Well, who would have thought that the big topic of conversation at LegalTech would be the weather? Keen though I am to import British ideas into US eDiscovery, the near-obsessive British focus on temperature and precipitation can stay at home. The subject came up thanks to the contrast between the balminess of this New York January compared with last year, when we needed snowshoes and crampons to cross 6th Avenue. Getting back to the UK was a different matter weather-wise, but we will come back to that.
The other generic ice-breaker at LegalTech is “Have you seen anything new here?”. None of us can actually remember ever seeing anything truly “new” at LegalTech, at least by the standards of an industry which produces ever more interesting and sophisticated technology throughout each year. The bar is set very high, and the question is the industry equivalent of the conventional enquiry after one’s health.
The problem – my particular problem, anyway – is illustrated by the legal IT PR who wrote to me as the show closed to ensure that I had all the information I needed for the article I might write about her client. What do you suggest I do, lady? Write about everything? Type out a big list of all the companies and people I saw and call it an article? Pick out some and ignore others on some subjective or arbitrary basis? I did in fact write about some of the new developments before LegalTech, mainly on my Google Plus site, and will pick up some more in due course, mainly by pointers to good summaries by others. My main purpose in going to LegalTech, apart from participation in a couple of panels, is to meet people.
At a conference last year, I overheard one person asking another about the best way to meet people at conferences. The answer given was “Follow Chris Dale around”. That is more than a little exaggerated, but I pass it on because its implication broadly defines what I do in between the formal events – I meet up with people, largely by serendipity, and find out far more than I would in the (necessarily fewer) formal meetings which require fixed time slots. As I say, I will point you in due course to some of the more structured accounts of LegalTech 2012, but for now I merely invite you to “follow me around” on what is largely a personal account of the show, though by no means a comprehensive one. This article is general in nature; I will write separately about the panels and other structured elements of the show.
What is LegalTech?
For those who do not know, LegalTech is a vast conference-cum-trade show held at the beginning of February each year at the Hilton on 6th Avenue in New York. Electronic discovery dominates the agenda, the booths and the population. US players inevitably out-number the rest, but a sizeable UK and Commonwealth contingent attends, mainly software and service providers and litigation support managers from the larger firms. Few non-US law firms send representatives which is a pity, since the outlay of time and money is small relative to the knowledge which can be absorbed in those few days.
The rest of us may not entirely appreciate the US approach to eDiscovery, but much of the talking and thinking is of a high standard and applicable in any jurisdiction; the opportunity to see all the technology and to speak to its providers is unmatched anywhere else. If you did no more than attend the Commonwealth Brunch, your awareness of the subject and its players would increase significantly. You don’t really need an excuse to go to New York for a few days anyway.
The consensus in advance was that predictive coding and Information governance would be the top subjects, with data protection gaining a new focus from the newly-released draft EU data protection regulation. The panels which I took part in were, as it happens, on information governance and cross-border eDiscovery and the only one which I attended as a spectator was on predictive coding, so I stayed in the mainstream.
Other subjects came my way: risk, and the sense that some lawyers, judges and companies are beginning to re-evaluate defensible deletion, their fear of sanctions, and the benefits of new technology, as the expense (the other half of the risk-benefit equation) continues to mount; innovation (in the true sense, not the lazy label “innovative” used as a grand way of saying “new”); consolidation amongst providers (though no one guessed how soon we would see the next acquisition); the marginalisation of law firms who ignore the way the wind is blowing; recruitment and training both of the young and of senior people transferring from other industries.
These strands are consistent with the general discussions over the past few months. They give LegalTech its flavour without necessarily being on the agenda, and they are the reason why one has to go there rather than just read the reports afterwards. In bad years, you feel the chill more acutely there – which year was it that one exhibitor closed down in the week before the show, and the halls were full of anxious-looking people handing out their CVs? The overall sense this year was a positive one, of business being done, of posts being created and of serious attempts to make profits from services which the clients actually need rather than from just shunting big volumes around.
