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Features - ABA TechShow: At the Gates of the Emerald City

By Wendy R. Leibowitz, Published on April 1, 2001

Wendy R. Leibowitz is an attorney and technology writer in Washington, D.C.  Her Web site is http://www.wendytech.com.

"When are they going to dye the river green?" was a common question at this year's American Bar Association TechShow. The Law Practice Management Section's ABA TechShow is always held in Chicago in March, and usually falls around St. Patrick's Day. The Chicago River generally shines shamrock green for the attendees. This year, although the river was dyed late, green was on people's minds--and not just because the conference coincided with an enormous drop in the stock market. The theme of TechShow was "Making Your Investment Pay," and although there were still frustratingly few --okay, no--sessions devoted to "Invest One Million Dollars in Technology and Earn Three Million, Guaranteed!!!!" there was a practical focus to the show that was refreshingly honest and mature. Gone was the breathless hype of yesteryear, in which the Internet or intranets or extranets were going to transform the practice of law and vacuum your law firm lobby while you fished in Montana. Gone was the fascination with new gadgets for their own sake. Instead, there was a recognition that the technology could help a great deal--or a bit-- in your practice, but also a new willingness to acknowledge the failures and difficulties of implanting even the finest technology at the finest firms.

Perhaps that's the Emerald City at the end of a long road of struggle: an honest account of how a lawyer or client is using technology in his or her practice, with the pros and cons of implementation laid out to a much more sophisticated audience. This year's TechShow featured many superb presentations, focusing on everything from new issues arising from basic implementations of familiar technologies to new businesses spun off from law firms. And best of all, as in The Wizard of Oz, the goal was to be able to go home with the lessons learned. There was a lot that could be taken home, even if you didn't have room for the $100 scooter that one vendor was handing out to bring people to his booth, perhaps to illustrate the demand for user-friendly technology.

The three-day conference consisted of 75 sessions, 100 speakers, hundreds of technology vendors with various hand-outs (most chocolate, pens, little squishy balls and T-shirts), two fine vendor-sponsored lunches and cocktail sessions, a dazzling display of an electronic courtroom from the University of Arizona, which does not remotely resemble any courtroom I've been in; one crowded cyber cafe, and uncountable networking opportunities, of the human and computer kind. TechShow draws lawyers, consultants, legal professionals such as librarians and academics, and technologists from around the United States and Canada, as well as a growing number of welcome strays from Britain and Australia with technology that can put us regularly to shame, particularly in their courts.

What is Tech Show All About

The focus of ABATechshow is on educating the attendees in how technology can help them deliver excellent client service, not on selling technology or on hawking consulting services, two traits that continue to plague TechShow's New York-based sibling, LegalTech. (The contract for the large consulting company that sponsors that show is expiring, so perhaps that show will improve).

The educational opportunities at ABA TechShow this year were abundant. The labels for the separate seminar "tracks" that TechShow uses are continually evolving: General, Solo & Small Firm; Large Firm & Corporate Counsel; Advanced/IT Professionals; Litigation/Trial Technology; Decision Makers/Strategies; Marketing, and Practice Area Automation. But as the technology converges--large clients are using small firms for some matters; large firms may be behind a plugged-in solo in some areas, and everyone wants to know once you've GOT your intranet/document management system/client relationship manager software, how do you use it or them effectively, the tracks may change. The practice-driven tracks were most useful that way "Automating an Estates Practice"; and there was some praise for the "shoot-outs" between different types of software, though one person said they were too polite. (Hey, it's the Midwest.) The future may bring us client-driven tracks, and an integration with legal service providers who are trying, frequently by teaming up with private practitioners, to use technology to deliver legal services to the underserved. If you call them a "latent market," the way the British writer Richard Susskind does, people's ears seem to perk up.

Starting With a Bang

Martha W. Barnett, the ABA's president, is a solid, direct speaker who, in her keynote address, illustrated the persistent gaps between technology and lawyers. She noted the extent to which she relies on technology--Blackberry in hand, computer on her desk, cell phone in briefcase. Of course, being a lawyer, Ms. Barnett, a partner at Holland & Knight in Tallahassee, had to provide the ordinary disclaimers. She is not a "techie." This means, by now, that you are confused by technology jargon--but who isn't?--even if you use the technology. "I turn it on, I don't program it," she said. Most members of the consuming public are not techies, just as most of them are not lawyers, and the fact that a smart lawyer is still made to feel dumb by the technology is the technology's fault.

