I just got back from this year’s annual conference of the International Legal Technology Association (commonly referred to as ILTA). The Show, held at National Harbor near Washington DC, was the first in-person ILTA conference since 2022 and may be the biggest post- pandemic legal tech show. It was great to see so many people and be more or less back to normal. And ILTA, by and large, pulled off a great show, although to some extent, the Show, like the legal tech market itself, was a study in contrasts. But it may have provided a look into the future of the legal tech market.
Here are my impressions.
There is no denying the Show was, in the words of Ed Sullivan, A really big show. (I know, Ed didn’t say show, he said shew. He provided lots of entertainment to us in the dark ages. And if you don’t know who Ed Sullivan was, you might google him).
ILTA claimed it had over 3000 registrants. That the conference was “sold out .” That it was the 3rd most well-attended ILTA conference in history. There were some 71 educational sessions, although according to ILTA, it reduced the number of sessions this year. That left more time for networking during the day and fewer overlapping sessions. Made for easier decision making. The Exhibit hall was full of vendors (ILTA calls them business partners). ILTA went out of its way to offer good food and drink.
On the other hand, it’s unclear how many registrants were vendors and how many attendees were there to learn. That’s important since vendors are here because they have to be versus want to be for the most part. And despite the emphasis on networking, little things seemed to get in the way. Sometimes the extended periods where nothing was happening seemed a little much, and it was easy to lose interest. And for some reason, ILTA made name tags with a person’s organization in small faint print. It’s hard to network when you don’t know who a person does.
And it’s a big show with lots of moving parts. Yet, there seemed to be no one in charge from time to time, and things would appear a little disorganized. Maybe because ILTA is primarily a volunteer organization and due to its size, there are lots of competing voices and interests.
Last year, the conference was hybrid, with some of us only allowed to participate virtually. I wrote critically about this decision and, frankly, wasn’t sure I would get an invite. But the ILTA representatives could not have been nicer or more helpful, at least to me.
But I still felt that media was not necessarily welcomed with open arms. Some of the ILTA folks seemed defensive and guarded when talking to us. And some little things got in the way. The press list was not distributed to vendors, for example, leaving vendors only to guess who was here and who they wanted to meet with. And while that may not sound important, most vendors want to reach out to us to set up meetings and talk about what they are doing. That’s a little hard when they don’t know if we are here.
The Exhibit Hall
As I mentioned, the exhibit hall had most of the usual suspects and was crowded. It even included a video wall and a race care simulator. There were several start-ups with engaging products. I also noted that some of the exhibitors with the most significant space at the American Association of Law Librarians conference I attended had smaller spaces here. Not sure why.
And some with small spaces there offered a bigger splash here. But by and large, for one of the first times since 2019, there was an Exhibit hall that looked normal. Certainly, the vendor parties were full throttle all week long. A slew of product announcements. (As always, Bob Ambrogi does a good job of summarizing these at his LawSites blog).
The buzz word at this years conference seemed to artificial intelligence. There were lots of sessions devoted to AI and machine learning and their practical application in the legal space. Perhaps we have reached the tipping point.
And make no more mistake, covid still loomed over the event thing. ILTA perhaps wisely required attendees to show vaccination status to get in. And Covid and risks came up in conversations. But for the most part, the risk, however high or low, was not an issue that was mentioned much. Masks and social distancing? Forget it.
Three thousand people at a Show makes ILTA one of the biggest post-Covid conferences. The standard view of vendors seems to be that this Show brings real decision-makers from law firms and legal departments. It’s, therefore, the place to be. You see this in the types of folks vendors send: lots of C-suite people. Vendors like the ILTA Show because of this diversity and opportunity. (As discussed below, there are still not many practicing lawyers who in many firms end up making decisions).
Indeed, ILTA has long touted itself as a “peer to peer” organization. It draws lots of pretty sophisticated IT and technical folks who work for law firms or in-house legal departments. It has long been known for its ability to generate open discussions among those from different firms and businesses. Perhaps this is because they carry with them the outsized egos and competitiveness of lawyers.
But make no mistake: ILTA is a conference for and about the legal profession and technology. The sophistication of the attendees is pretty high. And it’s true that lots of IT type folks that work for law firms of all sizes attend, although perhaps more were with larger firms than small ones. This relatively high level of knowledge is why ILTA’s offering of the same keynote speaker on two consecutive days, who talked down to the audience, relished in stating the obvious and didn’t really know the legal marketplace was a little surprising.
I like to think I am pretty sophisticated in the tech space, but I walked out of a lot of vendor meetings this week without a clue what product was being touted. And, worse yet, what the product or software did or what problem it solved. There are still several vendors who like to engage in tech market babble that’s just incomprehensible even for a sophisticated audience. On the other hand, some vendors consistently clearly communicate what they are doing. And they do it in ways that the attendee buyer who has to sell products to lawyers in their firms can understand and communicate.
Wither the Lawyers?
Another paradox: few lawyers attend. That has not changed since I first started writing about the conference –years ago. So while it’s great that people can share problems, frustrations, and concerns, the fact remains that many of the people who attend aren’t the final decision-makers in their firms. They can report and get excited about potential products and software. But they are often frustrated by decisions being made by lawyers and managing partners who aren’t here, don’t understand, and don’t see the benefit. Or who frustratingly take too much time to decide anything.
This disconnect with the decision makers makes it even more critical for vendors to provide clear and understandable information. They have to enable the folks attending the Show to clearly articulate in nontechnical terms what is offered. And be able to explain the benefits to the lawyer decision makers. While the pandemic may have reduced the aversion of lawyers to technology, I’m not sure it has convinced them to give up the decision-making. Particularly to those who they think have no ownership stake in the firm.
A Shift in Legal Tech?
Also of note: there were more and more businesses at the Show whose core business is not in the non-legal tech space. Businesses that offer services to all sorts of businesses seem to now be focusing more and more on legal tech providers. Microsoft, for example, is becoming a bigger and bigger player. It has done this by marketing its products to developers in the legal space, who in turn sell to end users. So while Microsoft did not have a booth or a significant physical presence, its influence loomed large.
Similarly, many traditional legal tech providers are now focusing on integrating their offerings with other legal tech providers. These other providers, in turn, offer their products to end users. I also noticed a number of vendors at the conference who provide products to a wide variety of businesses. They now seem to be trying to adapt–and sell–their products to legal.
Much of this shift has been made possible due to the pandemic and the significant shift to the cloud. And we will no doubt see more. Certainly, this creates a different level of robust conversation when folks not saddled with legal backgrounds come to the table. (I had a client who used to say we need to be careful and not wind up in the closet talking to ourselves too much. Certainly, pre-pandemic, there was a lot of closet talking).
But, historically, much of the legal tech market was built by young disgruntled lawyers. These lawyers started businesses to address specific problems or frustrations they had practicing law. You have to wonder about the long term impact as the market matures. And those without legal experience and understanding become more dominant in the field. Or as larger legal tech players focus more on integration than offering products themselves. Or those businesses traditionally not in the legal space try to adapt their products to legal.
I worry the further the providers get away from users and on hands legal experience, the greater the chance for reduced product fit and frustration.
So. By and large, it was a great Show although there were a few glitches here and there. And perhaps ILTACon 2022 offered an insight into the future of the legal tech market.