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ABA Techshow 2014: Ethics, cloud computing highlight annual conference

iStock image used with permission.

iStock image used with permission.

Every year in early spring, legal technology enthusiasts from across the United States and Canada converge upon the Chicago Hilton to attend the American Bar Association’s legal technology conference, ABA Techshow.

For those unfamiliar with this conference, it’s sponsored the ABA’s Law Practice Division and its goal is “to bring lawyers and technology together.” It does this by presenting multiple and varied technology tracks. This year’s conference was held last week and there was a strong focus on practice management, cloud computing, legal IT security issues, mobile computing, and the paperless law office. And, like last year there was a track devoted to lawyers who use Macs in their law firms and there were even two sessions devoted to using Android devices in law practices, as well.

The conference kicked off with the annual Lexthink mini-conference, which is held the evening before Techshow starts. This year’s Lexthink was devoted to the theme of “disruption” and many of the 6 minute speeches focused on how technology was the key to streamlining the practice of law and meeting 21st century legal consumer expectations in an increasingly competitive market.

But there were a few stand outs that deviated from that general concept.

First, there was Will Hornsby’s talk. As always, Will gave an incredibly witty presentation. He focused on the future of small law firms and solo practitioners, suggesting that legal futurists, such as Richard Susskind, incorrectly contend that BigLaw is the future of law. According to Will, “small law,” which represents nearly two thirds of all lawyers in the United States, is going nowhere and has a strong future.

Another talk that was off the beaten path was by Gwynne Monahan. She used the increased popularity of Pop Tarts just prior to hurricanes to explain the value of sifting through data to locate patterns. She explained that patterns can be useful in determining courses of action and predicting success.

Scott Malouf’s talk was one of the only ones to focus solely on social media. He advocated for a change of mindset and more uniformity on the part of the bodies of regulators that enact ethical rules about lawyers’ social media use, suggesting that focusing on the harms most likely to occur and the sites where they occur is key to drafting effective rules governing lawyers’ use of social media.

Finally, Matt Spiegel suggested that law firms should take a cue from start ups and encourage a fun, collaborative work environment and that doing so would provide opportunities for employees to relax and blow off steam periodically throughout the day, while increasing job satisfaction and productivity.

Nicole Black

Nicole Black

The next day, the conference kicked off with a bang, reportedly having the highest number of attendees in years. Many of the sessions were standing room only and, by all accounts, provided a ton of useful tips and tangible information about effectively and securely using technology to streamline the practice of law.

Of course, there’s more to Techshow than just educational sessions — there’s educational material as well, including the ABA Law Practice Management Division’s newly released legal technology books, along with opportunities to meet and mingle with the authors. Some of the newest publications included “Blogging in One Hour” by Ernie Svenson, “Google Gmail and Calendar in One Hour for Lawyers” by Carole Levitt and Mark Rosch, “iPad in One Hour for Litigators” by Tom Mighell, and “LinkedIn in One Hour for Lawyers (2nd Ed.)” by Allison Shields and Dennis Kennedy.

As always, each evening capped off with Taste of Techshow dinners, where attendees had the opportunity to dine with authors and ABA Techshow presenters. And, of course, there were plenty of other opportunities to socialize with like-minded lawyers, including parties sponsored by vendors along with official Techshow receptions and events.

Another benefit of attending ABA Techshow is the EXPO Hall. There, lawyers have the chance to learn about and get hands on demos of the latest and greatest that legal technology vendors have to offer.

By many accounts, cloud computing technologies were evident across the EXPO Hall and were the talk of the show this year. This technology — one that was written off as a viable option by many lawyers just a few years ago—is quickly becoming viewed by many experts as the future of legal software platforms.

In part, this shift in thinking is occurring because the fear that the companies in this space are fly by night and suddenly go bankrupt has largely disappeared. The entrance into the space by LexisNexis and Thomson Reuters a few years back with their Web-based law practice management platforms, Firm Manager and Firm Central respectively, helped to dispel the belief that cloud computing was a passing fad.

Then in October 2013, MyCase, another Web-based law practice management platform (and the company for which I work), was acquired by Appfolio, a California-based company with over $30 million in venture capital backing and which was founded by the same people who founded GoToMeeting and GoToMyPC. That acquisition was further evidence that cloud computing companies were committed to the legal space.

And then, this year, Vancouver-based Clio announced that it had received $20 million dollars in Series C funding, thus confirming that it and other well-established cloud-based law practice management software companies like Rocket Matter, were in it for the long haul.

In addition to the latest and greatest legal technology, another highlight of the show was the Keynotes. The show closed this year with 2 very different Keynotes. The first was given by Google Ventures partner, Rick Klau, a lawyer who has been entrenched in running Internet startups for much of his career. In his talk, Rick shared 3 lessons for lawyers learned from his entrepreneurial career. First, he emphasized the importance of using reliable data, rather than relying on gut instinct, when making decisions. Next, he suggested that the customer is not always right and that you are the expert when it comes to the delivery of legal services, not your client. Finally, he urged lawyers to embrace change and look forward, not backward.

The second plenary talk was delivered by John Dean, former White House counsel to Nixon, on Saturday, the last day of the conference. He focused on the intersection of legal ethics with technology. He discussed his role — and the roles of 20 other lawyers — in the Watergate scandal and described the now-famous break-in as a “tech crime” because it amounted to a hacking of information. He also suggested there were similarities between the Watergate scandal and the recent NSA surveillance revelations disclosed by Snowden. According to Dean, while technology may be changing rapidly, human nature always remains the same. Finally, he emphasized the importance of legal ethics rules in taming human nature and encouraging responsible behavior by attorneys.

Which brings us full circle: while Techshow is all about lawyers using technology, the nature of practicing law has changed no more than human nature has over the years. Yes, technology streamlines the practice of law—and some would even say that it complicates it. But when all is said and done, cloud computing and shiny gadgets notwithstanding, lawyers and their essential function continues to remain the same: to ethically represent their clients to the best of their ability. In other words, technology may improve the delivery of legal services, but it will never change the essence of legal representation.

Nicole Black is a regular columnist for The Daily Record, and is a director at MyCase.com, a cloud-based law practice management platform. She is also of counsel to Fiandach & Fiandach in Rochester and is a GigaOM Pro analyst. She is the author of the ABA book “Cloud Computing for Lawyers,” coauthors the ABA book “Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier,” and co-authors “Criminal Law in New York,” a West-Thomson treatise. She speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. She publishes three legal blogs and can be reached at niki@mycase.com.