Ms. Barnett noted that her firm is trying to implement client relationship management technologies, (CRM), but is confident that "just as soon as I master it and invest a lot of money in it, they'll change it." While everyone wants technology to improve, the need to bring the users along with every change is sometimes overlooked by the technology developers. Ms. Barnett praised the ABA Technology Sections, which have had different names over the years--it's now called the Law Practice Management Section-- as 'way ahead of the times. Well, it's ahead of the rest of the profession, but lawyers as a rule are BEHIND the times, and behind their clients, and technology vendors have to teach that lesson to us.

But Ms. Barnett said that she wants to move the ABA to the forefront of technology. "Let's try to move the ABA to the position of being technologically advanced," she urged. She noted that outside consultants are evaluating the ABA, working with the ABA's Standing Committee on Information Technology.

But then, in a refreshingly honest admission, she noted that many state bar's ethics rules are routinely challenged by the technology--and that lawyers violate them every day. The simplest Web site, by definition, crosses state lines and thus challenges our state-by-state licensing system, under which someone practicing law--or providing advice, or soliciting clients--outside of their licensed area can be disciplined or even disbarred for the unauthorized practice of law. "For three months, on a rotating basis, our firm sent lawyers from our Florida office to our Chicago office to assist with litigation," Ms. Barnett recalled. The lawyers took depositions, organized documents, and acted in every way as if they were licensed to practice outside Florida. "Let's just say if one of those lawyers were licensed to practice in Illinois, it would have been a complete coincidence," said Ms. Barnett. Holland & Knight is also among the growing number of firms offering client services in multiple disciplines--would you like translation, environmental, and international consulting services with your legal work? A separate entity, H&K Holdings, was formed, as someone who is not a lawyer cannot be a partner in a law firm.

Many of the challenges to, or violations of, the ethics rules are violations of ignorance, and two excellent TechShow seminars were designed to educate lawyers about the rules governing multi-disciplinary, or multi-jurisdictional practices. One was called "MDPs, MJPs, PGPs and Other Things That Go Bump in the Night." These workshops were well-run by Paul McLaughlin, of the Law Society of Alberta in Canada, and Ann MacNaughton, of Houston's Navigant Consulting Inc. Both discussed how technology is driving lawyers to ignore the rules (as in the case of the Florida lawyers in Chicago), or to bump up against them (as in wanting to participate in an online referral service, which is barred under the ethics rules of some states). Some of the changes are client-driven, as when lawyers wish to team up with accountants in multi-disciplinary practices to deliver "one-stop shopping" client service.

Ironically, though both speakers were superb and well-acquainted with the ethics issues, Ms. MacNaugton violated one of the TechShow's ethical guidelines by openly trying to sell a book--at one point, ignoring a question to show a number of PowerPoint slides that endorsed the book. That violation aside, the speakers involved the audience in confronting the rules, which are ostensibly designed to protect clients (though actually they may protect the profession). "What should the rules be?" asked Mr. McLaughlin over and over. It's so much more fun to just criticize and disparage the existing rule--designing the new rules is a tough task.

Meet the Knowledge Manager

Knowledge Management was another hot button topic this year, and tackled by experienced knowledge managers (a title that arguably didn't exist four or five years ago in any law firm). Peter Krakaur, knowledge manager at San Francisco's Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, led a panel discussion with Sally Gonzalez, of Arlington, Va.'s Michael Farrell Group, on "The Search for Intelligence--Knowledge Is Power." "Too often, firms talk about their knowledge management systems, when really all they have is fine document retrieval," Mr. Krakaur. Knowledge Management is a step beyond retrieving hard data or the right document--it involves leveraging the firm's collective wisdom to serve clients. Analyzing the data collected--What documents are most used? How must they be modified, and why, and is there a way to streamline that process?--are the beginning questions of KM systems, explained Ms. Gonzalez.

Client-Driven Systems

Client-driven systems also took the spotlight. If the technology is good for anything, it's for "Collaboration, Cooperation and Communication" with clients. A presentation by Larry Bodine, formerly of Chicago's Sidley & Austin and now president of the LawMarketing portal, with Ms. Gonzalez showed how firms are connecting to clients using technology. Among the most interesting programs they discussed was a distance learning program offered by Bryan Cave. The St. Louis-based firm offers "eCave" programs on its extranet to clients, aimed at preventing sexual harassment lawsuits. Electronic team rooms, or Virtual Deal Rooms, were popular among lawyers at Ms. Gonzalez's former firm, Washington, D.C.'s Akin Gump, easing communication and helping new lawyers get up to speed on a deal.

Profiting Beyond the Bar: Building Ancillary Businesses

Beyond the cutting edge are the bleeding-edge attorneys, and a small handful have launched ancillary technology businesses, separate from their law firms. The forum devoted to "Profiting Beyond the Bar--Building Ancillary Businesses" was one of the most honest discussions of the limitations of law firms, and the difficulties of doing business with them, that I have ever heard.

