I spent most of last week at ILTACON 2015 in Las Vegas. More precisely, I spent four days there and two days on a round trip of 10,424 miles to get there and back.
Why do I clock up those miles and the not inconsiderable cost and inconvenience of the journey year after year?
ILTA is the International Legal Technology Association, and its broad remit of both geography and subject-matter deserves wider attention outside the US. The rest of us gently mock some aspects of US lawyering, and reject quite a lot of US culture ranging from their “coffee” to their punctuation (I got stick from a US judge last week for a mild observation about the latter), but my self-appointed role includes discrimination between the good, the bad and the risible, and it is important that someone tries to pick out the things which have value in any jurisdiction; ILTA is one of them.
I did not go to top up my formal learning in sessions or to see the latest in technology development in dark rooms, and it was certainly not in order to sample the charms of Las Vegas or Caesars Palace – been there, done that all too often. One of the reasons why I saw relatively little was that, for reasons now obscure, we booked my return flight for a day earlier than usual. Another was that, again for obscure reasons, I have a defective leg at the moment; people were recording Fitbit distances of between 7 and 10 miles per day just to move around Caesars Palace, and a painful limp undermines the incentive to keep up with that.
Why go to ILTA?
I go for two main reasons – to catch up with people and their companies, and to do some video interviews. If one’s only window on the eDiscovery world were the press releases, one would get a rather distorted view of the market. In PR land, the sun always shines and the clients are all virtuous people with interesting problems to be solved; any actual news is hidden behind the limited vocabulary imposed by marketing convention and by the short attention spans of today’s business and personal lives.
I prefer to wander, apparently aimlessly, or to sit quietly in a prominent position, absorbing and exchanging information from and with friends, acquaintances and passing strangers. As I have said before in this context, one learns after a while to interpret what people say and what they do not say, to see where there is a mismatch between the bare words and what the eyes tell, and to filter and aggregate off-the cuff remarks from several people. Hearing three users in quick succession talk up a product is worth more than an hour’s demo of it; three separate throwaway lines about a company may be the same gossip warmed up or may indicate that change is in the air; hearing someone from a law firm talk about their use of artificial intelligence far outweighs the value of reading a product description; hearing one company praise a rival elevates both of them. Besides all that, this is a likeable industry, full of people who are good company irrespective of their sectional interests.
It is, of course, possible to make buying and implementation decisions on the strength of demonstrations and product reviews. What you can’t get anywhere else is the ability to crowd-source ideas, and to share problems and solutions with others in the same position as you. Both the problems and the solutions are common across jurisdictions, and whilst the US may be different from the rest of us in many ways, the core business of running a law firm and serving its clients are much the same everywhere. ILTA pays as much attention to the needs of small firms as it does to big ones, and prides itself on its interest groups and its peer-to-peer sharing. Whilst for many people “ILTA” means this one big show, ILTA is an all-year-round organisation and one whose value extends beyond the US. I am one of the few who attends its UK and Hong Kong events every year as well as the US one, and see the value which it brings in the wider context. I will write more on this in due course.
Since I have already admitted that I attended no sessions, you won’t expect a detailed analysis from me. You could do what I do, which is to read the daily posts by David Horrigan, whose move from being an independent analyst at 451 Research to becoming eDiscovery counsel and legal content director at kCura has not dampened either his objectivity or his style. You can find his posts here:
David’s interests overlap with mine. Mashing up his reports with the gossip on the floors, the most interesting discussions concerned Big Data, TAR, the importance of people (as opposed to technology alone), artificial intelligence, and law firm competitiveness (aka survival). Picking a couple of these:
Big Data is everywhere
Whilst “Big data” means more than just “lots of data”, it is not a rarefied concept relevant only to deeply technical specialists. The “Vs” – volume, variety and velocity plus variability, visualisation, veracity and value – become increasingly relevant not just for discovery but for every-day decision-making of all kinds. Analysis of risk and benefit, for compliance purposes, in M&A and elsewhere, involves managing and understanding data from multiple sources; HR, business development and other aspects of running a business profitably similarly benefit from your being on top of data which changes constantly. Big Data is relevant also to cost predictions, not least by the dependence which it has (or ought to have) on past experience as well as the circumstances of the particular case or matter.
