I write each February after LegalTech in New York to try and convey how this event is simultaneously hard work and good fun. Certain times and cultures are inherently suspicious of the idea that you can enjoy yourself whilst working, and this may be one of those times. I stand, however, by my usual proposition to the effect that anyone whose work involves the management of electronic documents for litigation etc, whether as lawyer, judge, client, supplier or consultant, should be there, and that their attendance will be repaid by the knowledge and information which they acquire. That knowledge and information is gained equally by going to sessions, seeing applications, and talking to people, whether in formal meetings, in chance encounters in corridors, or in the bar.
This is the more true in a year when one of the themes is collaboration and cooperation. That collaboration is needed between lawyers and their clients, and between suppliers and those who instruct them; it operates at a business process level and at a technical level, and it extends, by virtue of common sense as well as the rules, into cooperation between lawyers on opposing sides. If you must collaborate with people then it makes sense to know something about them, and the shared experience of LegalTech is the best place to mix professional relationships with the personal ones which are the oil in two figurative senses – the oil in the machinery which keeps the processes running, and the oil on what are occasionally troubled waters. If you know the people, the processes run better and the difficulties are more easily sorted out.
I have written my heavyweight report on what I see as the main trends to emerge during 2010 (LegalTech optimism points to busy eDiscovery year ahead). This post is more designed to convey the feel of LegalTech for those who might come next year if they know something about it. It inevitably reflects my own interests and, since my primary interest in this market is the people who work in it, it is the people who dominate the narrative. So, in this post, I am not promoting a product, advancing a viewpoint, reporting news or airing a prejudice, simply describing my few days in New York.
I first went there, in 2007, to meet up with the UK people there. That may seem odd, but is easily explained by the fact that many UK-based suppliers and law firm litigation support managers go to LegalTech, and it is easier and cheaper to pick them all off in one go in New York. We tend to gather on Saturday, because the return airfare is very much cheaper if the outbound journey is at the end of the week. My return airfare, incidentally, was just under £400 and would have been less if I had timed it better. The other early arrivals are the Australians who (from my experience of that trip) need two days to recover.
I generally take one of my sons with me; this year it was the eldest, Charlie (drummer with The Phoenix Fall), who had expressed curiosity as to what it is that I actually do. Some people seem to think that I spend my time just sitting at home writing, popping off every so often to meet people or talk to a crowd, often in an exotic location. I was keen that he should be disabused of this notion. Having him there meant that I would get out and see something of New York. He also makes a good minder, pointing out, for example, when I am about to leave my bag behind, and he has a better sense of direction than I do, which proved helpful in the Metropolitan Museum.
The focal point of LegalTech is the Hilton lobby, with bars behind and to the side of it and escalators rising from it to the conference and exhibition floors. The conference rooms range from vast ballrooms down to relatively cosy spaces. The exhibition halls are packed with stands at which you can see every relevant application. The bigger suppliers take to the cloistered quiet of an upper floor. Some take suites in the Hilton or across the road in the classier and more sedate Warwick Hotel. We stayed in the Sheraton which is competently dull. The lifts at the Hilton are so few and so slow that you get to your room more quickly if you walk up the street to the Sheraton.
I had two formal roles to fulfil, one as a panellist on Trilantic’s double international panel and one as moderator on a multinational discovery panel for Epiq Systems. I will come back to these in a separate post – their subject matter is too important to be lost in a chatty summary of the week. I enjoy these panels: although each participant has topics (mine were cultural issues, the French Data Privacy Opinion of August 2009 and the German Data Protection Act of September 2009) they are not scripted, which keeps you on your toes as the subjects pass up and down the line. They had to add extra chairs to one of the sessions and the feedback was good.
The sessions programme is a complicated grid of parallel events. I carefully mark up my calendar before I go with the times of each session, using Outlook’s handy ability to show two time zones at once. I know as I am doing this that I will attend almost none of them – the blocked-off times become the spaces into which I slot the meetings and other things which arise as the days go by. Most of the sessions are captured on video; I can watch them later but I cannot recapture the opportunity for the conversations.
Nor do I look at much software, my patrols of the exhibition hall being made more in the certainty that I will bump into people than because I want to look at their applications. It is not that these are not important but, again, I can see them any time via an Internet demonstration – this is worth knowing, incidentally, for those of you who want to keep up with developments but without the fuss and formality of a physical demonstration. People do look a bit hurt when I say that I do not want to see the demos. The fact is that I am much more interested in the companies, their perceived markets and their views of future directions.
