
The only draw-back to the academic sessions was the inability of the planning committee to upload conference papers and session notes on the website within 24 hours of each session. I imagine there may have been good reasons for that but it seems to me that should be possible. Nearly two weeks after, I see a dozen presentations on the conference website but that is probably only 19% of the conference programme (26 breakout and 6 plenary sessions with minimum of 2 speakers per session). We should probably have every single paper/presentation up there by now.
Since the NBA has three practice sessions – business law, legal practice and public interest and development law, I suspect it should be possible to organize the conference agenda along sectional lines so that conferees can see a deliberate attempt by the leadership of the bar to promote these practice sections. In a previous article, I had argued that the sections “are essential to promoting learning, scholarship and interaction among members.” The bar conference provides an opportunity to see this in practice.
Generally, the conference could have benefitted from an “ideas solicitation” protocol. I think future conference planning committees might wish to consider sourcing ideas on excellent conferencing from potential conferees and experts. Opening up the space and scope for engagement in conference planning might increase the possibility that expectations will be met on a wider scale than currently. Relatedly, a longer lead-up time for planning might also help in that branches and interested members can participate in a more constructive way.
Complementary to making planning more participatory is post-conference engagement. It is not enough to close the conference and move on to other things. The leadership of the bar might wish to introduce a system of evaluation both for different aspects of the conference and the entire conference. This evaluation might take the form of completing evaluation forms or taking a post-conference survey.
Beyond the surveys and evaluation, the NBA may wish to take more seriously conference outcomes as tools for shaping policy and plans. To this end, it might be helpful to evolve a process by which specific recommendations are synthesized and processed through the appropriate institutions of government for possible implementation. This is particularly important given the ambitious outcome Professor Kanyinsola Ajayi, Chair of the 2017 Conference Planning Committee envisaged for the conference namely, “practical guide and policy recommendations that will take forward the widely accepted notions of accelerating economic development and social justice in the continent.”
The 2017 conference was a significant improvement over 2016. Nonetheless, it is obvious that there is still a lot of room for improvement. With a more inclusive planning process and commitment to raising the bar, I am optimistic that 2018 could be better.
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