People and their skills matter
Discussions about the importance of people turned up in more than one context. The acquisition of certifications in specialist software, a broad range of experience, and (easily overlooked this one) interpersonal skills, all matter for recruitment and for winning work in circumstances where price alone is no longer an adequate differentiator. The importance of human input recurred during the discussions on the use of technology-assisted review, along with reminders of old-fashioned practices such as actually talking to clients at the outset of a case.
My son Charlie and I recorded 14 videos over two days. The usually quiet corridor which is my usual film set was much disrupted – it had become the entrance to the exhibit hall, a construction site with music, vacuum-cleaners and electric drills, the office of a woman with the vocal subtlety of a donkey, and the stomping-ground of a union official questioning our purpose because the hotel is a closed shop for technical services like video – we were all right because we were serving an educational purpose. After doing a couple of recordings against a very dull brown wall (as in the picture above, with Ian Campbell of iCONECT), we resorted to private suites and, in a couple of cases, the corner of Charlie’s bedroom.
The point of the videos (apart from the fact that this is the way marketing and everything else is going) is that they take us away from the inevitably sterile wording of marketing material and allow people to talk in a more imaginative way about the problems they are solving. It will take us a while to publish the results, not least because my youngest son William, who does the editing, is up a mountainside in Croatia working on the lighting of a big festival.
Running as it does from Sunday until Thursday, ILTA offers a range of opportunities for entertainment, even before you factor in the charms, if that is the right word, of Las Vegas. ILTA arranged its own events like the Exhibit Hall opening party with its fancy dress theme “Once Upon a Time”, its Distinguished Peer Awards dinner and After-Glow party, and its closing party on Thursday night. Vendor parties competed for attention; on the whole, I prefer quiet dinners where you can actually hear what is being said.
If you’re looking for a recommendation for a restaurant in Las Vegas, can I point you to Lago in the Bellagio? We were drawn in by the promise of an Italian “small plates” menu – “quality” and “bulk” are not necessarily mutually exclusive attributes of eating out in the US, but I would rather the money went on really good ingredients, well-cooked and presented and served with a smile, than on pure quantity and salt. Lago was good enough to tempt us back on our last day for an early lunch, when we got a window seat overlooking the Bellagio Fountains. We didn’t have time to go, but upstairs at the Bellagio was a Picasso exhibition. Las Vegas is not all strippers, whores and gaming tables.
One of the attractions of Las Vegas is that you can fly there in one hop, denying US airlines their usual tricks of abandoning flights without notice and losing your luggage. It is not a premium route, and BA gives over its first class cabin to business class passengers. Going out, I was in seat 1A, which gave me three windows – an inordinate luxury which almost atoned for the ghastly food which BA now serves in its lounges and on board; I don’t know what BA has saved by cutting the quality of its food, but it has helped lose them my business on three flights to Hong Kong and Singapore this year (that and the £5,000 saving by going with Emirates). In the circumstances, it is bold of BA to allow Emirates to have the big advertising slot on the Terminal 5 escalators down to the inter-gate trains at Heathrow.
It is interesting to compare my reception at Las Vegas and at Heathrow. Las Vegas is one of the few US airports which positively welcomes its visitors, with enthusiastic greeters instead of the deadly whine of the broadcast announcements from tinny tannoys at other airports, and gives swift passage through immigration and baggage collection instead of the queues you find everywhere else.
My reception at Heathrow’s Terminal five was, ah, different. I usually avoid the electronic passport scanning machines because they rarely work (that’s what happens when civil servants commission technology). This time, however, robotic staff ushered us into the queue for the machines despite the fact that only one of the electronic gates was working, leaving us to decide whether to stick it out or go to the back of the ever-lengthening queue for manual passport perusal at the under-staffed counters.
Somewhere, a Border Force manager – a standard-issue pen-pusher, thick, lazy, and incompetent, oblivious to the needs of passengers who had just completed an 11 hour journey – was hiding behind his or her desk, leaving the staff to deal with increasingly angry crowds. Why do we put up with people like this in charge of the welcome at our airports?
BA’s lousy food and useless British immigration officials add unnecessarily to the stress of travel. Despite it all, I will be back at ILTA next year.