In looking at this year’s International Legal Technology Association (ILTA) attendance list, I saw lots of legal professionals from well-known and well-heeled law firms, a big group of big tech vendors, a few legal startups, and very few practicing lawyers.

Why aren’t there more practicing lawyers here? Indeed, I seem to be one of the few outside practicing lawyers in attendance. So much so in meet ups and informal chats, when I tell people I am an active practitioner, I am usually met with raised eyebrows.

ILTA touts that the conference “is the premier educational and networking event for the legal sector” that “empowers us to share what works, what doesn’t and what’s next.” If that’s the case, it would seem to be one of the more important events for practicing lawyers to attend.

In looking at the schedule, you can see many relevant presentations that go to the heart of the issues facing the profession: a three-part series led by Andrew Arruda on artificial intelligence, a discussion led by futurist and ILTA leader John Alber on client feedback, and plenty of sessions on data analytics. Keynotes by Pablos Holmon on innovation and Brian Kuhn, co-founder of IBM Watson Legal on how cognitive computing is changing the practice of law. There was even a session where in-house counsel from such companies as Microsoft, Exelon, and Sanofi, offered their opinions on what they wanted from their law firms. I think I was the only practicing lawyer in the room.

It’s as if the big firms for whom most of the legal professionals here work for have basically farmed out all things tech and don’t want to get their hands dirty. And therein lies the problem: by creating this gap between the lawyers using the technology and what some lawyers call “staff” a lack of understanding and communication exists. Warren Rheaume of Davis Wright Tremaine, a speaker on the politics of change—and one of the few other practitioners in attendance—calls it a crisis.

So many of the conversations going on at ILTA about innovation and technology lack the input of lawyers actually using the hardware and software. The lack of involvement and participation by lawyers leads in turn to their lack of understanding of what works, what’s coming and how it may impact what they are doing. So the gap is not only cultural in a sense but is also one of knowledge and understanding. As Rheaume told me, “lawyers need to be alert and energized about technology and innovation; there needs to be a partnership between the lawyers and the legal professional.”

This played out in a conversation I had with Christian Zust of Bryan Cave and Scott David of Vorys Sater Seymour and Pease (both of whom are not practicing lawyers). Both are responsible for helping the lawyers in their firms employ technology to help clients. Both had experienced, on multiple occasions, lawyers coming up with some tech idea and pitching it to a client only to discover later that technology couldn’t do what they had promised (at least without being prohibitively expensive).

They went on to tell me that a lawyer’s solution to most problems is just to throw more resources at something and damn the torpedoes. But technology is different. You have to find the right people to understand the problem—and the goals—and then consider the fallout from what you’re doing. As Pablos Holman observed in his keynote, technologists have to try and fail multiple times in finding solutions. And that takes time and money that lawyers aren’t used to having to expend.

I have noticed a similar phenomenon at other tech conferences like Legal Week, Clio, and the ABA TECHSHOW: great speakers, timely presentations and discussions, but few big firm lawyers. In the case of Clio and TECHSHOW though, there were plenty of lawyers from small firms (and also alternative legal service providers) in attendance who add a richness and texture to the discussions.

This confirms what I see more and more: Lawyers from small firms are willing to look under the hood, to get engaged with technology and to look for ways to innovate and disrupt. Big firms rely on “staff” and often do little to engage in understanding the changes driving the profession. At its core, many big firm lawyers, who in many ways should be leading the profession, don’t find technology and legal change and disruption all that important. At the end of the day, this is the real and fundamental problem.

Holman said it best in his keynote: “If you as lawyers don’t figure out how to better use technology, Silicon Valley will, and will just go around you like Uber did with taxi cab industry. We are already doing it to the medical and banking professions.” We won’t be too far behind.

One Comment

  1. Joel says:

    I am a recent ls graduate with a cs background. I am not excited about ip. I love automation. Where should I look for a job?

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