A Glimpse of Shifting Tectonic Plates in Nashville

The annual International Legal Technology Association (ILTA) conference was held in Nashville last month. (See Kate Simpson’s posting last year her take on last year’s conference in Las Vegas: I find the ILTA conference to be very fulfilling. Not only are there a plethora of good, substantive sessions (50 or more every day, for four days), but the conference also provides an opportunity for me to have good, in-depth conversations with my counterparts in large US and Australian firms.

For those who are members of ILTA, audio recordings of five of the six knowledge management (KM) sessions have been posted on the ILTA site. So even if you weren’t able to attend, you can at least listen to those sessions. (The one KM-stream panel not recorded was the one I participated in, entitled It’s a Failure Party! How to Celebrate these Learning Opportunities. Each of us talked about various initiatives that had not been successful and what we’d learned. But in order to protect the guilty, as it were, we imposed the Cone of Silence.)

With 1,600 attendees and about the same number of vendors, trying to identify general themes is challenging. What you’ll read below will necessarily reflect my biases (cf. the analogy of the five blind men describing an elephant), but here goes.

What seemed to me to emerge from the various sessions were discussions about the effect of digitization, the effect of increasing computing power, a broader focus on process improvement, cybersecurity and the move to the cloud as both separate and related themes, young lawyers, and “What does the future hold?”

Digitization and exponential growth

The overwhelming impression I had at this year’s conference is not that just that The Change is permanent, which I think everyone from Adam Smith, Esq. on agrees on, but that it is starting to pick up momentum. (By “The Change,” I refer of course to what’s happened since the Great Recession. As someone said, “Before 2008, all law firms participated in market growth; now, we’re fighting for market share.”)

The Day 1 keynote speaker, Peter Diamandis, spoke about The World of Disruptive Technologies and Abundance. One of the key points he made was about the six stages of technical disruption, which starts the first step, the digitization of content. The disruptive change that results from digitization is, at first, deceptively slow. The first digital camera, for example, was developed by Steve Sasson at Kodak in 1975. But the company believed that it was in the business of prints and chemicals and opted not to pick up on the digital camera. It took a while to get from that initial camera, the size of a small suitcase, to where we were even, say, 15 years ago, but the change since then has been remarkable. And human beings, he stressed, are unable to comprehend the nature of exponential growth, except in retrospect.

The analogy for law land, it seems to me, is that we are seeing more and more the effects of digitization in areas such as eDiscovery and starting to see it in areas like contract review. But one of Diamandis’s points was that, once the “digital genie” is out of the bottle, it never goes back. So law firms that think that things will change but at a moderate pace and they will (somehow) manage are not recognizing the exponential effects that these changes will have on the practice of law.

The effect of increasing computing power

Perhaps not surprisingly, speakers in several different sessions, and not only Peter Diamandis in his keynote address, drew attention to the fact that IBM has partnered with the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Hospital in New York to use IBM’s Watson (famous for having beaten Ken Jennings in Jeopardy) as a tool in cancer analysis. See this article from Forbes, which notes that “IBM Watson’s business chief Manoj Saxena says that 90% of nurses in the field who use Watson now follow its guidance.”

Further, in January of this year, IBM announced that it is providing a new business unit with $1 million in funding to commercialize its use. Several speakers made the point that providing cancer diagnoses is probably at least as difficult a process as contract drafting in M&A deals (if not significantly more so!). What happens when the power of Watson is turned upon the legal segment?

Process improvement

The last few ILTA conferences have included presentations by a handful of leaders in process improvement, firms such as Seyfarth Shaw, Littler Mendelson, and Baker Donelson. What they showed us then was leading edge. This year, on the other hand, there were a number of panels on process improvement. Clearly what was cutting edge is now becoming much more widely adopted.

Cybersecurity and the move to the cloud

I attended a couple of risk management-related sessions, at which there was a focus on cybersecurity, but not just in the sense of the threat posed by hackers attacking law firm systems to access valuable knowledge about things like impending deals. One session focused on the increasing number of clients who are asking their law firms to ensure that their own content, which they view as proprietary, is locked down and only available to the lawyers working on their files. Any such initiative runs counter to the firm’s KM initiative, which seeks to leverage existing knowledge. How do we build knowledge and train younger lawyers in the face of demands for the Balkanization of firm content?

Another significant change I noted is that more firms are moving to the cloud, although at this point it is still a small minority of firms. When law firms investigate various cloud computing service provides, we were told, they expect an extremely high level of security (not surprisingly, given law firms’\ professional liability responsibility for safeguarding the confidentiality of client work). The irony, of course, is that, when they do so, they demand a level of security far higher than what is present in their own in-house environment. Most cloud providers offer far greater security than all but the largest firms are able to put in place, so my question is whether we should not all be moving to the cloud.

New thinking from young lawyers

At a session entitled The Rise of Expert Systems: Threat or Opportunity to Traditional Legal Services?, Michael Mills of Neota Logic and Tanina Rostain of Georgetown University Law Center talked about the Georgetown Iron Tech Lawyer competition. During the competition, law students, during the course of one semester, identify one particular regulatory issue to attack, and then, using Neota’s decision-tree software, develop a program that allows “ordinary people” to get answers to complex legal issues. The apps they develop are then “published” on the web.

In spring 2014, the award went to Unemployment Benefits Hearing Coach. As the name implies, the app provides guidance on how to prepare for a hearing and assists claimants and employers in understanding their rights. This is a very exciting development in light of Richard Susskind’s comment in The End of Lawyers? that there is a huge underserviced market of consumers with “ordinary” legal issues they must content with.

The crucial comment, for me, was from Michael, who noted that it was refreshing and invigorating to hear law students talking excitedly about issues relating to user interface and user experience.

Here were students who were keenly focused on the client experience. But as Mary Abraham recently asked rhetorically in Above and Beyond KM, “While every law firm claims to put its clients first, does it really?” Here, Michael was saying, was a new generation of aspiring lawyers who did put clients first. What happens as those lawyers mature in their various law firms?

What does the future hold?

While ILTA is very useful in getting a snapshot as to where we are right now, among the most invigorating sessions were the ones that looked in the crystal ball to try and predict the future. The Wednesday keynote speaker was Rohit Talwar, whose topic was Unleashing IT To Disrupt and Define and Differentiate Future Strategies. Rohit spoke as one of last year’s keynotes, and his role this year included bringing us up to date on ILTA’s Legal Technology Future Horizons study. The study itself is a fascinating view into current trends. (You can find a four-part, in-depth analysis of this study on the [UK] site Elephant Creative: here, here, here, and here.)

Attendees of his keynote session also received a handout that identifies the three horizons of change, namely Now, the Medium Term, and the Long Term, and predicts how various new technologies will play out in the legal segment over those three horizons.

On the last day I attended a session entitled What’s That? New and Cool Technologies. As the title implies, the panellist were looking at current (very leading edge) technologies, which gave us some insight into what we might be seeing in law firms in the next few years.

The most invigorating session, for me, however, was one on the last day entitled Do Robot Lawyers Dream of Billable Seconds? There was, however, so much “meat on the bone” from that session, that I propose to defer my discussion of the various issues addressed there to my next posting.

Comments are closed.