ABA TECHSHOW Has a Keynote Speaker Problem

Each year, ABA TECHSHOW includes a single keynote session. The speaker is generally a Big Name who might have something interesting to say about technology but almost certainly has nothing interesting to say about law and technology.

I wasn’t there for Ari Kaplan’s keynote in 2010, but he was probably the last keynoter to talk about law and technology. If not, it was Richard Susskind in 2009. In 2011, my first ABA TECHSHOW, Larry Lessig spoke mostly about Rootstrikers, his grassroots movement to get money out of politics. In 2012, Ben Stein spoke mostly about his time in politics. In 2013, David Pogue delivered a hyperactive and entertaining keynote that involved him playing his iPhone like an ocarina. In 2014, Rick Klau talked about how Google does a lot of A/B testing. And this year, Nick Carr talked about how technology makes it hard to pay attention. Most of the speakers tried to work in a tenuous connection to law practice, but halfheartedly at best.

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If a keynote is supposed to be “a prevailing tone or central theme, typically one set or introduced at the start of a conference,” then what are the TECHSHOW keynotes, which aren’t at the beginning of the conference and have little or nothing to do with legal technology? A way to lure people to TECHSHOW who presumably wouldn’t be interested in attending without a Big Name keynote speaker? A probably-really-expensive way to keep you awake while you digest your lunch? I wonder if everyone else is as confused as I am every year by the big, flashy non sequitur that comes right in the middle of the conference. It’s not that they aren’t entertaining — mostly they are — it’s just that they feel totally out of place.

That’s not the only issue with the keynote speakers. You might have noticed that the last seven keynote speakers at TECHSHOW have been white men — white men who mostly have no real connection to legal tech in the first place. If you gathered all the Big Names in tech into one room, closed your eyes, and tossed a sponge ball in the air, you’d probably hit a non-male, non-white person more often than once every seven tosses.

This isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned diversity and TECHSHOW. I actually wrote about the lack of diversity among TECHSHOW faculty two years ago. From what I can tell from a quick tally of this year’s faculty, there are more women (20 v. 15) and non-white speakers (6 v. 21) than I found in 2013.

That’s almost exactly the demographic profile of the legal profession (pdf) when it comes to women, but still a little disappointing for non-white speakers, assuming I’ve counted correctly. Still, it’s real progress — so why hasn’t that progress touched the keynote speakers?

As I said in 2013, I’m not accusing the TECHSHOW planning board of being a bunch of sexists and/or racists. I know some of them and I believe all of them when they say they care about diversity. I don’t know what’s going on here, but I’m confident there are non-white, non-male Big Names in tech who could headline TECHSHOW — especially given the apparently broad criteria. Maybe in 2016 …


  1. It is hard to tell from a picture and a brief profile which speakers might consider themselves non-white, but I’ve done what I can. 

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  • Lauren

    Thank you for mentioning the diversity thing. That was honestly the first thing that came to mind when I looked at the photo for this article. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to see this kind of thing in 2015. I guess I thought we’d be better by now.

  • Leona Lewis

    Clara Shih, also not a lawyer but is a pioneer in social media technology and CEO and founder of Hearsay Social and a member of the Starbucks Board of Directors. Getting more relevant and diverse speakers is realistic.

  • Carole Levitt

    It’s not just the keynote speakers at TECHSHOW who are white and male; TECHSHOW also lacked a proportional number of non-white and women speakers in 2015 at the popular/big seminars (60 Sites–one woman/four men, 60 Tips–one woman/three men, and the plenary–two men).This means that non-white and women speakers don’t get showcased and non-white and women attendees don’t get to see any law/tech role models. On the positive side, there have been 3 women TECHSHOW chairs in the past 5 years.

  • Samantha Meinke

    I totally agree that TECHSHOW has a diversity problem – but I think it’s really disingenuous for you to blog about that and then turn around and have an all-male panel live-blogging about TECHSHOW for the Lawyerist. There are so many great female legal bloggers. Why didn’t you recruit even one woman for the live-blog panel?

    • In fact, we recruited two women. Janine Sickmeyer didn’t do much liveblogging, but she was also responsible for the professional photographers who were helping out. Jeena Cho was also at the conference but apparently decided not to take part in the liveblog.

      • Samantha Meinke

        I stand corrected. I hope you have better luck with participation from the women you recruit in the future.

        • Actually, maybe this is an illustration of the difficulty in getting to a more diverse faculty. It can take extra effort to get non-white-men involved.

          For example, I know from our podcast that it’s not simply a matter of inviting as many women as men. I’ve invited roughly equal numbers of men and women to be guests, but you see the result. So far, we’ve only managed a 2:1 ratio of men to women. (And we’re not doing so well on non-white guests, either.) And when we put out a call for writers, we invariably get applications mostly from white men.

