Second Big Law London Legal Tech conference

Yesterday, London saw its second large law technology conference in six months, the British Legal Technology Forum (BLTF) 2018. This was, in some ways, very similar to the Legal Geek conference held in October. Both had attendances of over 1000; both took place in prestigious London venues (BLTF in the beautifully restored Thameside fish market, Billingsgate, Legal Geek in trendy Shoreditch). Both reflected the personalities of the driving forces behind them (BLTF’s Richard Susskind who seemed to do most of the fronting for its organisers, Newlaw Media, and Legal Geek’s Jimmy Vestbrick). Both were very successful: they were, also, in some ways very different.

Legal Geek got the better of the venues. BLTF’s success has led to it straining Billingsgate’s resources to the limit. As a result, the soundproofing of the breakout stages was challenged and you could hear too much background socialisation. And, personally, I like Legal Geek’s querkiness, demonstrated in such things as the parking of Jimmy Vestbrick’s VW camper van in the main brewery hall and its competitive (but free) foodmart. These things are not, however, really replicable: they are unique and that is their charm. Billingsgate felt more corporate. BLTF had champagne; Legal Geek red bull. Both had strong speakers from the profession.

Kevin Gold, managing partner of large firm Mishcon de Reya, could really have spoken at either conference but gave a keynote for BLTF. He was thoughtful about the tensions and opportunities for a law firm like his of investing in technology. You need a strong statement of values to provide a bedrock; a ten year vision not a three year plan; and older partners must be willing to take a hit on their retirement cash for the sake of the future. He also revealed that he figured it cost the firm £250,000 before a solicitor started to repay the investment in their potential – a figure completely unaffordable lower down in the market.

Probably reflecting Richard Susskind’s position as an academic, BLTF had some particularly interesting university speakers. Oxford’s Professor Ian Goldin gave an upbeat assessment of the current situation: ‘This is the best time in human history’. We were going through a period of change equal only to that of the Renaissance. And he took his audience on a tour which certainly might have challenged that optimism. It included climate change; prospective job losses from AI (UK – 40 per cent; US 47); the challenge for global governance as market mechanisms prove inadequate to address the major problems facing the world; the dangers represented by Trump and Brexit; the move eastward of the political and economic centre of the world; and the threat of pandemics assisted by modern air travel. In all this, however, ‘technology is the new nervous system of the world’. Humans and progress would win out, however, in the end.  He had some nice lines, for example, ‘There is too much data and not enough judgement’. You can catch his TED talk on youtube.

Liverpool’s Professor Katie Atkinson did not attempt to fly as high but she was good on aspects of artificial intelligence and the link of a number of projects with academic engagement. She also provided a link with Legal Geek by showing its tube-style map of UK start ups. AI and its implications was, as you might imagine, one of the big themes of the BLTF conference. It was covered by Legal Geek as well but there was more emphasis on practical elements like the funding of start ups.

David Coplin, once  Microsoft’s (Lord, help us) Chief Envisaging Officer, enlivened the end of BLTF’s day by arguing – in a session entitled ‘The Rise of the Humans’ – that AI will liberate humans to concentrate on the creative and we should get robots and machines in perspective. His position was summed up in an apocryphal quote by Pablo Picasso, ’Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.’ He might have been referring to calculators, which is more likely, and he might not have said it anyway but somebody did and it is certainly striking. You can catch Mr Coplin strutting his stuff on a Royal Society of Arts youtube video. He too is wroth watching.

After AI, the big theme at the BLTF conference was security. David Venable, a former US intelligence officer with NSA, gave a sobering assessment that lawyers will under concerted attack. There was a slightly worrying apparent implication by both Mr Venable and Professor Goldin that the hack of the tax affairs of the clients of Mossack Fonseca demonstrated the need for better security. A more hopeful analysis in terms of good global governance would be that it showed more that, in the modern highly networked world, you can run but you can’t hide – even to the remotest and most concealing tax haven. That, however, was not explored.

The third big source of concern was the forthcoming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which links security with privacy: Brexit comes too late for the UK to escape its clutches.

A number of the BLTF sessions at what at times were three concurrent stages amounted to 20 minute pitches for products, several of which assisted GDPR compliance. This was occasionally a bit irritating but did give delegates who chose to attend those sessions  a good run down of various products.

Among persistent buzz concepts was ‘the pursuit of marginal gains’, which cycling’s disgrace seems to have left untarnished. Everyone was after them. And, I am glad to report, there was widespread recognition of the thicket of hype that obscures various elements of technology, particularly the possibilities of AI. Professor Atkinson even showed us the Gartmore hype curve. This, clearly conceived by a literate source familiar with Bunyan, takes you through the progression of a technological development from its opening ‘trigger of innovation’; through the ‘peak of inflated expectations’; down to the ‘trough of disillusionment’ and out onto the ‘slope of enlightenment’ to ‘the plateau of productivity’.

Both conferences avoided the trough and could validly claim to take participants up the slope. If you are in London for either next year I would recommend them both – particularly if BLTF gets a bigger venue.

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