Bridging Continents and Countries in a Professional Association Community
Do you manage an international community? How do you thoughtfully foster community across different continents, languages, and norms? Mercedes Oppon-Kusi, the community manager for Europe for the International Legal Technology Association, is working to do just that for their community of technology pros working at law firms.
With ILTA originating in the U.S., Mercedes shares the differences in behaviors between U.S. and Europe-based community members, and how she has approached expanding the European chapter to include more countries. Her strategy comes back to advice that’s helpful no matter what stage your community is at: Overcome your biases as a community professional. Take time to learn the interests and challenges that impact your community members and scale thoughtfully.
As Mercedes puts it, “[It’s] about building that practical knowledge of the market, and then figuring out where to go first.”
- How to help community members break through the “I don’t have enough time” barrier
- Why U.S. members are more engaged than their European counterparts
- In-person events that help members feel bought-in to the ILTA community
How ILTA community members help each other grow (6:45): “You have the people that have been there and done it, you have people that are looking to branch into it, and you have the people that want to grow in it. That’s what our communities do. They help our members learn how to become better than they are.” –@M4Mercedes
Tech pros at U.S. law firms are more likely to share experiences (7:38): “[With] our membership pool in the U.S., you will not struggle to get a big firm to share. They’re proud of it. They’re like, ‘We’ve done this so well because we’re amazing, and this is how we did it,’ but in the UK, they’re decidedly more reserved. It’s very hard to get the big firms to share about anything. I don’t know what it is, but it does seem like people are nervous because they do not want to be seen as bragging, so it differs according to the geographies. It’s not really by firm size.” –@M4Mercedes
Localizing matters to your community members (19:07): “A lot of our material has the word attorney, which doesn’t exist in the UK. We have solicitors and barristers. … There are little tweaks around the material and our language that we’ve had to do in order to localize what we’re providing to [the UK] region. … It’s a big deal to people.” –@M4Mercedes
Growing the ILTA community and reaching new members (24:25): “The challenge is finding your first [community members] that are going to be your champions. Once you have that, they’re usually a good insight into the networks and what topics exist, and they’re really good at introducing you to other individuals that might have similar interests.” –@M4Mercedes
About Mercedes Oppon-Kusi
Mercedes Oppon-Kusi is the community manager for Europe for the International Legal Technology Association, a community for technology pros working at law firms.
- Mercedes Oppon-Kusi on LinkedIn
- International Legal Technology Association (ILTA)
- The Chatham House Rule
[00:00:04] Announcer: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[00:00:25] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello, and thank you for listening. Our guest is Mercedes Oppon-Kusi, the community manager for Europe for the International Legal Technology Association, which is for technology pros working at law firms. We’re discussing the market differences between US and European community members, as well as between European countries, and breaking through the “I don’t have enough time” argument in professional communities.
A big thanks to Rachel Medanic, Maggie McGary, and Serena Snoad for backing our show on Patreon. We’re grateful for the support. If you’d like to join them, please visit communitysignal.com/innercircle.
Mercedes Oppon-Kusi is the community manager for Europe for the International Legal Technology Association or ILTA. Mercedes, welcome to the show.
[00:01:37] Mercedes Oppon-Kusi: Hello.
[00:01:14] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s so good to have you. The ILTA is primarily comprised of technology professionals who work at law firms like analysts, CIOs, I imagine CTOs, information security, knowledge management, electronic discovery. Is it typically the firms that they work for that pay for the memberships, or do individuals sign up personally in order to network or advance their careers and maybe even move from one firm to another?
[00:01:27] Mercedes Oppon-Kusi: Membership isn’t set up that way. It’s actually set up to join it at an entity level. Different teams can obviously purchase a membership, but how it happens is normally the technical team that purchases their membership. They purchase it for the entire law firm, so membership benefits are not limited to that team. It spreads internally in the firm, so anyone can hop on our website and enjoy our benefits. You can’t really as an individual purchase the membership unless you are someone that’s retired or someone that is, I think, a consultant and you want to purchase that sort of membership.
[00:02:04] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s very much a team-based membership. The customers for ILTA are the technical teams with law firms themselves. When you go out to find new members, that tends to be the place you’re going?
[00:02:13] Mercedes Oppon-Kusi: Yes. When we go to our members, we’re looking at teams within a law firm dealing with technology or responsible for technology in one way or the other.
