This is the first of five articles about ILTA 2012 in Washington D.C. Why do we go, what is it like, what conclusions can one draw about the market? The main aim is to encourage you to go next year, and to find out in the mean time what ILTA can offer you apart from its big conference.
If asked to explain what their father does, my children generally say “He’s a blogger”, ducking the inevitable follow-on question “No, I mean what does he do for work?”. If they were to add that he wanders around hotel lobbies having brief encounters with several people in succession, that does not make it clearer. That, however, was my major benefit at the annual conference of the International Legal Technology Association, ILTA, in Washington D.C. at the end of August. Everyone is there.
There is more to ILTA’s annual conference than that of course, just as there is more to ILTA than its annual conference. You can make of it what you like: seeing technology solutions, attending sessions led by people who have been down that roll-out path ahead of you, hearing about the pros and cons of a proposed investment from those who have been there, or just talking to others. When you have done all that (and this is a hard-working conference for all its leisure elements) there is entertainment of pretty well every kind.
I do not propose in this post to recite all the people I met or the products which I saw – apart from the obvious risk of drawing fire from those whom I fail to mention (it happens), I value my readership, and nothing drives the audience away faster than lists. ILTA is not a place for big product launches, nor do you get startling pronouncements from influential figures. It is more a place for knowledge-sharing and, as one law firm person put it to me, for spending time with the more thoughtful people from the suppliers.
My purpose here is to give some impression of what it is like to attend ILTA’s big conference, with the aim of encouraging greater attendance from the UK (and anywhere else) next year. I will mention a couple of sessions and pass on some general ideas which came my way in the course of my many discussions, but the main aim is to try and convey why it is important to be here, and not just for Americans.
This post says a little about what ILTA is and does as well as describing what the conference is like. Other posts will cover my own experience this year, some market conclusions, the ILTA Awards dinner and other ILTA events. The breaks are arbitrary in a sense – it was written as one piece, but few people, including me, have the staying power to read very long articles.
Thanks to ILTA staff
It is conventional to end articles like this with compliments to the organisers. I am going to put that at the top in this case. The ILTA conference is a major business venture. Its customers include the providers who take booths in the exhibition hall and who sponsor events, and the delegates –1450 people in all this year. There are negotiations with a large conference centre, and the whole place must be decked out with the equipment, signboards and other things needed to turn a vast set of empty spaces into a cohesive event. Speakers, subjects, and venues for 4 days of sessions must be organised and promoted. Entertainment must be provided, from the opening party to the closing dinner. I could go on, but you get the point. A conference tweet read:
#ILTA12 FACTS – 200 sessions, 30 conference volunteers, 350 speakers, 11 countries, and record breaking attendance of 1,450 members
What is remarkable about all this is the sense of community, almost of “family”, which pervades an ILTA conference despite this scale. For that we have to thank the wonderful Peggy Wechsler (on the left in this picture) who, with her great team, manages to maintain the personal touch amidst this large and efficient business event.
What does ILTA do?
ILTA describes itself as “the premier peer networking organisation, providing information to members to maximise the value of technology in support of the legal profession”. Its members’ page emphasises that “international membership comprises firms of all sizes and all areas of practice” and that membership is by entity so that anyone within a firm or legal department can participate in ILTA activities. The very reasonable annual cost is based on the number of lawyers within the organisation; the scale of fees is set out on the members’ page.
It has regional groups and twelve topic-focused peer groups. This makes it easy to find people whose businesses are similar to yours, who are in your region and who are interested in the same topics as you are. It also means that you can easily cross these boundaries – to hear from firms which are bigger or smaller than you are, to learn about subjects which are new to you, and to benefit from the fact that, for the most part, geographical boundaries are irrelevant to technology considerations.
What can UK firms learn from a US association and conference?
The “I” in D stands for “International”. The Regional Vice President for Europe is Gareth Ash, CIO at Allen & Overy. Nigel Blackwood of Wragge & Co is the Birmingham city representative; their contact details are here. A&O and Bond Pearce were nominated for awards – see below. These firms, and others whose names are known to you, were present at ILTA 2012. They are successful firms, with a strong record of using technology to support their lawyers, and the notional UK firm to whom I address this article may care to think on that. The “international” bit is not really to do with having offices in multiple countries or with having international business; rather, it reflects the fact that (for example) a rollout of the latest version of Microsoft Office raises the same issues in Birmingham England as it does in Birmingham Alabama; having lawyers bring their own devices to work has the same benefits, and the same security implications, wherever you are.
So, even if you don’t fancy going to Las Vegas next August (I will come back to that) do look at ILTA’s website and consider the benefits which your firm, department or company can get from it even without joining the rest of us at Heathrow. Besides, there is a cut-down version of the ILTA conference, called ILTA Insight, in London every year. That is something else to which I will revert to elsewhere in this series of articles..