What were the high spots? Meals, mainly, and literally in a high spot in the case of Epiq’s breakfast at the top of the Mandarin Oriental hotel with Greg Wildisen and Mike Brown. Both view and the food were wonderful, but what I will remember is the fact that we laughed (at what, I cannot now remember) from start to finish. That was my second breakfast of the day; Nigel Murray of Trilantic organised their usual Commonwealth Breakfast. The usual venue, the Tavern on the Green in Central Park, is closed for redevelopment and we crammed instead into Sarabeth’s at the bottom of the Park. Fortunately, Trilantic and Epiq chose different nights for their panellists’ dinners. The meals were a culinary tour in themselves – American with Trilantic and with 7Safe, Chinese with Epiq, Indian with Nick Pollard of Legal Inc and the London litigation support Mafia, Italian with Shawnna Childress of LECG, and my first ever Porterhouse steak with Patrick Burke of Guidance Software. The point of these recitals is not merely to thank those who were kind enough to host these meals (and particularly those who were thoughtful enough to invite Charlie along as well) but to emphasise that there is more to LegalTech than educational sessions and suppliers’ stands. The meals, and all the coffees and beers in between, are extremely pleasurable, but they are also where information is exchanged which is valuable to all of us in our work. That may be hard business – steps on the way to a procurement decision, for example – but there is a value also in the unstructured sniff-the-breeze, take-the-temperature way which, whether one is conscious of it or not, helps shape decisions for the coming year.
The continuing mystery to me is why we do not see any UK lawyers there. There is more involved here than acquiring knowledge critical to the business decisions which must be made in the coming year. The UK occupies a pivotal position between the discovery-hungry US and the privacy-conscious EU – pivotal because we have a discovery tradition, are within the EU, and speak the same language as they do in the US, more or less. The only English lawyer advocating the instruction of London-based solicitors for Hague Convention discovery applications was Senior Master Whitaker, who appeared on the three panels which I did and on a fourth heavyweight judicial panel. He is probably the only English judge who understands how the Hague Convention works (or could work if people used it properly), which is just as well since he is the Central Authority for the Hague Conventions on Service and Taking of Evidence. He is also one of the few judges who understands the relationship between case management of electronic disclosure and the technology available to help. This has been placed firmly on the agenda by Lord Justice Jackson’s recommendation as to judicial training in his final report, and one somehow hoped that some UK lawyers would take this opportunity to be at the centre of the US-EU discovery trade.
Perhaps this should be my central point. The conference may have “tech” as part of its name, but the other part is “legal”, and what was being discussed, in the pubs as well as in the sessions, would help equip UK lawyers to get involved in an aspect of litigation and regulatory activity which is central to international clients. We have the makings of a trade war here, as US courts and authorities demand more and the EU digs its toes in. Don’t be misled into thinking that last week’s decision of the European Commission (see European commission adopts new standards on citizens’ data transfers to processors in third countries) will make it any easier to transfer data. What do you mean you had not heard about it?
My apologies for allowing a serious digression to my chatty narrative. It emphasises my point, however, that however much enjoyment we may get at LegalTech, there is a serious business purpose behind it all. Don’t think, either, that the trends which I identified in my earlier article (see LegalTech optimism points to busy eDiscovery year ahead) apply only to US firms and businesses. The context in which I set it may have been a US conference, but the implications apply equally in every jurisdiction which requires the discovery of documents. All the technology on display is critical to business success, but it is properly seen as the tools of a lawyer’s trade, not an end in itself.
Regrets? I have a few, well a couple anyway. Most concerned people whom I should have recognised but failed to. My excuse, if such be needed, is that I see most of them only once a year and then see everyone at once. The main one relates to a video which I was asked to make for the Masters Conference. It is an honour to be invited to do such a thing but, through nobody’s fault, we found after much trading of dates and times that I could only do it by missing the one session I actually wanted to go to (a discussion involving Judge Grimm, Jason Baron and Ralph Losey). I was uncharacteristically cross by the time the camera started rolling, and I suspect it showed. One for the cutting room floor, I hope.
I was also a bit slow on the uptake when approached outside the Sheraton by an extremely pretty young lady, somewhat underdressed for the time of year, who asked for a light. It was not until she asked if I had plans for the evening that I realised that her purpose in being in that part of New York was as commercial as my own. “I’m-going-out-to-supper-with-my-son” I stammered, heading fast for the door
The Hilton changes its character as soon as LegalTech ends. Litigation support people come in all shapes and sizes, but they form a recognisable cohort. The second half of the week is usually host to a youth sports convention, and if the residents are fitter, in both senses, than the litigation support crowd, they are not my crowd. Charlie and I went off to the Metropolitan Museum, which wholly warranted the half day we had allowed for it. Last year, the American Museum of Natural History, with all its dinosaurs and primitive people using primitive tools, furnished me with illustrations for a LegalTech-related article. Perhaps I can do the same this year with the cultural resources of the Metropolitan Museum.
I have already described the failure of BA’s business process in my article BA misses the bus – how to lose goodwill at the end of the project which told how BA got us across the Atlantic but overlooked to provide buses to get us off the plane. They did much better on the flight taken by Vince Neicho of Allen & Overy on the previous day – the buses were waiting. All that was missing was the steps to get the passengers down to them, which took nearly 20 minutes to arrive.
I hope your projects end better than that in 2010, and look forward to seeing more of you at LegalTech in 2011.