Despite its title, this post is not about Fellini’s 1983 film And the Ship Sails On in which a great liner is unexpectedly attacked just before the big event which was the purpose of the voyage, leaving Freddie Jones sharing a rowing boat with a rhinoceros.
The nautical parallel here with ILTACON 2017 is less exact: a big ship, already set in the right direction, would maintain momentum into port even if key members of the crew were dropped overboard at the harbour mouth. The engines would turn, the deck events, entertainment and meals continue, and the passengers would just have to assume that the new crew had the next destination in mind, and some idea of how to get there. There was no rhinoceros at ILTACON, but there was a big elephant in the room.
If all that means nothing to you, a quick skim of this article on Legal IT Insider will fill in the gaps for you. The good ship ILTACON did indeed make it into port and the events all went entirely as planned, largely thanks to one or two surviving crew members and a lot of volunteers. Where to next though, with a new crew and the comms systems apparently out of order?
One year I contemplated skipping ILTACON, the big August event run by the International Legal Technology Association. “They will all think you have died”, my wife said, and she was (as usual) correct, so I went.
The same assumption might reasonably be made from my blog output in the last few weeks – only two posts since 9 August. That is partly explained by my being at ILTA – there is no time for writing at busy events and even my tweets dried up while I was away. I came back to find that an old friend of my mother had died, and some of the next week was spent going to Suffolk and back to help with the aftermath of that. The death certificate had to be collected from Aldeburgh, some miles away. An unexpected bonus as I did this was the the sight of army parachutists falling from the sky – you expect rain in Aldeburgh but not that it should be raining men.
Enough of this rambling, you say – what of ILTA?
I could, I suppose, tactfully draw a veil over the unceremonious removal of Peggy Wechsler a few days before ILTA opened and the complete bollocks which ILTA made of communication about it. She had written to me, as she has done every year forever, to make sure I was going. The last email I had from her said I’m excited!!! See you in August!
Should I tiptoe past what happened next, my fingers over my nose and my gaze averted, out of respect for ILTA? This is when one discovers that one’s liking for an organisation often comes down to affection for the people in it. I took the opportunity, at the end of my panel session, to have my say; Relativity’s David Horrigan, the best live-tweeter of events in the business, was there:
I said it right at the end so that they can truncate the video if they choose to. I was not the only one to make the point, and was more diplomatic than some. It was still a great show – but then Peggy organised it, so that is what I would expect. Whatever happens next – changes for better or worse to the event format for example – a big part of ILTA for me was finding Peggy round every corner, omnipresent in her mission to make us all feel welcome and part of the ILTA family.
I quite like these vast US venues, even one or two of the Las Vegas warehouses. The Mandalay Bay does not match Caesars Palace for location or style – I wrote about it and other aspects of Las Vegas in an off-piste post here called Las Vegas: plenty of room at the Hotel Nevada – any time of year you can find it here.
The main objection was the distance from hotel room to convention centre, starting with a long walk down gloomy hotel corridors which made me think of creepy twins and mad axeman Johnny. I clocked up 16,000 paces on one day without going anywhere.
This is merely an observation, by the way, not a complaint – I imagine there were sound commercial reasons why ILTA chose this venue.
The form of ILTA was much the same as it has been over my long years of attending. Whether you like this reassuring familiarity (I do) or think that the whole thing needs a shake-up will vary with your viewpoint.
Greg Bufithis, in a thoughtful article called How to run a technology conference, observes (among many other things) that the form of these big events is driven in part by the layout of the venues – vast rooms for the exhibit hall and for communal events like meals, with session rooms of various sizes all laid out in lecture hall style, beyond which are the private rooms in which the vendors give demonstrations and hold their meetings. The venues discourage the private provision of food so that hunger drives people to the venue’s own outlets, and there is little provision for sitting comfortably and talking.
The result is that a visitor’s day loses coherence as it is broken up by discrete functions – you cannot move seamlessly from an eye-catching booth to a proper discussion with someone senior and knowledgeable because the latter are away in private rooms and there is nowhere to sit down anyway. That is not ILTA’s fault but a product of expensive venues, tight economics (whether or not you accept Greg’s description of eDiscovery as a “cottage industry”), and the need to maximise the paying use of floorspace.
(For what it’s worth, I question the value of having senior people shut away in back-to-back meetings in remote aeries. You spend all that money staking a public pitch at a busy event and then lock yourself up for three days with pre-arranged meetings, giving demos which could be done over the web and talking to people with whom you have already connected, while hordes of interested people roam the floors below. That’s not a fault, exactly, and certainly not ILTA’s fault, but it seems daft to me).
Greg Bufithis rightly praises the educational content as the core of ILTA which drives everything else. In a section comparing ILTA to Legaltech, he says this
In general, ILTA, is a peer group – notwithstanding its recent St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre. So it is not a business like LegalTech…. So ILTACON puts on a far better show in terms of content, sponsor involvement and opportunities (for instance, there is an exhibitor hall “kickoff”, where sponsors have an opportunity to mingle with attendees for two hours), facilities, etc. It also tends to be more focused because many of the attendees have the same background (law firm IT), compared to LegalTech which has a smorgasbord of different tracks and panel topics and attendees
I am a creature of habit and quite like the format. I like to wander the aisles of booths, bumping into people, seeing and hearing what they deem important this year. I like the exhibitor hall opening praised by Greg Bufithis. I like the concept of the organised breakfasts and lunches, not for the bland and samey food, but for the opportunity to sit down next to random people, many of whom are the users of the software and services on display and the ones facing and solving the problems. I like the big corridors and the certainty that I will bump into someone I know every couple of minutes.
