March 22, 2019 Technology

ABA TECHSHOW 2019 Recap

By Aastha Madaan

Music and selfie lovers go to Coachella. Explorers and artists go to Burning Man. Legal geeks and legal-tech aficionados go to ABA TECHSHOW.

ABA TECHSHOW is a joy-inspiring legal festival for people who are interested in legal technology and for companies that want to reach out to those people. I’ve broken down this article into categories that I think will catch you up on what you missed and help any readers on the fence figure out whether this is the event for them next year.

The Format

The first day began with a start-up pitch competition in which 15 start-ups pitched their ideas and concepts. Then, for the next two days, attendees had free reign to attend any of the more than 60 different panels and talks in broadly divided categories, including cybersecurity, advanced IT, Core technology, litigation, and solo/small firm, including an academic track and a more theoretical, “beyond the tech” track. In addition, the EXPO hall, which was open all day, had countless vendors and legal tech companies, both small and large. There were small seating areas in the EXPO hall as well. This was where an attendee could spot some of the speakers from the panels, as a lot of the panels were sponsored and several of the speakers were affiliated with the exhibitor companies.

The day was broken up with several “EXPO hall breaks,” some keynotes, and bookended with 12-step meetings and exercises or meals.

Panels

This format does not allow for much decision making on the fly, and the committed attendee likely will benefit most by deciding in advance which of the panels to attend and which vendors to meet in the exhibit hall because there is no possible way to take in and truly savor all the tech and all the panels in the two days of ABA TECHSHOW. The good thing is, you are almost guaranteed to stay engaged the entire time because of the people you will meet, the panels, and the vendors. The bad thing about the format is the discouraging sense of being overwhelmed that comes with choosing or compromising on panels. Several other ABA sections and conferences have begun rotating the same popular panels throughout the conference more than once so that those panels can accommodate all the attendees, and attendees don’t feel like they have to miss too many things. The only reason this is even problematic is that the panels and speakers are so good! They range from very advanced legal tech speakers to very basic, intro-level speakers discussing topics ranging from Cybersecurity to coding, from bitcoin and blockchain to the basics of marketing. There was something for everyone, and despite being transparently affiliated with some of the vendors, the speakers provided good information and did not appear to be salesy.

EXPO Hall

The EXPO hall was where most of my meaningful interactions took place. This year the Law Practice Division’s seating area was a good landmark to meet friends and reconnect with colleagues. There were dozens of vendors in the EXPO hall, with practice management software companies dominating the space. This is another place that an attendee can strategically determine which vendors they are interested in speaking with, whether to find out about new technology because of their interest or to explore new software for their firms or projects.

The EXPO hall’s layout was interesting; all the vendors that could afford large tables were in the center, and along the walls were the smaller, more interesting tech start-ups. The EXPO hall was clearly a numbers game, and the companies with the most financial backing were able to have the most space. The trends I noticed in legal vendors and legal tech start-ups are detailed below, but I would have liked to see a greater variety of vendors beyond practice management software.

In speaking with tech vendors, I could tell a lot of them were there to scope out potential collaborators, and, perhaps, competition. One of the vendors said, “It was inspiring to see how law firms are continuing to embrace technology during ABA TECHSHOW. For us, the theme of the show was partnerships—the amount of inbound interest we received from new technology vendors looking for partnership opportunities far surpassed most other shows in the past. We are excited to learn more about some of these complementary legal technologies, to see how we can collectively serve our customers and the legal industry over the years to come.”

Lastly, I was pleasantly surprised by the nontraditional things that some legal start-ups were doing to make the attendees feel connected and truly use emotional intelligence to get their point across. The one that stood out most is a security company called Bright-wise. Bright-wise’s CEO is the subject of a book titled Breaking and Entering: The Extraordinary Story of a Hacker Called “Alien.” Bright-wise invited the author, Jeremy N. Smith, to sign and give away copies of the book, which in my opinion was an extraordinary marketing technique that truly made Bright-wise stand out from the rest.

So, when it comes to the EXPO hall, beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. If people find themselves at ABA TECHSHOW, it may be because they like exploring legal tech, and this could truly be a kid-in-a-candy-store situation—their eyes could be bigger than the amount of time they have to explore!

The Attendees

In my opinion, this is one of the most important parts of ABA TECHSHOW. A lot of people—lawyers and non-lawyers alike—go to ABA TECHSHOW to catch up with like-minded, legal-tech geeks. And to listen to each other talk about their ideas, theories, start-ups, etc.

As a solo/small firm lawyer, I found the connections made at the event were the most valuable, and then the panels and EXPO hall. A surprising number of attendees that I personally met were lawyers who were venturing into legal tech, whether at a small scale or by partnering with other companies. I was surprised not to have met more solo and small firm lawyers from across the country, and I suspect the costs associated with ABA TECHSHOW might have had something to do with that.

All in all, quality over quantity matters a lot when it came to the attendees. The attendees/recovering attorneys, legal-tech lawyers, etc., were mostly individuals of high caliber on the cusp of legal-tech breakthroughs.

Trends

As I mentioned previously, practice management software vendors were the largest contingency at EXPO hall. In spite of some competition, the thing I noticed most was collaboration between companies and the connections that companies were making.

I went into ABA TECHSHOW expecting a lot of buzz about cybersecurity, artificial intelligence (AI), and automation. There were a handful of automation vendors, but cybersecurity vendors that provide B2B services to solo and small law firms were a very, very small group.

The technology that stood out most and will likely continue to be buzzed about is the use of text messaging to communicate with clients, whether it’s reminders for deadlines, simple communication, or appointment reminders. Smaller start-ups such as Zipwhip and Heymarket seem to be gravitating toward the legal industry steadily and for good reason. I didn’t see any text messaging apps or software geared specifically and exclusively to attorneys, which may turn out to be a good thing so long as these companies are able to create checks to adhere with local privacy and confidentiality laws.

Lastly, the number of integrations provided by non-legal-tech start-ups with the most popular practice management software was encouraging to see.

All in all, the trends at ABA TECHSHOW may not have been fully representative of legal-tech industry trends, but, in my opinion, they were close.

Conclusion

The ABA TECHSHOW has a lot going on, which means it has something for everyone. From 12-step meetings to evening mixers, and all the well-thought-out panels in between, the hard work of the ABA TECHSHOW Board was very visible. Chris Fortier, one of the TECHSHOW Board Members, captured the essence of ABA TECHSHOW well: “If you want to be amongst a crowd of people who challenge the way you think and push you to improve the way you do things, ABA TECHSHOW is the place to be.” The diversity of speakers was testament to the hard work of the Board in assembling the roster.

For someone to get the most out of ABA TECHSHOW, the best practice is to plan ahead so you know exactly which people and companies you want to connect with and which sessions you want to attend. Otherwise, you can easily get lost in the noise.

All in all, ABA TECHSHOW was outstanding, inspiring, and like any festival, I came back with a rush of adrenaline and excitement for the next ABA TECHSHOW.

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Aastha Madaan (aastha@madaanlaw.com) is a sole practitioner in Long Beach, California, where she practices business law and estate planning. She is a young lawyer leader and social media disciple. Aastha speaks and writes frequently on the topic of cultural competency in the practice of law. She is passionate about advancing diversity in the profession, about legal technology, and about coffee. She is a member of the Editorial Board of GPSolo magazine.