[00:02:23] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s such an interesting niche. I hadn’t really thought about it too hard until I came across you and came across the ILTA because it’s almost like a niche within a niche because law firms are a focus group that’s like a niche, that’s a target audience, but for the ILTA specifically the tech teams within the law firms.
I hadn’t thought anything about that. Is that pretty common for a law firm to have a technical team, or are some of these teams one person? Are there small firms that are members? How common is that?
[00:02:50] Mercedes Oppon-Kusi: Very, very common. What’s happening is the way lawyers deliver services has changed, and they’re trying to use technology to make their business of law more efficient. Some law firms are actually designing solutions for their clients and working in partnership with IT teams to build and improve their offerings. It’s actually given some firms a competitive advantage.
If you think about even like something to do with banking, banking has done the exact same. It’s changed a lot in a sense where you hardly see who is dealing with your account. You do everything through an app. They make you offers electronically. That’s the same thing with the legal service almost. What happens is that every law firm has a technical team that keeps the lights on.
Then they have teams like innovation teams that are looking for ways in which the lawyers can deliver legal services better, using technology. Then they have other technical teams who, I don’t know if the word technical is right, but they’re basically charged with taking the intelligence of the firm and transferring it into an internal community of knowledge and disseminating that through different offices so that the law firms can actually evolve and build future intelligence from cases that they’ve dealt with in the past.
There’s a lot of different exciting ways in which law firms use technology and different individuals in the firms offer those services.
[00:04:22] Patrick O’Keefe: When I asked you what the biggest roadblock with member participation was, you said that it was time and uncertainty about what’s in it for them, what’s in it for the member that you’re trying to bring into the community. The fact that the firm is paying for it and not them, I imagine can exacerbate that lack of skin because in some cases, it’s probably their employer saying, “Here is this new thing,” or the team lead, the head of the technical team saying, “We’re going to join this thing. You all should participate.”
That’s something I’ve seen in managing professional member communities too, is it often is like, “Oh, the company is looking to bring a person into this community,” or, “Bring them into this trade association.” People tend to think about like, “Okay, I am busy,” or, “Everyone’s busy. Here’s one more thing on my plate. What’s in it for me?” How do you break through that?
[00:05:06] Mercedes Oppon-Kusi: That’s a good question. It just comes down to being very clear about who the value is for within that specific community. Our members come together to share knowledge. It’s all about being better at what you are doing by engaging with peers that are on the same level or on different levels and experiencing the same thing because law firms they’re really competitive, but they have a lot in common as well.
For instance, if one firm was hacked, they would have an information security team that would be dealing with that and other firms would be the next target because they’re also law firms. They actually do better by coming together to discuss how certain things work in the legal industries. As you said, it’s quite niche, so the only people that really and truly understand what firms are going through are simply other firms. There are sometimes where they do have to put their competitiveness aside to come together for the mutual good.
In terms of value and articulating that is the same with every profession. You have the people that have been there and done it, you have people that are looking to branch into it, and you have the people that want to grow in it. That’s what our communities do. They help our members learn how to become better than they are. An example we give is you might meet someone who might actually be your next boss at one of our events. It gives them that network that they can tap into, and then also it does really well with the technical knowledge that they need because our focus is technology.
People want to spy into what other firms that have a bigger budget, for instance, are doing with stuff like AI. You mentioned it, you said, “Do you have a one-person technology team?” Some smaller law firms have one-man CIOs manning their entire operation and then some firms are global and they’ve got offices in every single continent. They all like to come together because they like to see how different firms deal with different challenges, and that’s how we tap into the membership value.
We offer networking, we offer peer-to-peer knowledge sharing that you wouldn’t really have anywhere else, and then we also offer that career development angle where you’re positioning yourself as an expert and other firms are seeing this, and who knows what doors that might open for you.
[00:07:24] Patrick O’Keefe: Do you find that people from the bigger firms are harder to get to share? It seems like that might be the case, but maybe that’s not true.
[00:07:32] Mercedes Oppon-Kusi: Oh my goodness. That’s a US versus UK situation. [laughs]. Our membership pool in the US, you will not struggle to get a big firm to share. They’re proud of it. They’re like, “We’ve done this so well because we’re amazing, and this is how we did it,” but in the UK, they’re decidedly more reserved. It’s very hard to get the big firms to share about anything. I don’t know what it is, but it does seem like people are nervous because they do not want to be seen as bragging, so it differs according to the geographies, I find. It’s not really by firm size.
