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Vol. 43, No. 5

Technology vendors as speakers: Sharing knowledge without crossing the line

by Dan Kittay

As the practice of law becomes more reliant on technology to increase efficiency, the average lawyer may be disadvantaged by not knowing which products and services are best for his or her practice. Combine the lack of knowledge with the increasing number of states that have instituted a version of the ABA Model Rule comment that specifies a duty of technology competence, and there's a large gap to fill when it comes to making sure lawyers know what they need to function effectively and safely.

"Technology is an area that many lawyers know they should know something about, but most lawyers know little about it," says Kevin Ryan, executive director of the Monroe County (N.Y.) Bar Association. "They went to law school to be lawyers, not computer geeks."

Bar associations that want to bring their members up to speed often find that the scarcity of lawyers who are knowledgeable about technology leads to a limited field of speakers within their ranks who have the expertise to teach tech-related programs.

"The roster of available speakers on technology is more likely to contain people who are from the tech industry," Ryan says. Bars generally find it much easier to recruit speakers from within their membership for other, non-tech topics, he adds.

One example of the need to look outside for speakers with tech expertise was when the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of the State of New York recently made significant changes to its rules, Ryan says. The speaker that the MCBA and other bars invited to explain the rules was a local representative of a company that prepares documents for e-filing with the appellate court.

"He's a lawyer," Ryan explains, "and he's made himself an expert on appellate rules. We used him because he knows that stuff."

Who wants a sales pitch?

A concern for bars that find themselves relying on tech vendors to speak is the potential for lawyers to have to listen to a sales pitch instead of a seminar. While that sometimes happens, vendors and bar leaders who spoke for this article say that as long as the guidelines are clear, it's a rarity, and that both groups benefit from the increased reliance on tech vendors as teachers.

"Unless you're an idiot, you're never actively selling, unless somebody asks you a question," says Sharon Nelson, president of Sensei Enterprises, Inc., a digital forensics and cybersecurity firm. In addition to being a nationally recognized speaker, Nelson has also been active in bar associations, and in fact is a past president of both the Virginia State Bar and the Fairfax (Va) Bar Association.

"When you go to conferences and you speak, you're not there as a vendor, you're there as a speaker. To put your contact information on a slide, people expect that. People expect to see what company you're with," Nelson believes. "But not after the first slide. That's all over in a minute or less, and then you're on to teaching."

But that's not to say that there's no benefit for the vendor; being seen as an expert in a particular field can eventually lead to business. "Sometimes, even after a decade, you get a call from someone who says, 'You know, I have a problem and I saw you guys a decade ago.' That's fine. You demonstrated your expertise on a subject," Nelson says. [If] they remember you and come back, you're doing it the right way."

Guidelines maintain clarity

Bars increasingly make clear to vendors what they want them to talk about, and what is off limits. "The first thing they say is, 'I recognize that you're a vendor, but there's no selling from the podium,'" notes Ivy Grey, director of business strategy for WordRake. Bars do recognize that the vendor is allowed to mention their company, she adds, but typically, they ask that the company be mentioned as one among many options.

Having those guidelines, Grey notes, means that "I must know my competition." WordRake, which is an add-on to MS Word that helps make writing more concise and clear, would be appropriate for certain situations, she explains. But a product from another company might be a better fit for other lawyers who are handling different kinds of documents. Grey makes sure to say so, if the topic comes up in a program at which she's speaking.

While most vendors seem comfortable with following the guidelines in exchange for the opportunity to reach an audience of lawyers, there is the occasional one who crosses the line and turns a presentation into a pitch. And then what? "You apologize to your members," Ryan says, "and you probably don't use that speaker again."  

When the vendor is a bar member

Sometimes, as in Sharon Nelson's case, a tech vendor is also a member of the bar. That's also true of the MCBA: Niki Black is a legal technology evangelist for MyCase, an author and journalist, and chair of the MCBA Technology and Law Practice Committee. She is directly involved in recruiting tech speakers for the committee's monthly webcast, which focuses on how different technologies affect the practice of law. Members can attend the meeting in person or log in online, and recordings are posted on the MCBA website.

Whether it's speaking to MCBA members or to lawyers in other settings, Black says she tries to be as objective as possible when talking about technologies such as cloud computing, and how they relate to the legal profession.

"When I speak, I do so from a neutral perspective," she says. "I'm not concerned with selling the product. I'm concerned with educating the lawyers I'm speaking to about whatever it is I'm asked to speak about."

Vendor-focused programs

In addition to having a vendor speak broadly at a tech-related program, some bars invite vendors specifically to talk about and demonstrate the use of their products, and make it clear to members that that is the purpose of the program. When she was director of the Law Practice Management & Technology Center at the Chicago Bar Association, Catherine Sanders Reach began a series of "How To" programs for members that focused on different tasks. Some were led by Reach or other speakers, and some were designed to be led by a vendor who showed lawyers how to perform some tasks with their product.

Reach, who is now director of the Center for Practice Management at the North Carolina Bar Association, says the program allowed vendors opportunities to get in front of members, while at the same time offering members a chance to see products demonstrated and get answers to questions.

"To me, if the lawyers don't have to go and view a demonstration on their own, and get signed up for the inevitable marketing list by doing it," that's good for the lawyers, Reach believes.

To make sure vendors knew that they were not there to pitch a product, Reach, too, built in some clarity. "I wrote some guidelines," she recalls, "such as, 'You are allowed to talk about how your product helps lawyers do their jobs more effectively, but you may not compare yourself with other products. This is not a sales pitch. This is an educational program about how your product can help solve problems that lawyers have.'"