ILTA 2011 – the end of the beginning? We’re just getting going

Gaylord exteriorI am back from the annual conference of ILTA, the International Litigation Technology Association, in Nashville, Tennessee.  The original draft of this post said that I was “just back” but (as more than one correspondent has reminded me) time has gone by without any post from me about it or about anything else. Catching up after two back-to-back conferences in opposite corners of the world plus an ever-busier Twitter stream and a few other things have kept me amused.  I will in due course do a couple of posts about the serious stuff at ILTA and I will point you to summaries by others of the product and company news which, however interesting and important, can be dealt with from my desk if it still seems interesting or important by the time I get to it.

Despite the best efforts of the PR people, I don’t cross the world to shut myself up in dark demo rooms or to hit the social scene. The breathless prose of the press releases offers little incentive; I don’t drink much, don’t party more than formal politeness requires, don’t really appreciate most corporate nights out unless they involve a table and a decent menu, and can’t stand shouting above noise. Why do I go each year?, someone asked.

As I have said in an earlier article, I had some formal reasons for going – I sat on a panel for Thomson Reuters and moderated a video session for Digital Reef. The real value, however, lies in ad hoc and informal conversations. Within a few hours of arriving, for example, I had lunch with Amir Milo and Warwick Sharp of Equivio, a conversation with Herb Roitblat of OrcaTec, and an extended early-morning coffee with Howard Sklar of Recommind; those who followed the predictive coding furore of a few weeks ago will note that these companies were in the front line trenches of that energetic debate. I could, in theory at least, ring up any of them for a chat at any time but it is only at ILTA that there is an opportunity for these impromptu discussions.

So what?, you say. You bumped into all your mates and had a nice chat. How pleasant to be able to do that in a grand hotel somewhere hot and call it “work”. Well, it is enjoyable, but it has a serious purpose as well. This post is largely anecdotal and aimed at giving the flavour of the event in the hope of encouraging you to go next year.

Carrying messages

Gaylord AtriumThe advertised pitch for the eDisclosure Information Project is that I carry news and views about eDisclosure / eDiscovery between judges, lawyers, clients and those who supply into the market. Some of that is done by sitting on panels, taking part in webinars and other one-to-many exercises; sometimes it involves reporting things which deserve a wider audience such as Judge Peck’s speech at Carmel and those of Singapore’s Chief Justice, of Lord Justice Jackson, and of Senior Master Whitaker at the recent conference in Singapore. Sometimes, however, it lies in one-to-one conversations which you can’t have if you just sit at home writing blog posts.

Talking to Equivio’s Warwick Sharp is like standing beside an expert at a pheasant shoot. Up go the arguments, bang goes the gun, and down they come lifeless to the ground. My role is to be the labrador who retrieves them. Our lunch discussion on that first day was about the arguments advanced against using sophisticated technology like predictive coding – not specifically Equivio’s  product but any of the high-end software applications which take input from senior lawyers on a subset of documents and use it to make relevance and other decisions about the rest. The only plausible argument against the use of such applications, if you discount the self-interest of  lawyers who make their money from setting large teams to read all the documents, is that there is as yet no court decision which expressly approves of the use of such technology.

As Judge Peck noted at Carmel, there is no decision approving the use of keywords either, and both he and Master Whitaker in Singapore addressed this primary objection. Warwick Sharp instead rattled off a list of uses for predictive coding which needed no judicial approval – QA of your own results and a quick assessment of your opponents’ discovery were amongst them. I did not need to go to Nashville to hear this, but there were many who had gone there for just that purpose.  Later that day, I met in quick succession two people whose role within their firms required them to marshal just these kinds of arguments for the benefit of their lawyers, and I passed on what Warwick had said more or less verbatim. That alone justified being there, and you only really get that kind of opportunity at ILTA, where the mix of educational and social events, coupled with the informality and relative leisure which differentiates ILTA from the frantic pace of LegalTech, encourages this kind of discourse.

The venue

Gaylord CascadesThe Gaylord Opryland Resort covers 56 acres; it has 2881 guest rooms, 220 suites, an atrium 150 foot high and 4.5 acres in extent plus a second atrium of an acre which comfortably swallows two waterfalls, tropical gardens, a restaurant and a bar; the resort has 15 restaurants in all, a river, and several hundred thousand square feet of exhibit hall and conference facilities. There were people whom I knew to be there amongst the 1200 registered delegates at ILTA whom I did not see at all.

You wouldn’t find me checking in here for a holiday, but the Gaylord resorts are perfect for an event like this, provided that you don’t mind a 20 minute round trip between the conference centre and your room, as I had. The big events  – the opening party, the  big sessions and the final dinner – fitted comfortably into the cavernous rooms but there are plenty of quiet corners for conversation.

