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By Christina McAlpin Taylor
Smith Debnam Narron Drake Saintsing & Myers, LLP
Raleigh, North Carolina

With the Fall conference season approaching, I’m often asked by my peers how I decide which conferences to attend, and what do I do to get the most out of attending these industry events. While I have a few favorite conferences related to my practice area that I attend every year, I still take the time to research what’s available and I occasionally give new ones a try. I maintain three primary objectives for attending a conference: 1) keep ahead of new industry law; 2) acquire new skills that will be of value to my clients, and 3) network.

You have to be strategic to reap all the possible benefits, though—prepare on the front end, be intentional about the use of your time during the conference, and afterward, take measures to follow up and follow-through. So, here are five steps for getting the most out of your conference experience.

Step #1: Plan

Several days before arriving at a conference, take the time to review the agenda and the attendee list. Identify the sessions you want to attend. Remember, conferences are an excellent way to network, but don’t wait until the conference. Reach out to attendees ahead of the conference to line up dinners, lunches, or meet-and-greets before arrival. Otherwise, you may be dining alone.

Step #2: Engage and Stay Organized

You only get out of a conference what you put into it. Don’t decline an invitation to speak at a session or participate on a panel. These are excellent opportunities to enhance your name recognition and widen your networking reach; do not shy away! Don’t forget your business cards, notepad, and comfortable shoes (you spend a lot of time on your feet). Participate in larger conversations by following the conference’s dedicated hashtag on social media. Tag your tweets and Instagram posts, and monitor the hashtag throughout the conference to get a feel for what folks are discussing. When meeting new contacts, exchange business cards. Take the time to jot down the salient points of your conversation, as well as the circumstances of your meeting (name of the session or location of happy hour, name of third-party who made the introduction, etc.). Staying organized during the conference will make your post-conference follow-up decidedly more effective.

Step #3: Follow-up and Follow-through

Once you are back in the office, revisit your business cards and your notes and fill in any additional information. Take the time to transfer this information to your Outlook. Prioritize your follow-up action items by importance and method of follow-up—handwritten note, email, LinkedIn, phone call, or combination thereof. Lastly, when reaching out, always aim to plant the opportunity for additional follow-up as appropriate.

Step #4: Pay it Forward

Share what you learned at the conference with other attorneys in your practice area, in and outside the office. Draft a memo summarizing the conference and circulate to your colleagues or discuss at your next departmental meeting.

Step#5: Strike a Balance

Conferences provide a unique opportunity for individuals to learn, to teach, and to connect. Try to strike a balance between all three—attending sessions and speaking on topics, along with making time to network. You might be tempted to check e-mails and avoid conversation during breaks, but you really should spend that time meeting new people and prospective clients. Try something fun too: find a running partner or someone to exercise with while you’re at a conference, and don’t forget to enjoy the opportunity to see a new city.