The kid is back from the candy store known as ABA TECHSHOW. This was my first trip in two years, and probably the best of the shows I’ve attended so far. I met up with old friends, made some new ones, and managed to avoid most of the St. Patrick’s Day revellers at the Chicago Hilton, so altogether it was a great success.
I loaded up on numerous sessions and gathered a ton of material that will be making its way into National and onto CBA PracticeLink in the coming weeks and months. But I thought you might be interested in a few highlights of the seminars I attended and what I took away from them. (Note that the “takeaway” isn’t necessarily the presenters’ position, but rather is my impression of where things are and where they’re headed in the future.)
* Privacy on the Internet, a keynote by Marc Rotenberg, Executive Director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Marc’s address was both entertaining (he opened with a discussion of the Eliot Spitzer case) and sobering (the amount of data about us that both government and the private sector are collecting is astounding).
Takeaway: Google is amassing the greatest collection of data in history and the tools to do some disturbing things with it, and all we have to reassure us is their word that they won’t misuse it. But we’re at the stage now where we need to be asking exactly who owns “information” of various kinds. For example, we worry that Google can track and keep everything we do online, including things we searched for and found. But much of this data would never have existed in the first place if not for Google: information that we consider our private business exists only because we voluntarily use Google’s services. Can we rightly lay claim to it? Isn’t it the consideration we chose to render Google in exchange for free search? As both privacy and anonymity become harder to maintain, we need to think a whole lot more about this.
* Document management, by Steve Best and Debbie Foster. Lots of great stuff here, including Debbie’s insight that in the modern law office, “document management” is really “knowledge management” — tremendous amounts of valuable information are contained in places (spreadsheets, powerpoints, e-mails) that aren’t considered “documents” per se.
Takeaway: The speakers emphasized that the only truly effective DM system is one that makes compliance involuntary. Human nature and office culture are both such that staffers will always look for a way to get around the new system of naming, filing and locating documents in order to use their own. This reminded me of what I’ve been hearing more often in knowledge management circles, that the most reliable way to harness lawyers’ knowledge is to automate the process, extracting the information from lawyers without them knowing it or participating in the process: many law firms have not found ways to sufficiently motivate lawyers to freely share what they consider their stock in trade. It makes me wonder about the bad habits we’ve developed in the legal profession regarding the information we use every day, that we’re at the point of needing to circumvent choice and remove human activity to guarantee success. That’s not good.
* Tech for small law offices, by Carolyn Elefant and David Masters. Another solid session, opening with the six factors small law practices need to think about when considering a technology purchase: cost, mobility, ease of use, tech support, client compatibility, and security. Also, a great rule of thumb: any multi-function device is probably going to do one thing (the manufacturer’s specialty) extremely well, another so-so, and the rest terribly.
Takeaway: Carolyn and David called the laptop “the essential tool of the modern lawyer,” and it was either here or in another session that someone said there’s no justification for a lawyer to buy a desktop computer anymore. That seems about right: laptops now have almost all the benefits of a traditional desktop (screen sizes will necessarily tend to be smaller) with all the advantages of mobility that lighter frames, longer battery lives, and most importantly, wireless broadband can provide. Very soon, desktop computers will seem as clunky and old-fashioned as gigantic stand-alone monitors now do in a word of flat screens. But with the advance of the laptop (along with the PDA, the cellphone and even the thumbdrive), we’ve entered the world of fully mobile and therefore fully vulnerable client data. One in ten laptops will be lost or stolen, and the loss rate on cellphones and UBS drives is ridiculous. Yet many lawyers don’t even password-protect their mobile devices, let alone encrypt their data. It’s probably going to take a high-profile client data disaster and subsequent action against a law firm to get lawyers to take mobile security seriously.
* Collaboration technology, by Dennis Kennedy and TECHSHOW Chair Tom Mighell. Tons of great stuff here: Google Docs, wikis, Zoho, CrossLoop, drop.io, SharePoint, Basecamp and AdobeConnect were just some of the products and innovations discussed. If you’re interested in learning more about this area, Tom and Dennis have just co-authored a book on the subject.
Takeaway: I get the feeling that 2008 will be the year extranets take off. As I’m sure you know, an extranet is a secure, private website that serves as an online command center, most often for a transaction or litigation, that lawyers and clients can enter 24/7/365. There’s so much technology available now to create extranets or quasi-extranets that price and access barriers are falling, and clever lawyers (especially in smaller practices) are now setting up individual extranets for each client for their particular matter. This has the potential to change the dynamic of the lawyer-client relationship, since the client now has unprecedented access to her files, documents, instructions, and most importantly, the progress of her case and of her bill, anytime she wants. Client information belongs to the client, not the lawyer; but lawyers have always been the ones in control of it. Extranets are going to change that, and soon.
* Law firm economic performance, by Brian Ritchey of More Partner Income. Brian was reporting the results of LexisNexis’ 2007 Law Firm Economic Survey. I won’t go into the details here, since this is a product LexisNexis sells, but the results would be eye-opening to large or midsize law firm partners who wonder why productivity is flat even though they’re working harder than ever before.
Takeaway: I’m willing to wager that an inability to manage human relationship challenges is the biggest profitability drain in law firms today. Partners hoard work and don’t share enough of it with associates; in a non-hierarchical structure, firm management doesn’t have the power to change that. Associates don’t receive enough challenging or interesting work and lose their enthusiasm for the job. Other associates become “non-equity partners” in part because neither they nor the firm want them to become full equity partners or to leave altogether; but these “superannuated associates” are often the least profitable lawyers in the firm. Law firms are places where, because of culture, structure and business model, it’s very hard to have those “difficult” conversations that take place in the business world every day as a matter of course, and as a result, cross-purposes or conflicts that need to be resolved for everyone’s good are left to fester. Confronting these personnel challenges and acting on them will be the mark of law firms in the pole position in the race to succeed.
In general, the strongest impression I took away from TECHSHOW is that lawyers aren’t taking privacy and security as seriously as they ought. It’s not just a matter of using spouses’ names for passwords, or sending valuable client data using highly vulnerable GMail, or taking BlackBerrys and thumbdrives into the outside world without protection and encryption in place, that sort of thing. I think it’s more of a generally cavalier approach to communications across the board, perhaps best exemplified by the lawyer who recently allowed Outlook AutoComplete to accidentally send a confidential e-mail not to a client, but to a reporter with the same last name.
Information is the currency in which lawyers deal, and never has information been so open to loss, theft, espionage, illicit collection and monitoring. Yet you’d never know it from the way lawyers play with their information as if the world is their inter-office mail system. Technology has removed a great many barriers, maybe none so important as the barrier between what one person knows and the other person wants to know. Lawyers need to get on board this train fast.
So that’s my unofficial TECHSHOW report. If you didn’t go this year, try to make it in 2009: change is simply happening too fast to miss out on a resource like this.