ABA TECHSHOW 2021 Conference Report


ABA TECHSHOW 2020 last February was pretty much the last time I was around people before we went into pandemic lockdown. ABA TECHSHOW 2021, which is wrapping up today, was of course entirely virtual. It’s a very different experience, but it exceeded my expectations for a virtual TECHSHOW.

By the way, ABA TECHSHOW is not necessarily an innovation conference, and legal tech is not the same thing as legal innovation. But I keep going back to ABA TECHSHOW because the two are often found in the same place, and that is also why I am writing about it here.

Going Virtual

ABA TECHSHOW 2021 isn’t my first virtual conference, and nearly a year into the pandemic it probably isn’t yours, either. Like live conferences, virtual conferences have some pros and cons.

On the pro side, it is way less time and money to attend a virtual conference. Plus you can sleep in, make your own breakfast, lunch, and coffee the way you like it, and attend in your pajamas with a cat on your lap if you want to. Or just watch the recorded sessions later if attending live doesn’t fit into your schedule. Honestly, if you are primarily interested in the sessions a virtual conference is actually better than in-person. I don’t think anyone misses drab hotel meeting rooms.

But if you were only interested in the sessions, you’d be missing out on a big part of ABA TECHSHOW—in a normal year, anyway.

There are definitely cons to a virtual event. ABA TECHSHOW has always been about more than the sessions. It is also about meeting up with speakers, vendors, and colleagues in the EXPO Hall, in the hotel lobby, and in the evenings. The virtual conference platform ABA TECHSHOW used, InEvent, was excellent and exceeded my expectations for sessions, but virtual meetups and text messages just aren’t a great substitute for the real thing. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t see many people in the meetup rooms during ABA TECHSHOW.

And it’s neither a pro nor a con, but for this year’s virtual conference, ABA TECHSHOW expanded from 2.5 days to a full work week. That’s a lot of TECHSHOW to consume. As someone who blocked off most of the week to attend live, it felt like too much. But of course you could always just watch the pre-recorded sessions whenever and and at whatever pace is convenient for you. The only difference when watching pre-recorded sessions is that you can’t ask questions.

I don’t mean any of this as a knock on ABA TECHSHOW. In-person conferences aren’t an option right now so the TECHSHOW planning board did an awesome job under the circumstances. But I think those of us who can attend in person will look forward to ABA TECHSHOW 2022. And hopefully the sessions will still be streamed live and recorded for those who can’t make it.

Themes

Sometimes there are clear themes at TECHSHOW. For example, ABA TECHSHOW 2013 was the year cloud computing took over and, according to Bob Ambrogi, went mainstream. These are some of the themes I picked up on at ABA TECHSHOW 2021.

Documents. This year there was no EXPO Hall to walk around in, and the virtual EXPO Hall was dominated by cloud-based law practice management software just like the real EXPO Hall has been for a while now. But there was a clear trend among the startup pitch competition finalists: documents. By my count, 9 of the 15 finalists offered software to help lawyers read, manage, generate, or automate their documents.

Now, these were all fairly early-stage startups, so I’m not sure their idea of what lawyers need should be taken as an indication of what lawyers actually do need, but there are a lot of new tools for you to consider if your practice involves lots of documents.

Gender and AI assistants. During the startup pitch competition, I couldn’t help but notice that all of the startups’ AI assistants had women’s names: Della, Dorothy, and Syntheia. They follow in the footsteps of well-known AI assistants with women’s names and voices, including Siri, Cortana, Alexa, and the Google Assistant. And in legal tech, there are Casetext’s Cara and ROSS’s Eva. (Vincent, vLex’s legal research assistant, is one of the few exceptions I could find.) This feels problematic to me, although it’s certainly not a clear-cut issue.

Lawyers are still struggling with technology competence. Even though TECHSHOW tends to attract tech-savvy (or at least tech-curious) lawyers, a clear theme in the sessions I attended was that lots of lawyers still need to be persuaded to learn about and adopt technology. Maybe they aren’t convinced of their obligation to learn about the benefits and risks of the latest technology (see comment 8 to Rule 1.1 of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct), maybe they are intimidated, maybe they are “too busy practicing law,” or maybe they just don’t want to.

As someone who spent 13+ years trying to persuade lawyers to adopt modern technology and practices, this is familiar. But after all that time, it’s so frustrating to see presenters are still having to lay out the arguments for going paperless, using practice management software, or using alternative billing practices like limited-scope representation, flat fees, and subscriptions. All those are well-established technologies and practices that have been used by lawyers for 20+ years, yet the same tired questions and misguided objections still pop up in the chat.

If there is a bright side, it does seem like he pandemic has forced lawyers to get comfortable with technologies for working remotely. Hopefully that has a “gateway drug” effect that moves more lawyers ahead on the curve.

But some lawyers are very tech-savvy. The practicing-lawyer presenters (and some attendees) are another story. Many of them clearly learned from books like The Small Firm Roadmap and The Client-Centered Law Firm and Clio’s annual “Legal Trends Report,” or just figured things out on their own. Their websites let me see prices and sign up for flat-fee services or subscriptions with a credit card. They use technology like client portals, practice management software, and document automation to work more efficiently and effectively.

When I put my potential-client hat on, I honestly can’t imagine myself hiring a traditional firm over someone who is obviously aware of my concerns and trying to address them. I am sure sure I am not alone. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens to the profession over the next few years as the number of “new-school” law firms reaches critical mass.

Takeaways

  1. As far as virtual conferences go, ABA TECHSHOW 2021 was very good.
  2. Virtual conferences are better than in-person conferences when it comes to substantive sessions, but not very good for networking or discussions. (This is more of a takeaway from the pandemic in general than from ABA TECHSHOW specifically.)
  3. If you handle any significant volume of documents it might be time to get an AI assistant to help you understand and manage them.
  4. It’s probably time to stop thinking about drafting a contract, brief, or other legal document as creative work and start thinking about how you can produce documents more efficiently with help from an AI assistant.
  5. If you are creating an AI assistant, maybe don’t automatically give it a woman’s name and voice.
  6. Lawyers are still struggling with technology competence and adoption.
  7. Probably related to the above, most lawyers are still trying to sell the same old product to a market that, increasingly, doesn’t exist.
  8. However, some lawyers are adopting new business models and technology-enabled client service models, and this could have a huge impact in the near future.

And of course I took away some names to add to the Reinventing Justice database.

I’d be interested to know what you took away from ABA TECHSHOW 2021. Hit me up on Twitter and let me know!

Published on March 12th, 2021. Last updated on May 6th, 2021, by Sam Glover.