I yielded to an unproductive urge.

It is not so much that I think ATL’s Keith Lee is wrong in The Difference and Inch Makes as I think that he succumbs to strange compulsion towards #SlatePitch pseudo-contrarianism. 
Lee beats the crap out of an ILTACON straw man. He warns readers against the “[b]reathless enthusiasm and over-the-top bombast about how legal tech companies are going to re-shape the practice of law.” Lee’s ILTACON is a place where there “is lots of talk about algorithm this or automatic that” premised on the illusion that technology “is the panacea that cures all ills.” ILTACON, it seems, is the hotbed for discussion of how robots will replace lawyers.

That’s odd. I just got back from ILTACON (it was fantastic). So did Lee’s ATL colleague Jeff Bennion. Bennion and I definitely attended the same conference. Rather than replace lawyers, Bennion accurately (in my opinion) conveys the conference’s focus in his headline: Solutions That Are Being Discussed At ILTACON To Make Law Firms Better.

“Make better” is a drastically different theme than “replace.” Instead of a “panacea”, Bennion and I attended a conference where there was much discussion about the “communication problems,” “accountability problems,” “costly mistakes,” and “security” issues associated with properly integrating technology into the practice of law. It’s almost as if technology implementation is challenging and demands user training

Pragmatism, competence, and a systematic approach to problem solving were far more prevalent than “[b]reathless enthusiasm and over-the-top bombast.” I almost get the sense that Lee did not attend the conference about which he formed such a strong opinion that he felt compelled to share on one of the most important sources of information in the legal industry. Then again, speaking from a place of ignorance is a better look for him than actually having attended and coming away with such an asinine impression.

Maybe we just went to different sessions (there was something like 400+). I have little doubt someone somewhere was being bombastic. Or, maybe, Lee was in attendance but spent all of his time on the exhibit floor. That’s kind of like watching TV only for the commercials and complaining that the programming is crap. The exhibit floor is great fun. But everyone recognizes it for the advertising it is. The point of the floor is not to close sales but to generate awareness, which it does extremely well. Awareness is followed by discussions, demos, proofs of concepts, and contract negotiations that get past happy talk in very short order.

With respect to the exhibitors, Lee offers this hot take: “My prediction? 90% of the companies at ILTAcon this year won’t be around three years from now.” This silliness is further evidence that Lee has no understanding of what ILTACON is or who attends. Most exhibitors are mature companies that have been around for years. Anything is possible, but it would take some sort of economic cataclysm to cause 9 of these 10 to close shop in the next 3 years:

  • Thomson Reuters (1799) 
  • LexisNexis (1818)
  • HP (1905)
  • Ricoh (1936)
  • Canon U.S.A. (1955)
  • Microsoft (1976)
  • Aderant (1978)
  • Nuance (1994)
  • Intapp (2000)
  • kCura (2001)
No company is bullet proof. But even the newest kid on the block—kCura, which makes the ediscovery program Relativity—has been around for 14 years, has grown 1600% since 2008, and just raised a $125M round in February.

Maybe Lee was trying to suggest that 90% of the startup companies at ILTACON won’t be around 3 years from now. Even this is suspect. Very few true startups can afford a presence at ILTACON. Or, maybe, Lee was just using ILTACON as a metonym for the universe of legal tech startups and saying that 90% of legal tech startups will fail. If so, this is not so much a bold prediction as a banal recitation of the often-repeated statistic that 90% of all startups fail.

My guess is that Lee didn’t go to ILTACON, knows little about ILTACON, and was really just using his misconceptions about ILTACON to take a swing at the “spin” and “hype” about the promise of legal technology. There is nothing wrong with pushing back against techno-utopianism. My introductory column as the technology columnist for the ACC Docket is a warning against magical thinking.

But, even giving Lee the benefit of the doubt about his true target, his piece remains about as successful as his home repair (Lee starts the piece with an anecdote about a failed door replacement). The only legal technology that Lee actually mentions is LegalZoom, which does not exhibit at ILTACON. He seems to be suggesting that clients always need to go to a lawyer and should never use LegalZoom.  

Almost every time a client walks into a lawyer’s office, there is going to be some crinkle in the situation. For example, a client says, they just need a will, they don’t have much, it’s not complicated. They’ll assure the lawyer it’s a standard situation. They almost used LegalZoom, but decided they wanted to check with a lawyer, “just in case.” Tech cheerleaders would say, “Yes! Automate this! Low level work! Perfect for tech!”

But the more the lawyer talks with the client, the more will come out. The client starts to talk about the farm they live on. Inherited from generation-to-generation. They’ll talk about abutting lands and a private road from another farm. A power line easement that is set to renew in 15 years. Their children from three separate marriages and a girlfriend they just left their wife for. Before they know it, the lawyer is knee-deep in a Whiteacre/Blackacre hornbook problem.

