ABA Techshow Day One: the report of a passing Brit

I missed the ‘7am ‘When Yoga and Technology Meet’ session at the ABA Techshow. I was there, however, for the 8.15am welcome and through ‘Lunch ‘N Learn’ to the Happy Hour at 5pm. The day must have been exhausting even for those delegates not suffering jet lag. The theme that I would take from a varied and packed day is just how relevant technology now is for legal professionals, even those just starting up as sole practitioners with low income clients. You would probably expect that from a conference on which is too pricey for sceptics to waste their money.

Most slots had eight alternative sessions so that delegates’ experience will have differed according to which sessions they chose. For me, an excellent opening session covered the technology required by someone just starting off. The two speakers – Rachelle Washington and Ashley Hallene, women like an impressive majority of presenters – underlined just how technology changes the way in which a lawyer can start and conceive a new firm. The speakers’ identification of competition was telling. As a start up with low income clients, this was identified as the net-based, form-oriented large providers like LegalZoom. Lawyers’ potential market advantage over such anonymous and automated behemoths was their own personality and skills. These needed to be leveraged as much as could be done in the branding of the firm.

In presentation, technology comes into its own. Get yourself a class website; a bunch of relevant computer programmes; and a virtual office with a prestigious address where you rarely turned up but rent space by the hour and no one will know you are still working from the kitchen table in your tiny basement apartment. Technology can even help you with the tricky issue of managing expansion where automated or outhoused services such as reception can keep your overheads low for as long as possible. A consistent issue through the day was the need to meet commercial standards in any web services. Clients learn their expectations from Amazon and their bank: you have to meet them.

My second session covered net-based research – some paid for but some, like Google Scholar, for free. And did you know just how much information is likely to be available on anyone you want to chase? Social media often becomes the giveaway. Once on Facebook or Twitter, information is still retrievable from companies that have made it their business to preserve it even if apparently deleted at source. And did you know that google image can trace the origin and copies of any picture on the net?

The highlight of the day, at least for me, was the lunchtime presentation by Thomson Reuter’s David Coyle. He gave an overview of the current state of legal technology and Innovation. This ranged from artificial intelligence to the importance of design. Much reference was made by him and other presenters to the work of Stanford’s Margaret Hagan    ( see below) who clearly has a strong influence on current thinking. He presented a list of the ten top sources of information on developments, including the best blogggers – something which merits more and later consideration.

Among all the shiny new tech on display emerging into the sunlight was the humble old text – very handy for reminding clients of court appearances and appointments. Skype also came through as useful in talking to clients both as an aid to remote provision but also containing the time taken. There are acres of provider stalls with a variety of interesting products, both established and new. A number of these related to client intake and used a variety of ways of obtaining information from clients and processing their eligibility before deciding whether to take them on as clients. Also much praised were customer management systems that provide client portals where clients can see the papers in, and review the state of, their case – like Clio Connect.

The US legal profession operates a pretty sharp divide between private practitioners, who look to the ABA as their representative and publicly funded legal services lawyers who look more to the Legal Services Corporation. This conference, therefore, approached access to justice firmly from a commercial perspective. No harm in that. From that perspective, however, tHere was praise for ‘Freemium’ website content which gives free assistance in the hope of picking up paying trade. It is widely done and it can work. There was also some talk challenging conventional expectations in an interesting way. ‘The question’, said presenter and technophile practitioner Patrick Palace, ‘should be not how do I charge more, should be how should I change less.’

The day ended for me – just before the free drinks – with a session on unbundling on which the ABA has published a book given to delegates, whose numbers were faltering a little even among this driven audience. This was a pity because Shantelle Argyle of Open Legal Services presented on how she had been able to sustain a six attorney, two location operation in Utah. She talked honestly about the professional and ethical issues. She also accepted that about half of those that qualified financially had sufficient skills to handle their role in limited scope representations: ‘A lot of clients need therapists’. She used a phrase that was new to me – ‘low bono’ representation. Her practice was charging $75 an hour and, so far, able to keep going. Crucial to success are transparency and precision both in relation to clients and your own understanding of the business.

So, a full and exhausting day.  Meditation at 7.30am tomorrow

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