What is it actually like at an ILTA conference?
The Gaylord National, just outside Washington, appears vast if it is your first experience of such a venue. A conference centre, and hotel, restaurants, fountains and the rest all sit under glass on the banks of the Potomac. To those of us who were at the much larger Nashville Gaylord last year, however, the Washington variant seems rather cosy.
The working core of an ILTA conference lies in the sessions. As I write, the 2012 session listings and speaker profiles are still on the conference website and you can quickly see two things – that US law firms are concerned about the same things as you are, and that most of the speakers are people who get their hands dirty in the same way as you do, specifying, installing and managing the components of law firm technology, training users on them and working with them daily.
There is a large exhibition hall at which a wide range of software and services are on display. There is little of the aggressive salesmanship which does so much to put lawyers off; one used (at some events anyway) to walk the aisles with one’s eyes firmly on the carpet to avoid being mugged but (with one exception this year) I was left alone until I wanted to make eye contact and talk. Any four-day conference, with nearly everyone staying on-site, means that there is plenty of time to talk properly and, as I have observed above, to do so with users and with senior consultants as well as with the sales people. The latter, in this industry at least, are very different from the breed with which you may be only too familiar from the past; you don’t get a job in sales now unless you understand both your products and the environment into which you are selling. Around the exhibit hall lie meeting rooms in which demonstrations and serious talking can take place.
Beyond the sessions and the exhibits lie infinite opportunities for mixing with others, ranging from enormous communal meals (good food this year, as well) to parties, to prearranged or ad hoc meetings in bars and corridors. There are, in addition, a range of organised events and activities designed to bring people together as well as to offer a good time.
Showing a return on investment
Let’s go back to the UK-based law firm IT director, litigation support manager or other person with responsibility for choosing, deploying and managing technology. ILTA membership may be cheap, but going to a US conference involves air fares, hotel bills, entertainment and subsistence, an entry fee and a week out of the office. How do you frame your bid for the budget to do this?
There is no easy answer and it would be foolish to attempt one which applies generally. Whilst some IT-related expenditure is susceptible to an anticipatory ROI analysis, most of it involves the largely unmeasurable impact of more efficient working and of being able to differentiate your firm from the others. As well as saving money and bringing in work, it can affect the staff who will be willing to join you – times may be hard, but the best can more or less choose where they go to work.
Sticking to my own subject, electronic discovery, and my own jurisdiction, the case is relatively easy to make, assuming that your starting point is a) that the firm wants to be involved in contentious business of moderate size or larger and b) that you take seriously the obligations under the 2010 eDisclosure Practice Direction 31B and the rules changes due to take effect in April 2013 (and if none of this means anything to you, God help you).
You do not need to admire the American way of litigating to see that we have much to learn from those who deal daily with extracting the evidence from mountains of documents. The most cursory glance at the technology options will show you that there is serious debate, not just about choices between one provider and another, but about methods – the “tools and techniques” referred to in the Practice Direction 31B. Whatever the framework of rules, the broad choices are the same. What is clustering and when would I use it? Are keywords useful or not? Is predictive coding something which would help me serve my clients better?
As I said in opening, ILTA’s big conference gives you the opportunity to see the full range of software solutions, to hear about their use and to talk to people who use them. How many meetings, how many train journeys, how much reading of brochures and websites do you have to do to scratch the surface of this? ILTA gives it to you in one hit.
There is a slightly puritanical streak in those whose job it is to approve budgets, and one can see that a budget holder whose eye falls on the list of recreational events might overlook that these are ancillary to a hard-working agenda. Next year’s venue is Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas; there is already, I gather, resistance in some quarters to the idea of sending people to Las Vegas, not helped in the UK by the new idea that it is full of toffs playing strip billiards with naked lovelies. What matters is that Las Vegas is easily accessible and has large venues, reasonably priced to draw in the conference crowds. If your excuse for not sending staff to Las Vegas conferences is that they are in Las Vegas then either you or your employees need replacing.
As at today, British Airways is offering a round trip to Las Vegas between 17 and 22 August for £1079. 4 nights at Caesar’s Palace for the same period will cost around £500 at the rates being offered now. Those rates will go up, no doubt, and there will be other costs on top, but these are trifling sums relative to the investment which law firms should be making in technology and to the savings which can be made by doing the job properly.
In addition to the photographs scattered through these articles, I have put up three sets of photographs showing this year’s venue, some scenes from the exhibition hall and the Peer Awards dinner. These do not aspire to be works of art, but merely aim to give some idea of what it is likely to be at an ILTA conference.