The conference mood

You can almost smell the mood at these conferences even before you start talking to people. The last couple of years  have inevitably been pretty grim for this industry as for almost everyone else; this was the first conference I have been to which felt upbeat, with enough in the way of new releases and industry news to create a buzz. Much of the talk, but none of the answers, involved HP’s acquisition of Autonomy. I stand by the view expressed in an earlier post that the rumour of Jack Halprin’s move from Autonomy to Google, confirmed during the week, is more interesting –  why, exactly, does Google want a senior client-facing executive with the word “Enterprise” in his job title? The Google T-shirt which Jack was wearing in the bar was at least two sizes too small for him – he’s a big lad; given its muscle, it seems unlikely that the same will be true of Google itself, whatever its plans are.

The end of the beginning

David Cowen of the Cowen Group had the same sense that there was optimism in the air. He said something about “the end of the beginning” in sub-conscious echo of what Churchill said after Alamein:

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

Andrew Sieja of kCura expressed in a pre-conference interview much the same sentiment as Churchill’s but in the more modern idiom which one might expect from the thirty-something CEO of a technology company. He said:

This is going to be a journey, man. We’re just getting going.

I too have a sense that we are at the end of the beginning and are just getting going. Every relevant jurisdiction now has rules which begin to address eDiscovery; it would be foolish to say that technology has nowhere further to go, but it has reached a stage of sophistication unimaginable two years ago; if lawyers remain slow to change, their clients are beginning to flex their muscles, as is a new generation of judges;  the marketing of products and services is growing up at last, with a better content-to-crap ratio than two years ago.

The man who…

Some of you may know the cartoons of HM Bateman (1887-1970), many of which show the immediate aftermath of some social gaffe – the central character has said, done, or worn something inappropriate, and those around him or her respond with horror – they faint, clutch their temples or react as if struck in the stomach by an invisible football, hands and feet outstretched, hair upright and mouth open in amazement.

I had two “the man who…” moments at ILTA. One is a regular favourite of mine – “the man who said that the UK manages without a formal concept of legal hold”. It feels a bit like spitting in church, but it is great fun to watch the reaction of a US eDiscovery audience to the idea that justice can be done without the enormous expense which their present legal hold requirements impose on every party to litigation for no other purpose, really, than to show that they are not hiding anything.

The second opportunity arose in a discussion with a man apparently obsessed by his company’s Google rankings. This is not just a US phenomenon and not confined to website SEO – Twitter is full of people desperate to add followers and increase their “Klout” (which is, as I understand it, a measure of alleged influence via social media). My disdain for mere numbers – “the man who didn’t care about his Klout” – generates the same shock horror as “The cad who was improperly dressed on the Lido” (a Bateman example) or my views on post-Zubulake legal hold. I explained that getting anecdotal evidence that people in the industry actually read my posts was very much more important to me than any number of anonymous visitors to my websites.

Five minutes later, by chance, I was approached by someone who said that a blog post of mine about judicial approval of technology had been published just as he was debating this subject with a doubting potential client. He did not say that a sale had yet resulted, but the post had apparently had the desired effect at least so far as the judicial approval point was concerned. I will trade a few of those reactions for any number of meaningless statistics about my “Klout”.

Emphasise the personal and the positive

I drew a conclusion from speaking to a small sample of law firm litigation support people which I find faintly discouraging. Apart from the known phenomenon that they face an uphill battle persuading their lawyers even to consider alternative ways of tackling the costs of eDiscovery, many of them seemed to see their job as a poisoned chalice rather than an opportunity. This is not a personal failing on their part but it is certainly a poor reflection on those within their firms who invite them to take on the role. Sure, much of the job involves pure hard work in a high pressure area. It is, however, a major cost component in litigation and could (and should) be seen as a practice development role as well as a matter of personal career development. Why not sell it as such to those being offered the role?

Why not go next year?

Gaylord waterfallAs I write, the ILTA 2011 website is still available. Run your eye over the program and get the flavour of the mixture of educational and social events and at the remarkable organisation which manages to convey that this is a big, important and efficiently-run event whilst simultaneously being friendly and accessible. Enormous tributes are due to the wonderful Peggy Wechsler and her team for building year by year on a formula which just works.

Next year ILTA is back in Washington DC, easier to reach for many people, particularly for those who start from London, and at a smaller but similarly-styled venue. Between now and then, we have ILTA Insight in London on 8-9 May 2012, a miniature and localised version of the main show. The allocation of two days instead of the usual one gives a hint of bigger things coming there than we have had hitherto. Book the days for the London event, and allocate some budget for the main ILTA 2012 next August. Allocate it to training, to practice development, to IT and, not least, to having a good time whilst keeping up with developments in an area which is not going to become of less importance as time goes by.

There are other pictures of the venue here.

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