LegalGeek second annual conference: a triumph but raising a question

LegalGeek, the not for profit organisation at the head of the legal start up community in the UK, held a highly successful second annual conference earlier today. Numbers, at around 1200, more than doubled those last year and, just as impressively, most delegates stayed until after 7pm – drawn by the promise of free beer and an outstanding last session on funding.

The result was a triumph for LegalGeek’s founder, Jimmy Vestbrick, whose style was well represented in the conference’s venue in an achingly trendy Shoreditch former brewery; the unexplained presence of two mobile privet hedges (occupied in seeking consoling hugs) and the VW camper van (in which he had toured during the summer the tech capitals of Europe) parked in a corner of the main venue.

The audience this year appeared a little older than in 2016 – with more grey beards and fewer students. It contained, however, many of the key players both in law firms and in tech start ups. There was the same sense of optimism and enthusiasm – though perhaps slightly less ebulliently expressed. Speaker after speaker remarked that it was a good time to be alive and working in the sector. Tony Williams of Jomati celebrated ‘a more vibrant market than ever before’. Dan Johnson of NextLaw Labs said that there had been ‘no better time to be in the legal industry’.

In a way, the key session was the one which began at 6pm. This was shared between investors and incubators: it discussed ‘bringing ideas to market’. On display were a number of venture capitalists, firm-based incubators and their potential beneficiaries. The capitalists were pretty sobering. They all agreed that they were looking for a threefold increase on money invested plus return of the original stake and that each investment ought to have the potential to be a ‘unicorn’, reaching a $1bn valuation. That sobered the tech start-up participants who were otherwise warming up for the after-party. Perhaps understandably, one piece of advice was to keep an eye on alternative ways of growing the business. Incubators like Allen and Overy’s Fuse or Mishcon de Reya’s MDR Lab provided other ways of getting assistance through the tricky start up period. In MDR’s case, this involved a 12 week onsite presence with the opportunity to collaborate with the firm. It had accepted six start ups – with a range of international backgrounds including the UK, US and India – to participate in the current, first, round.

The last session followed a format deployed during the day –  with a number of brief contributors from a variety of speakers with practical experience. That allowed good coverage which began with a session chaired by Richard Tromans of Artificial Lawyer, a reliable commentator on developments in the sector. Emily Forges gave an interesting presentation of the Luminance, an AI product, supported by Slaughter and May, which ‘reads and understands legal documents in any language, finding significant information and anomalies without any instruction’. She recounted how it had bested a particularly smart lawyer who had spotted one anomaly in a large series of documents to general applause at the time. On a dummy rerun to test the programme, Luminance had found four other similar anomalies that had gone unspotted. Noah Waisberg of Kira Systems and Rich Seabrook of Neota Logic did an interesting joint session in which they extolled the emerging technique of ‘bricolage’ which allowed clients to pull together different products without reference to their suppliers. Their homely image for this process was the creation of avocado on toast, a feast where allegedly the whole is greater than the parts.

Rather bravely, the day started with a session on equality within the sector. A group of powerful women probably did not need TV broadcaster Barry Matthews to help them make their case to be judged in their own right. Matthew Ryder and Srin Madipalli made the case for diversity in terms of race and disability with precision.

The gaps were less in relation to people than services. There was no coverage of how services might be provided by commercial practitioners at prices which would service the members of Richard Susskind’s ‘latent legal market’ though some providers of case management services – such as the Canadian firm Clio – are beginning to expand into the field of self-completing forms for clients in order to do this. Nor was there a mention in the entire day of the Rechtwijzer and other attempts to develop interactive provision using the net to help those on low incomes to get access to justice.

These omissions reduced the comprehensiveness of the coverage but might well have been justified in terms of allowing a focus on issues of concern to the particular members of the audience – which contained few from the not-for-profit sector. The content did, however, confirm the gulf that exists between the development of products within the international commercial sector, dominated as it is by the sheer size of the potential US market, and the significantly less well funded world of access to justice. The issue remains for another day.

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