[00:08:08] Patrick O’Keefe: Interesting. That was something else you mentioned to me before the show that I found fascinating was just that, “The US communities are more engaged and understand the member value far more than their European counterparts.” Part of it is bragging, [laughter], Americans. Is there more to it there? Why do you think that the US communities and the members tend to find the value more so than the European counterparts? Is there anything else you see?
[00:08:30] Mercedes Oppon-Kusi: I am actually, through my role, learning a lot about that distinction as well, because I didn’t expect that prior to working at ILTA. I think if I were to make an educated guess, it would be that perhaps because the community originated in the US, and the US is the hub, the mother hub, I wonder if the community value is just better articulated in the home grounds rather than in the UK.
My thoughts would be because people are struggling to understand exactly what our community stands to offer them regionally, it’s harder to get them more engaged because I think that, regardless of how big a community is, it always goes back to that sense of community, that common identity. The US members seem to get it. When they are investing their time, volunteering, and coming up with ideas, they seem to clearly want to do it for the mutual benefit of that community.
Whereas in the UK, it’s a bit unclear as to the value they’re going to get out of it. I wonder if that plays into it as well.
[00:09:42] Patrick O’Keefe: There are obviously differences in, I feel like if it was just law firms engaging, not the technical teams on law firms, this would be more pronounced and the differences between the countries when it comes to laws. That still exists for technology and privacy laws and things of that nature, but when you have the US community that is more engaged, is that something that you have tapped into to help the UK community get a boost from time to time? Is there a way to cross-pollinate in a way that makes sense for folks in the UK?
[00:10:12] Mercedes Oppon-Kusi: Yes, we’ve definitely tried. How we’ve done that is when we are figuring out our community leaders, we tend to look for individuals that are more globally minded than focused purely on the UK markets. It’s just, personally, I find that if a member is very keen to engage with their peers globally, they tend to be better at championing their peers to support ILTA and support that professional knowledge sharing.
One thing that does contribute to that is the fact that most of the technology companies– because a law firm is not different. Law firms still use Outlook. I haven’t been to a firm that has Gmail. I’m sure there is some, but they use Microsoft, they’re using Salesforce. I’m pretty sure that some of them will have Slack, they have Zoom, they have WebEx, and a lot of these companies are headquartered in the US.
A lot of the legal technologies or the companies providing legal tech solutions are actually HQed in the US as well. The technical teams are used to traveling to the States to meet the providers or learn more about the features. I’m guessing some of them do have to liaise with peers in the US to actually see the ways in which a product is being adopted in the law firms abroad.
If you tap into a volunteer leader that has that experience, that international experience to their role, they’re normally really good at supporting us. Then another thing is, I think, enthusiasm for a community must be infectious because when they meet with their peers, and their peers are such strong advocates for ILTA in the US, it does something to them.
The volunteers here call it drinking the Kool-Aid, but it really helps them understand that lots of members that have had the opportunity to attend ILTA conferences in the US, they love it. They absolutely get it, and they see what we’re trying to do. Once we’re able to showcase that, it does help us with the grassroots aspects of the Europe membership base in the sense that they’re more willing to help. They see the vision, and it’s about getting them to work together to bring that into the UK.
[00:12:27] Patrick O’Keefe: Going back to what you said about larger– or firms in the UK being less likely to share, and you mentioned the bragging thing, is that a case where something like peer-to-peer connections helps break through that? Are people in those circumstances more likely to share if it’s a private conversation between one person and one person? Do you find that to be the case?
[00:12:46] Mercedes Oppon-Kusi: Absolutely. One of the things I struggled with during COVID was– Prior to COVID, we had special interests groups that were running, and they used to meet in person, and they were hosted by law firms. These meetings were great, but they were run under– Are you familiar with Chatham House Rules?
[00:13:07] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, but let’s go with no. It’s been a minute. Explain it.
[00:13:11] Mercedes Oppon-Kusi: This is not a dictionary definition or anything, but the idea with it is just that it’s basically a formal way to say what happens in here stays in here. If someone says a meeting is being run in Chatham House Rules, it means that from that meeting, please do not quote X person said this during the meeting, do not share or circulate a list of everyone who attended. It basically means that the meeting is for those that attended, they were privy to what was discussed, and let’s leave it in here.
That’s how these groups, open requests, have wanted their meetings to run. You can imagine, with COVID, us trying to pivot to virtual with these meetings. There’s no way I can guarantee that someone cannot extract this from Zoom, and sometimes you’re not even sure who is logged in via Zoom. It was very difficult to get these groups to engage during COVID simply because they wanted that privacy that you get in the in-person meetings.