This is self-serving bullocks. As a lawyer, it would be nice to believe that Lee is right. But the commoditization of certain types of legal work has been a trend for decades and, on net, has been a major boon to clients. Most wills are in fact routine. Sometimes, using a form turns out badly. Just as, sometimes, people follow their GPS into a lake. Or just as, sometimes, trained lawyers make mistakes. Overall, clients are getting quality services at radically lower cost. This includes many clients who are not able to afford a lawyer.

Again, maybe, Lee himself is engaging in a bit of bombast. Maybe he is simply warning against overreliance on technology-based, commoditized solutions like LegalZoom. Sure, it works in some cases, but not all cases. Sometimes, you need a trained lawyer. I could then again agree with him while again observing that he is attacking a position that no existing, credible person holds.

There is no group of people more adamant about the fact that LegalZoom forms are not appropriate for every legal situation than the people who run LegalZoom. For five years, LegalZoom has been building out a nationwide network of attorneys to service clients who need assistance filling out LegalZoom forms or for whom the forms are ill suited. LegalZoom has built a complementary business around their recognition of the fact that unguided use of their forms is not always in a client’s best interest. Lee cites a “DUI stop” and a “immigration problem” as exemplar situations where “anomalies arise” without any understanding that in those circumstances, instead of providing forms, LegalZoom offers consultation with licensed attorneys—you know, the very thing that Lee is advocating.

Lee makes some reasonable points about tools just being tools and still depending on the user. But those points are couched as a bizarre attack on entities and opinions that seem to be figments of his imagination. If Lee wants to attend CodeX in order to have Dan Katz hand him his rear end about “algorithm this or automatic that,” I welcome the entertainment. But he does the legal industry a disservice when he attacks ILTACON on a platform so widely read by lawyers. Our profession would improve if more lawyers attended ILTACON rather than viscerally dismissed it because of their fear that technology will make them obsolete. ILTACON is about improvement, not replacement.

ADDENDUM: I am not sure if it heresy to use my perch here at 3 Geeks to declare my affinity for another blog, but I adore Above the Law (especially Mark Herrmann, everyone should read Mark Herrmann, always). I’ve checked the site almost daily for over a decade. Moreover, I know that it is silly to ascribe to the site the opinions of just one of its many authors (its not like Lee is Lat or Elie). I certainly hope that no one imputes my sophomoric ramblings here to heroes like Greg and Toby. And the ill-conceived article that prompted this post was one small part of ATL’s otherwise stellar ILTACON coverage. But I have such a high regard for both ATL and ILTACON, I couldn’t help my strong negative reaction when someone used the former to take shots at a straw-man version of the latter. 

As a funny (to me) aside, I even made ATL part of my Legal Technology Assessment. The site is referenced in the primary Word test document and is at the center of a task that combines training on hyperlinks with a warning about cheating (ATL’s role as a watchdog is often underrated):

Casey Flaherty is the founder of Procertas. He is a lawyer, consultant, writer, and speaker focused on achieving the right legal outcomes with the right people doing the right work the right way at the right price. Casey created the Service Delivery Review (f.k.a., the Legal Tech Audit), a strategic-sourcing tool that drives deeper supplier relationships by facilitating structured dialogue between law firms and clients. There is more than enough slack in the legal market for clients to get higher quality work at lower cost while law firms increase profits via improved realizations.
The premise of the Service Delivery Review is that with people and pricing in place, rigorous collaboration on process offers the real levers to drive continuous improvement. Proper collaboration means involving nontraditional stakeholders. A prime example is addressing the need for more training on existing technology. One obstacle is that traditional technology training methods are terribleCompetence-based assessments paired with synchronous, active learning offer a better path forward. Following these principles, Casey created the Legal Technology Assessment platform to reduce total training time, enhance training effectiveness, and deliver benchmarked results.
Connect with Casey on LinkedIn or follow him Twitter (@DCaseyF).
Email this postTweet this postLike this postShare this post on LinkedIn
Photo of Casey Flaherty Casey Flaherty

I am the co-founder and chief strategy officer at LexFusion, the go-to-market collective of legal innovation companies (tech and services). I am also the co-founder of Procertas (competency-based tech training). I was a BigLaw litigator and then in-house counsel who went into…

I am the co-founder and chief strategy officer at LexFusion, the go-to-market collective of legal innovation companies (tech and services). I am also the co-founder of Procertas (competency-based tech training). I was a BigLaw litigator and then in-house counsel who went into legal operations consulting before one of my BigLaw consulting clients hired me full-time to help them build the biggest and best legal project management team in world. A Lean Six Sigma black belt, I tend to think in terms of scalable systems that properly leverage people through process and technology. I am deeply experienced in legal operations, legal tech, strategic sourcing, process improvement, systems re-engineering, and value storytelling, in addition to spending over a decade in the legal trenches as a practitioner. I’ve long served  as a mesh point between law departments and law firms to promote structured dialogue that fosters deep supplier relationships (read about that here). I am a regular writer and speaker on practical legal innovation.