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ILTA 2009: Smaller, Cheaper... Better?

By Conrad J. Jacoby, Published on September 23, 2009

The International Legal Technology Association ("ILTA") has grown significantly from its humble origins, when it was founded as a low-budget way for legal I.T. professionals to find one another and pool their knowledge to better support their lawyer and law firm employers. Run almost entirely by volunteers, ILTA (then known as "LawNet") had a guiding principle that some of the best advisors and consultants to this community were similarly-situated professionals who also faced—and had sometimes conquered—the same problems and issues. Enthusiastic ILTA members, in turn, helped the organization grow by using personal invitations and connections to encourage friends and colleagues to join and by organizing local events that were driven by local hot button topics rather than top-down subject matter. The net result: a remarkably tight community in which members greatly value and trust the opinions of their peers—and a community in which the original hacker vision that knowledge should be freely shared remains alive and well.

Since its founding some thirty-odd years ago, ILTA's membership and geographic scope have grown to match the increased complexity of the technology now used within law firms, corporate law departments, and government offices. Where it was once possible to be a true "jack of all trades" within legal I.T., for quite a while, it's been increasingly necessary to focus on a particular area, such as network technology or litigation support, to provide the deep level of knowledge and support needed by law firms and other legal services providers. ILTA, in turn, has organized an increasing number of special interest sub-groups and e-mail based discussion groups, creating smaller communities of direct peers within ILTA's overarching framework.

Once a year, at ILTA's annual conference, members of all these specialty groups come together, along with many representatives from the legal technology vendor community. The conference has grown bigger and longer (the 2009 conference lasted between 4-5 days, depending on the number of events you attended), and it now attracts several thousand attendees from ILTA and the vendor community. For all this growth, however, the event remains solidly focused on peer-driven education and discussion, and it stands out as one of the more content-driven conferences in the legal technology and practice support communities.

I believe that the 2009 ILTA conference will be seen, in retrospect, as a turning point in the conference and in its future. Notably absent was the vendor-sponsored opulence of the past few years, when legal support service providers spent staggering amounts of money to establish their brand and capture ever-elusive "mind share." When the highlight of the opening-night exhibit hall extravaganza was, of all things, competitive corn shucking—as opposed to past attractions like actual-cash gambling and, for one vendor, handouts of $5 bills—it was impossible to miss the impact that the current economic downturn is having within the legal community.

Attendance was also down sharply from past years. Because vendors reserved their exhibit floor space a year in advance, 2009 also marked the first time that vendor representatives substantially outnumbered ILTA members at the conference. More than a few vendor representatives mourned the reduced opportunity to make new contacts and develop new sales prospects—something that may have significant repercussions for vendor participation in ILTA's 2010 annual conference

I disagree strongly, however, with those who believe that the conference was a bad experience or that the conference is in crisis. Though I certainly agree that the ILTA organization may not have raised as much money with the conference as in years past, I believe that ILTA members and vendor representatives alike quite possibly benefitted more than they think from this year's slimmed-down conference.

For me, the ILTA conference has always been about collecting and sharing information—a message that has been a bit obscured by the sheer extravagance of some recent vendor and ILTA-sponsored events. This year, however, with those distractions reduced (if not outright eliminated), ILTA members and vendors alike had a valuable opportunity to remind themselves of the real reason that so many people paid the stiff registration fees and traveled from all over the country, at significant additional expense, to attend the conference.

People in attendance at the 2009 ILTA conference were there because they had fought, sometimes quite hard, for the privilege of attending the conference. They came because they were hungry for the knowledge available at the conference, for the ability to see in-depth presentations of products, and to attend personal briefings with high-level vendor-side programmers and product directors. Vendor representatives did see fewer people on the exhibit floor, but those they met were, from my observation, likely to be better sales prospects because they were genuinely interested in the subject matter. Notably absent this year were conference registrants who treated the event as an extended vacation, rather than an educational event. Was the conference really poorer for their absence?

I also saw promising signs that the conference organizers were again making greater use of the knowledge and talent residing in the vendor community. When I first began attending ILTA national conferences, some of the very best presentations at the event were made by vendor-side subject matter experts. There was no mystery behind why that was the case: given an educated and skeptical audience—and a strictly enforced prohibition against "infomercial" presentations—the only way a vendor could achieve credibility was to demonstrate exceptional proficiency with the subject matter. Vendors spent weeks, if not months, honing and crafting presentations that would dazzle an audience—and yes, that would also subtly suggest that the vendor was worthy of being hired.

Several years ago, though, ILTA changed the way it selected its conference speakers, choosing to showcase ILTA members wherever possible and substantially reducing the number of vendors directly participating in the educational sessions. Unfortunately, because of their ongoing work obligations, many ILTA members didn't appear to have the same amount of time available to craft a presentation as a vendor. Nor were their presentations necessarily seen as make-or-break opportunities—a view held by so many vendors. As a result, instead of grabbing audience attention, more than a few ILTA sessions devolved into panel discussions that featured qualified speakers but lacked the organization, rehearsal, and overall showmanship that defined presentations in prior years. Providing multiple perspectives to a set of questions—a standard panel discussion format—simply wasn't always the best (or most exciting) way to address topics or leave audience members with clear guidance they could apply in their own work.

This year, however, showed a renewed integration of vendor and ILTA member expertise, at least in the litigation support track, whose sessions I attended more than other tracks. While I still believe that ILTA would benefit from providing a greater variety of presentation formats instead of a steady stream of panel discussions, I have greater confidence than I've had in several years that, through trial and error, ILTA management and special interest track leaders are continuing to adjust conference programming to best meet the needs to ILTA members.

Conclusion

In the short term, more than few people may think of the 2009 ILTA conference as the end of a golden era of vendor largess. And indeed, free food and drink were in shorter supply, and no convoy of buses shuttled ILTA members to extravagant locations for expensive meals and entertainment. However, focusing on the ancillary trappings of a technical conference misses the point of the event. Plenty of other venues are better—and cheaper—sources of food, trinkets, and mildly tacky t-shirts. Few other venues, however, offer the same access to leading subject matter experts in just about every aspect of legal technology and practice support. I look forward to next year's ILTA national conference, and I wouldn't mind a continuation of the simpler, more substantive spirit found at this year's conference (though, I confess I wouldn't mind a bit more free chocolate).