Making a video
I usually take either my wife or one of my children to LegalTech. This year Mary Ann and eldest son Charlie came, and we stayed on for a few days – I had meetings for most of Thursday anyway. Mary Ann is increasingly taking over from me some of the business functions apart from the writing and speaking, and needs to meet some of the people I deal with; Charlie earned his keep by manning the camera when I made my first business video – an interview with Patrick Burke of Guidance Software, who gamely agreed to be the guinea pig.
I have twice recently been recorded in video interviews using an ordinary digital SLR, and realised that I carry with me anyway all the components for outlining, filming and editing short films. I just need to learn how to use them, and hours spent in airport lounges can be turned to profit if you are accompanied by a son who is a sound engineer and who comes from the generation which seems to know intuitively how software works.
One of the subliminal eDiscovery themes, indeed, is that the younger ones are at last making their presence felt in law firms for this very reason. The Apple generation extends up to partner level now, and does not have to wait for the dinosaurs to die before subverting old ways of working. I don’t need a camera crew, and rented equipment any more – a quickly knocked-up script sits in rough PowerPoint slides on my MacBook, which is perched on a box on a chair below the camera; the remote control moves us from slide to slide, and the only investment is in a tripod. A whole new way of getting messages out there suddenly comes to hand.
The end of the show
It is interesting how a building, even one as big as the Hilton, takes its character from the people in it. The eDiscovery crowd evaporates on Wednesday night each year, to be replaced by a large party of young athletes. These are much fitter, in both senses of that word, than the eDiscovery people, and have better laptops. They also eat with their mouths open, stand around in doorways in large groups, and have noisy parties in their rooms – all good reasons for staying somewhere else next year.
One thing I will repeat next time is flying in and out of Newark rather than JFK. The queues are shorter, there is less internal hiking and the taxi ride is quicker.
An unexpected tour of Europe
It is not just lawyers, of course, who need to learn from experience to find better ways, year by year, to serve their clients. British Airports Authority is not, as you might think from its name, a body of worthy civil servants dedicated to the public good, but a commercial enterprise which seems to see its airports as shopping malls with runways attached as a honeypot. As with Britain’s railway and highways authorities, BAA finds the arrival of winter an annual surprise, and refuses to invest in the equipment which would keep Heathrow going through the snow – perhaps the cost would reduce the bonus pool, and who cares about the airlines and the passengers anyway? The planes will have to land some time and incur landing charges, and it is good news for the shops, restaurants and car parks if the paying customers are locked up on site for an extra 24 hours. Mary Ann and Charlie each lost a day’s pay; one of the stewardesses missed her child’s birthday; endless inconvenience was caused to thousands because the indifferent idlers at BAA cannot be bothered to run the airport properly.
We had reached Bristol before the pilot learnt that BAA at Heathrow would not accept us, and we set off on a tour of Europe. We were well on the way to Geneva before they too turned us away – hosting too many BAA refugees already, apparently – and it fell to the efficient Germans at Frankfurt to take in us and more than 1,000 other Heathrow-bound passengers for the night, picking up landing charges and the hotel, meal, taxi and other profits by doing so. When I should have been home writing these articles, I was sitting in a Frankfurt restaurant eating sausage and cabbage.
You will spot the parallels, of course. BAA is like an old-fashioned firm of lawyers, doing things the way they have always done it, indifferent to client needs and objectives, and unwilling to invest in technology to meet those objectives. Frankfurt is like the consulting firm or technology company which is only too willing to adapt to take the profits from being ready for anything. There are differences, of course – we had no option but to go to Heathrow eventually, whereas the client can take the equivalent of the Frankfurt option next time, and leave its old lawyers out of the process.
End of part one
So back to my desk on 6 February, 36 hours late and nearly a fortnight after leaving it because of the trips to Manchester and Brussels which immediately preceded LegalTech. Oh look, here’s a message from another legal IT PR. You were going to get back to me, she said, following LegalTech “which I understand concluded on February 1″. You would have admired my patient, understated reply.
This post is a scene-setter. I will come back to the substantive elements in a separate post.