          Which is to say that while we strive to be inclusive and we are always looking for opportunities to add diverse points of view, I know we have room for improvement, too.

          • Larry Port

            Diversity, or lack of it, comes down to a numbers game: you have population of people to select from, and of those people how many are willing to participate in a given activity? Then refine that by how many of those willing participants have the availability to travel to that place at that time?

            Our staff at Rocket Matter is amazingly diverse because of this principle. It’s not something we set out to do, but it’s a numbers game – we live in South Florida, and as such, we have people of all shapes, sizes, shades, nationalities, and sexual orientation.

            I will say this, it is AWESOME to have an organization like ours. I am a firm believer that we end up with great solutions and crazy creativity because of our diversity of experiences and backgrounds. If you are lucky enough to build an organization like ours, DO IT!

            This HBR podcast sums up how I feel: https://player.fm/series/the-hbr-channel/how-diversity-fuels-group-emotional-intelligence

          • Gwynne

            After reading a few similar posts across various industries about the lack of diversity, and delving into the comments to find ones like this that explain efforts have been made to recruit women or give them visibility, I wonder why it is that women don’t accept/agree/participate/etc., so conferences/panels/podcasts/etc. end up with mostly white males, and conversations like this continue with no real resolution.

            Does anyone know of survey data that points to reasons women turn down opportunities? Or why they choose to stay in the background, like managing photographers instead of also live blogging?

  • I’m pretty sure the TECHSHOW diversity problem is a reflection of the tech industry in general. Companies like Google, Apple, and Yahoo are working hard to promote minorities in tech, but we likely won’t see the results for some time. In law that means at least 10 years beyond the regular sector.

    I think the other factor is that few, if any, non-techies see any value in the conference. I’m sure there are plenty of minorities using tech, but aren’t vocal about their situation. TECHSHOW “authority” seems to come from 1 of two (maybe 3 methods): 1) be a tech-related blogger (my claim to fame), or 2) write a book or own/work in a legal tech consulting firm.

    • AOM

      Unfortunately this is nonsense. I encounter numbers minorities in tech, but no one wants to give them the time of day, either because they don’t think they are “ready” or they are in different networks. It kills me the number of minorities I meet in tech who have doors closed to them for reasons I can’t understand, until I close my eyes and picture them as white men and think, “Oh, that’s what’s missing.”

  • NJP

    Sam,

    As a former TECHSHOW Planning Committee member, looking at keynote and other speakers, diversity was always included. We have asked women and others in the past. Marissa Mayer from Yahoo was at the top of our list when I was on the Committee but we were unable to get her to agree to speak. Others were discussed but there is also the factor of will they draw folks to the Keynote. The reality is that you can’t force someone to agree to participate. As far as sessions go, it also comes down to finding speakers who have actually spoken previously before they are invited to speak at TECHSHOW. In the legal tech world there just are not that many folks out there that are getting involved. But it isn’t just up to the TECHSHOW Panning Committee to try and find someone.

    I know that it is easier to simply complain about something then it is
    to try and change it, but if that is what everyone did nothing would
    change. If you have ideas for speakers or topics, why not contact the TECHSHOW
    Planning Board who are listed on the TECHSHOW website at
    http://www.techshow.com/facult… or the Division’s Leadership at
    http://www.americanbar.org/groups/law_practice.html ? I am a big believer in the concept that if you think there is an issue or room for improvement why not try to change it? Get involved and try to change things from within first so you have the satisfaction of knowing that you at least tried to make a difference. Granted that working from within to make change is not easy (complaining and expecting someone else to fix the problem or to change things generally is much easier), working towards change can be much more rewarding. You also make a lot of new friends along the journey and gain new experience.

    I admit that I believe making change is a two way street – it takes
    both the organization and those that feel excluded to reach out so that
    it is a joint effort. Much more can be accomplished working together then not working
    at all.

    If you are interested or know someone that is interested in speaking you need to step up and volunteer or contact the Planning Committee to get involved. So you have 2 options as I see it: 1) you an sit back and complain or 2) decide to take an active role in trying to fix the problem.

    • I don’t think I’m complaining so much as reporting, but I guess that’s beside the point.

      You want recommendations? Kashmir Hill, Nilay Patel, Cindy Cohn, Rebecca Williams, David Lat, Margaret Hagan, Mishi Choudhary, Jeena Cho, and Elie Mystal are all non-white-men who could even talk knowledgeably (and interestingly) about law and technology. Those are just off the top of my head plus a little Googling. For more, just browse the Fastcase 50 or even the ABA Journal.

      • NJP

        Great suggestions Sam. You should send these to Steve Best who is the TECHSHOW Chair for 2016. I will as swell but I came off the Board in 2014 ss I am just someone that sends ideas in at this point. But this is what I am talking about.

        Regards

        • NJP

          Sam,

          These names have been sent to several folks on the 2016 TECHSHOW Planning Committee including Steve Best.