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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Five Tips for Attending Continuing Education Events

(Written on March 23, 2010, published at DYP Advisors)

Over the past ten years, I have had the opportunity to organize continuing education events for the Palo Alto Area Bar Association. These seminars focus on a wide range of topics, from “Immigration Issues for Startups” to “Tax Aspects of Doing Business in India” and, since our speakers are the cutting edge in their respective fields of expertise and our audience seemingly all had time to pick up a PhD on the topic, I consider myself lucky to be allowed admission. Luckily, as President, they allow me in—plus, I promised to work the registration table.

No matter what the topic, I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to learn something new. It’s useful even if outside my practice area because I need to know what I don’t know. Sometimes though, just as one must not look directly into the brilliance of the sun, I have had to (often) rest my brain. In these moments, my organizer-hat appears and observes the event’s mechanics.

It is from this organizer/participant hybrid perspective that this post developed. We show up to learn but need to maximize the value of the time spent at these events. Hopefully, this list of five pointers will help you think more proactively when you schedule your next continuing education event.

First: Remember the Dual Purpose of These Events

To be sure, these events are educational but organizers also encourage networking among participants. Otherwise, we would publish books instead of going through the hassle of figuring out how many sandwiches to order for lunch.

The format is similar to college classes, focused on a topic or speaker, conducted lecture style, with handouts. Created for the benefit of members, the general public is welcome to attend. The function seems obvious: You attend, you learn, you leave.

WRONG.

For those of you self described “intellectual” types who only want the education, please realize you are outside of that hermetically sealed pod called your office. If you invested the time and energy to pry yourself away from your desk, you may as well meet other people. Yes: network.

No matter how much you adhere to book learning, it is undeniably more rewarding to discuss books with other interested readers. Attending topical events is one of the easiest ways to meet other industry players: you have a common subject to discuss and no requirements to be an expert yourself.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who practically shed business cards and dismiss the educational aspect. Some good advice: Please at least choose a topic that piques your interest.

This seems laughably straightforward until we consider the golf metaphor. Everyone in business feels the pressure to play golf. It’s “good for business” but not all of us enjoy golf. Not even avid golfers like golf, depending on the day. Similarly, if your main goal is to network, you think all events are the same for your purposes.

WRONG.

There are some topics that will be your “golf” topic—something that is “good for business” but odious to you. By all means, experiment, but if you identify an area that is toxic, skip those. Learn at home or online. Otherwise, you will be miserable. Worse, you will not keep up and will resent those who have a genuine interest. And they will resent you because no one attended an event on “Doing Business in China” just to hear you talk about you.

Remember, the advantage to attending these educational events is that they are relaxed, efficient ways to learn more about your profession and meet other people. If you routinely leave without either, there is a serious flaw in your approach.

Hopefully, the next two tips will help!

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