If asked which of these I would give up in order to gain a more cohesive flow between the components of exhibition, demonstration and chat, I’m pushed to give an answer, which is probably why the format persists from year to year – you don’t break something which works without a clear idea of a better replacement.
I once asked a London-based conference provider about varying the platform-and-podium format. They said that they had polled lawyers about this and found that the majority wanted to stick with the established format. “Even civil servants are more adventurous”, they said.
One of my sons, familiar by now with eDiscovery-based events, does a lot of work all over Europe with a very big technology player. The spending seems to be enormous, and there is much more glitz than we get at eDiscovery events. It presumably works for them in terms of sales and customer connections but I have yet to identify a specific component of their spending, layout, format or location which would work better for our audiences beyond the points made above about keeping the audience’s attention through layout and flow.
On the subject of the exhibit hall opening, there is always a fancy dress theme, and exhibitors attract attention by the imagination and thought given to their team appearance. The clear winner this year was iCONECT – the picture below speaks for itself and there are others here.
The main topics this year were artificial intelligence and security. Both these subjects take people out of their silos – historically, the “eDiscovery people” were a breed apart from the rest, and even information governance (the dominant theme of a couple of years ago) did not manage to pull together the various interest groups (“stakeholders” in that ghastly civil service-type phrase) in corporations and firms.
Artificial intelligence and security are achieving that, as requirements, budgets, solutions and skills are more widely deployed.
Another theme which unites people, both horizontally across departments and vertically from the boardroom down, is the General Data Protection Regulation which was one of the subjects of my own panel, called Managing Data from the EU During Litigation.
I was lucky (as so often) in my panel – Ben Rusch of Consilio, Mollie Nichols of Cleary Gottlieb and Jonathan Wilan of Baker McKenzie brought a range of experience to a topic which affects both those responsible for policy and direction and those who get their hands dirty actually dealing with getting data out of Europe. If the GDPR is grabbing the headlines at the moment, the Privacy Shield, the increasing attempts by US courts and authorities to lay their hands on data from abroad, and (not least) the daily conduct of business as opposed to the mechanics of eDiscovery, all warrant attention.
As usual, Ari Kaplan of Ari Kaplan Advisors has done an infographic reflecting the themes he came across at ILTA:
Because ILTA attracts such a large and diverse audience, it is one of my big opportunities for conducting video interviews, and my son Charlie came with me to deal with the technical side of that. Others conduct perfectly serviceable interviews out on the exhibit hall floor or in the corridors using portable equipment. My sons – one a lighting engineer and the other a sound engineer – would not let me work like this for our main interviews even if I wanted to, and we carry vast amounts of camera, audio and lighting equipment. We came back with 245GB of media data which will take a while to turn into publishable form.
The social side
The I in ILTA stands for International – it may be US-led, but ILTA’s ambition is to bring together those with the same problems and solutions from every part of the world. eDiscovery certification provider ACEDS has the same ambition. Mary Mack and Kaylee Walstad of ACEDS took us out for an extremely good dinner along with Bernard Jarroush of Australian eDiscovery provider Law in Order and Craig Ball. There was talk of spreading the ACEDS gospel to Australia and Singapore and, having moderated two of ACEDS London events, I could not but be interested in this.
ACEDS chapters form organically where there is interest and local champions. If you are in Australia and Singapore and might be interested in participating in the launch of an ACEDS chapter there, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and they will get in touch.
David Horrigan and Shawn Gaines of Relativity took us out for a fine dinner. It is occasions like this where I find out about the companies I write about. There was nothing inquisitorial about it from my end and I learned nothing confidential – not a whisper about the rebranding from kCura to Relativity due to take place a few days later for example – but I come away feeling that I have a better understanding of the business than I had before. To revert to an earlier point, those who shut themselves away in lofty meeting rooms miss this kind of exchange (I don’t just mean with me but with the market generally).
Where to next?
I assume that ILTA’s new management has a plan beyond the unceremonious removal of so much of its hands-on management. The wonderful TJ Johnson is promoted to VP Events and Conferences which means that there is at least one person at a senior level who is known and liked by ILTACON’s long-standing delegates and who knows how the thing works. Next year takes ILTACON back to the Gaylord Convention Center outside Washington, not the worst of the big US venues and one which has hosted past ILTACONs.
ILTACON fills a big place in the legal technology calendar, both in terms of sheer size and variety and in the hearts of its regular visitors – if that sounds silly for a major business (pace Greg Bufithis’s reference to a “cottage industry”) Facebook had grown men and women counting the number of “sleeps till ILTACON” which indicates the affection in which it is held.
Does that “affection” matter? Should we be more hard-nosed about one of the two major events in the legal technology calendar? (The other is of course Legaltech, which is as hard-nosed as it comes, its setting in New York in winter almost symbolic of its hardness).
ILTACON attracts more affection than any other legal technology event – that does not mean that people don’t appreciate the others, but ILTACON’s appeal is of a different and more personal kind. It is a characteristic of all these events (ILTA less than most) that people like to moan afterwards, but few of those who complain about them (Greg Bufithis is an exception) have constructive suggestions to make, or try to reconcile the business imperatives of the organiser with the needs of those who fund it, those who speak at it and those who just attend year after year.
I’ll put my hand up and say I love it, even if this year’s bloodbath left a nasty taste. The pattern was set by the old team, and TJ Johnson and the large team of volunteers kept the ship on course for this year. We will have to wait and see if the new management has anything positive to bring; attendance at a course in human relations and communication might be beneficial. As Greg Bufithis says, the “people factor” matters at multiple levels at a show like this.
ILTA Insight in London
I must mention ILTA INSIGHT, the one-day event hosted by ILTA in London, this year on 16 November. It is always stimulating, always interesting, and like its big sister in the US, focuses on education and on sharing ideas.