Those meetings are so useful, but we struggle getting resources from the meetings because people feel hesitant to say, “My peer from this firm asked this question, and this is how I was responded to.” We rarely get resources from the meetings as well. It’s such a Catch-22 situation for a community manager because you have this great community meeting, they’re doing amazing stuff, they’re sharing, they’re collaborating exactly how you want them to, but you’re not allowed to speak about it.
It presents that challenge, but ultimately, it’s about who should the value be for, and if my community members are happy to do this, and it’s a mutual agreements that they don’t want to be sharing there, circulated anything, then I can’t do anything. I have to just keep them running. It’s interesting that that is the preference, but going back to your question, that is more popular for– Our community members want a safe, shared space where it’s confidential. Then ILTA does have a couple of guidelines around what discussions can be had. We have a policy around competition. We all have that mandated, but you are allowed to engage with your peers, but just be conscious that other people from other firms are around. That tends to work out well for them.
[00:15:23] Patrick O’Keefe: You’re the community manager for Europe.
[00:15:25] Mercedes Oppon-Kusi: Yes.
[00:15:25] Patrick O’Keefe: That accounts for roughly 2,000 of ILTA’s 25,000 or so members, I think you told me?
[00:15:31] Mercedes Oppon-Kusi: Yes.
[00:15:31] Patrick O’Keefe: Sticking with this geographic challenges theme, you mentioned that one of the things you bumped into is just the perception that ILTA is heavily US-centric and that European members sometimes feel like they’re better served locally by other groups. When you talk to those folks as someone who’s there on the ground and locally trying to serve them-
[00:15:50] Mercedes Oppon-Kusi: Yes.
[00:15:50] Patrick O’Keefe: -how do you convince them otherwise?
[00:15:53] Mercedes Oppon-Kusi: One of the biggest points I make is the technology isn’t local, but you’re still using it. If your firm was to purchase Skype, you wouldn’t dig your boots into the ground and say, “You know what? Skype isn’t a UK or English brand, so I’m not going to use it.” You’re going to try and understand the material. Even if on Skype’s website, a lot of it sounds American, you’re going to digest it and consume in a way that makes sense to your firm. I encourage them to apply the same lens to the ILTA membership.
Then I also tend to emphasize what’s happening regionally as well. I think last year one of the stuff that we were pushing was, okay, the content is global, but your audience, the peers, the people you’re meeting is local. As a brand, we decided to actually say, “Yes, we have a huge amount of members in the US, but that’s actually not a bad thing.” We decided to just reframe it a bit because we were starting to get that feedback so much that we were starting to treat it like it was a bad thing.
We had to start saying, “No, it’s actually a good thing to have loads of peers in the US and want to know what those firms are doing and to share about what your firms are doing and to get a balanced holistic view across the globe rather than to have that narrow vision of what’s happening within your field because the fact is technology literally has no boundaries.” That’s the whole point of technology and the solutions that they offer is the fact that it doesn’t have geographic limitations.
What we try to do is just to promote the fact that if your firm has offices in the US, ILTA membership is a way for you to, when you are in the US, meet with a colleague that you wouldn’t know about. We also reframe it to say, it’s a great opportunity to horizon scan because usually what happens is the companies grow in the US, and then when they start reaching out into a global audience, they come into the UK and tap into the rest of Europe. Sometimes it can get you ahead of the curve.
Then we also talk about the fact that law firms are actually merging a lot, and they are now having offices across different locations. UK firms are gradually becoming more global as well. That thinking of, “I’m just going to be bothered or focused on the UK market,” might end up being a bit archaic and it might be the best thing for what I think is more internationally, and ILTA is here to help you do that. Yes, sometimes it works, and then you have the people that don’t buy it.
Then at a more technical level, I work a lot as an advocate within ILTA to say, “Right–” The best example I can give you is a lot of our material has the word attorney, which doesn’t exist in the UK. We have solicitors and barristers. One of the things was where do we make reference to lawyer and not to attorney? Because to Europe members, that doesn’t make sense. There are little tweaks around the material and our language that we’ve had to do in order to localize what we’re providing to this region.
[00:18:56] Patrick O’Keefe: That’s an interesting tip of really not necessarily small undertaking, seemingly small change to your website, your content, if you want to just amp it up a little bit to make it a little more direct to the audience you’re trying to serve. Even a generic online community about a hobby, you can tap into that tip through language packs or a specific page that displays, based on where you’re coming from, to make people feel a little more comfortable in your space and make them feel like they have a little bit more of a home instead of reading terms, words, even spellings, O-U-R, O-R. [chuckles] I’m thinking of that specifically.