Debra Hix-Sykes, the president of DHS & Associates in Milwaukee, said her human resource services business grew out of "active listening" to clients at her former firm, where she had been a legal administrator for over a decade. There was an enormous need to educate clients about employment and health care issues, she noted, and some interest in the firm in growing its employment practice, which had been tapering off. Ms. Hix-Sykes spun off a separate business to run training and educational programs. She was very frank about addressing the difficulties law firms have with marketing, which can be potentially fatal to a business facing competition from other businesses which might not have any ethical or cultural difficulties with, say, television commercials. There was also a potential conflict with the firm, which had an employment litigation practice--If her company helped prevent lawsuits, was she hurting her firm's bottom line? In a humorous note, Ms. Hix-Sykes acknowledged that some partners had no idea what she was doing and why the firm was involved in it. "Look at the culture of your firm," she urged. "Look at the client market, and look at whether there's a potential to increase revenue by increasing services to existing clients." Always use the "P" word--plan--have a plan, and know where you're going--but avoid the "C" word: committee.

John Tredennick, formerly a partner at Denver's Holland & Hart, filled out his last time sheet in April and launched CaseShare Systems ("Better than Paper!" to serve the technology needs of his firm's clients. He offered, among other things, practical suggestions to anyone thinking of following his lead. "Leave the firm, physically," he advised. "If you are in the same building, the law firm will poach your technologists, using them to fix whatever's broken." (Sharing information is good. Sharing people is not.)

Additionally, as CaseShare grew to serve lawyers' and clients' communication needs, conflicts were possible if CaseShare took on a client or a law firm that was adverse to one of Holland & Hart's. As a separate business from the law firm, Mr. Tredennick noted, CaseShare can take on non-lawyers as full partners. He discussed financing the business from the firm from which he spun off. Mr. Tredennick did not quickly go for the IPO, which looks wise in hindsight, but now his former firm is among his major investors. It can be complicated.

Litigation as a Growth Industry & The Magic of Technology

On the exhibit floor, another law firm spin-off, FirmLogic, was drawing interest. Marvin Chavis, a partner at Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice in Winston-Salem, said he made a conscious decision to stop practicing law. He formed a coalition of several high-tech groups, from a case management system, to a systems integrator, to a spin-off from Womble's litigation support services, to practice technology full-time. The company earned Womble $23 million in revenues a year; it expects to increase its earnings now that it's away from the restrictions of the law firm. Even with the downturn in the economy, litigation is a growth industry.

The ABA's trademark "Fifty Gadgets in Fifty Minutes" and "Sixty Sites in 60 Minutes" and their progeny, were exceptionally strong this year. The panelists--gadgeteers Dave Hambourger, Dan Coolidge, Ross Kodner, Sheryn Bruehl, John Lindstrom, were all experienced TechShow participants and know how to connect with the audience. The 60 siters--Burgess Allison, Mark Tamminga, and Jeff Flax--presented sites that ranged from the truly staggeringly awful--The Gettysburg Address on PowerPoint Slides, at http://www.norvig.com/Gettysburg/making.html, will kill all interest in the over-used technology--to the truly useful, such as LawMoose, http://www.lawmoose.com, a developing "legal community knowledge server" put together by Minnesota lawyer LaVern Pritchard. "How do they find those sites?" everyone wondered. T

Technology, when it works as it should and is explained well, is indistinguishable from magic. (Magic partially explained: Burgess Allison asked a lot of people on various e-mail discussion lists for suggestions.) The other perennial, voice-recognition technology, is wonderful because it still works only on Star Trek ("Computer, on.") Yet Bruce Dorner, a sole practitioner in Londonderry, New Hampshire, and Wells Anderson, of Wells Anderson Legal Services in Minneapolis, tried good-naturedly to put the technology through its paces in the echoing conference room. They saved people lots of money by demonstrating that voice recognition technology still doesn't work well enough for anything but the shortest of documents.

Winding Up

As the speakers improve strengthen their connection with the topics of the day-to-day practicalities of lawyers and clients, there is still a gap between the accessible seminars and the daunting Exhibit Floor. What do you ask the vendors? How do you sort through the various claims? What's new? Where's the scooter give-away?

This year, it seemed as if the technology in some areas had stalled, waiting for lawyers to catch up, or understood that new bells and whistles are not what lawyers want--keep it simple and client-focused. While you can see photos of the floor at: http://www.consultwebs.com/ncphotos/techshow_exhibitors, there is still much knowledge that needs to be imparted about examining technology, especially when it's shrink-wrapped. And, judging from this year's ABA TechShow, the TechShow in future years will be the place to find some answers, see some wonderful things and even more wonderful people, and then make your way back to Kansas again.