I had the pleasure of spending a week indoors in 100 degree (F) Las Vegas last week while attending the ILTA 2010 conference, the industry's premier legal technology conference The theme this year was Strategic Unity, suggesting that law firm and client technologies should be aligned. I was interviewed on the exhibit hall floor and asked to give my reaction to the conference, including what themes were emerging. You can view the 1-minute video here. With slightly more context, here are three themes that resonated with me. First, and most evident given the high attendance at the conference, law firms are spending money again. We can debate whether the recession is over, and whether law firms are filling pent up demand for capital improvements. We can debate whether Biglaw survived through innovative strategies, client focus and attention to operational efficiencies -- scratch that, there's little room for debate. Terminating associates and staff to increase profits while making few changes to the way partners operate is hardly something to brag about. Or the headline as Jordan Furlong puts it (here): "Revenue down, costs slashed in panic, profits up." But nevertheless, law firms are spending money again.
Interestingly, the lessons seem to be taking hold finally. The second theme apparent to me is the focus on clients. ILTA is a technology show, so the questions weren't "What extranet will suit my firm's needs"" but "What extranet framework will offer the greatest flexibility to meet my many clients' needs?" and instead of "How can these tools recapture lost time so we can bill more hours?" I heard "How can these tools drive efficiency in our internal operations?" Law firms may be starting to embed client needs in their mindset, rather than merely their own.
Finally, the third theme is interoperability. The word's a bit clunky, but it's my way to describe the need to build systems and tools that interact, that work together, that provide minimal complexity to lawyers and staff who wish to attend to their daily workflow with improved tools, not stop their daily workflow to go off and perform some function on some fancy new but isolated tool, returning later to finish the task at hand. Law firms are a cash business, meaning they settle accounts once a year, and by and large their financial officers have been accountants, trained to look backward. We're starting to see more finance-oriented professionals who look to the future, who can assess their options by comparing the total cost of ownership and NPVs of various options, rather than be blinded by sticker price. If Product A is $50,000 less expensive than Product B, but Product A requires $75,000 of configuration to make it talk to other systems and $35,000 of user re-training and when it's done it's a completely custom application that can't easily be upgraded, well then it's simply not a better option than a more seamless Product B.
Ask me again in six months if the positive themes at the conference have successfully made their way into the law firm boardrooms, or whether they'll wither and die in the face of increasing profits as the economy continues to lift.
By the way, if you didn't attend the conference but would like to glean some insights from those who did, try viewing the Twitterstream. Attendees to the various sessions captured notes and observations in tiny sound bites which were then published on Twitter, the microblogging site, using the hash tag #ILTA10. If this means nothing to you, click on this link to see a reverse-chronologically ordered list of all the sound bites from all the sessions. There's quite a bit to wade through, but some fantastic insights nonetheless.