[00:19:31] Mercedes Oppon-Kusi: It’s actually a big deal. I don’t mind, but it’s a big deal to people. I guess they’re the customer, they’re paying. That’s when it becomes a factor because when you are paying for something, you’re really picky about what you’re being offered, and it’s not a big deal to me. For instance, I have attended events from community bodies. At the point of purchase, sometimes the figure is in dollars, it’s not in pounds, but I do my math. Our members have a huge thing about the fact that their money is also advertised in dollars. They want it to be in Sterling. The people really, really want to be communicated to at a local level. I find that really interesting.
[00:20:14] Patrick O’Keefe: We talked a lot about sort of the US, UK differences, but before we bring it to a close, I wanted to talk about your efforts to expand within Europe and the differences that you might be seeing there because I know you’re working to expand beyond ILTA’s UK efforts and grow membership in wider Europe. Are there any differences that are standing out to you as you try to do that even between the European countries and how you’re trying to reach professionals in those regions?
[00:20:41] Mercedes Oppon-Kusi: Yes, a couple comes to mind. I live in London, obviously, and I’m UK-based. I sometimes forget that that plays into things as well. For instance, law firms are not all headquartered in London. There are loads of firms that are outside of London. My first inkling when I want to plan events is to do it in London.
I’ve had people call me up about that saying, “Why is it London-centric? We want events in Scotland. We want events in the northern part of England.” That’s one thing where your in-person events take place, so overcoming your biases as a professional.
Another way that has also manifested is, for instance, assuming that the European firms have the same technology as the UK firms doesn’t happen. Sometimes I mentioned a software point that is such a huge pain point for UK firms, and European firms have no interest in it because it’s not something that’s relevant to their market.
You do need to build that technical knowledge of what they’re using in that market, because it’s all about what is the professional supporting the lawyers with, and that differs according to different firms. Another thing is the areas of focus. I gave you a couple of examples. I said that some teams are just making sure that the lights are on, some teams help the lawyers figure out which technologies to bring in-house, and then some teams are helping lawyers capitalize on their intelligence and knowledge.
The European firms sometimes operates very differently. Their focus might be more around innovation than something like information security. What we try not to do is to lump Europe into one big sum and then have this UK versus Europe divide because Scandinavian firms are probably different to other firms like in Germany, France, and then Spain.
We have to look at geographically what the scene of the legal tech market is. Then we have to divide them because some markets seem more mature than others and some seem to be emerging markets. For instance, some emerging markets are very interested in innovation because their firms are smaller and more agile. They’re able to adapt and build a solution much quicker than a big law firm, which has to pass through so many internal steps, manage risk, it has to get the sign-off from legal. Some smaller firms don’t have those challenges.
One of the difficulties has been understanding that ILTA’s marketing model as well works much better for the US because of the geographical challenges. In the US, it’s harder for everyone to meet in New York in the same week. Whereas here, if I were to do a social, I can, within two weeks, get people in London for something. It’s not that hard to jump on a train and get to London.
Those challenges also happen when you are talking about Europe because the geographic boundaries do matter. It’s been about building that practical knowledge of the market, and then figuring out where to go first. We learned a bit by starting with Ireland. Ireland was a good starting point for us to look at can we replicate the community on a smaller level?
Then once again, the challenge is finding your first people that are going to be your champions. Once you have that, they’re usually a good insight into the networks and what topics exist, and they’re really good at introducing you to other individuals that might have similar interests. I guess going back to it, Patrick, is all about helping your community advocates build their own communities on a global skill.
That’s the tricky part, but we’re getting into it. The more people hear about ILTA, the more we engage with people, that’s what we’re doing, the easier it becomes to get them to buy into this peer-led organization and supporting your peers and building your own hubs in your country.
[00:24:30] Patrick O’Keefe: I’m always fascinated by the differences between countries, and I love to talk to people who work across countries. This has been a really interesting conversation and I appreciate you taking the time. Thanks for joining us today, Mercedes.
[00:24:41] Mercedes Oppon-Kusi: Thank you, Patrick. I hope that’s been useful.
[00:24:44] Patrick O’Keefe: Definitely has been. We’ve been talking with Mercedes Oppon-Kusi, community manager for Europe for the International Legal Technology Association. Find them iltanet.org. That’s I-L-T-A-N-E-T.org.
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