Evolution Afoot At ABA TECHSHOW

It looked like the foot traffic at this year’s ABA TECHSHOW was down. That’s not a scientific assessment by any means, but walking an exhibit hall floor, you remember every congested corner and can just feel when things aren’t quite as crowded as before. Some folks mused that the show might be in decline, but officials explained that attendance was actually up this year. What could possibly be going on?

Historically, Legalweek and ABA TECHSHOW provided a technology one-two winter conference punch. Legalweek brings the legal technology circuit to New York City to show to a mostly Biglaw audience, and TECHSHOW brings everyone to Chicago to talk “Small Law.” It’s not a perfect division of labor, but it’s the philosophical division that shapes each program.

So why did it feel smaller with attendance actually up? Part of it could  definitely be chalked up to folks attending the show’s excellent programming — and a quick aside here to acknowledge the diverse faculty put together by the show — and skipping out on the exhibit hall. That does make the whole affair feel a little less crowded when people are divided into a number of ballrooms and not crammed into one hall.

But that doesn’t explain all of it. It seems, at least from my cursory review, that the reason the byways of the exhibit hall felt less crowded is that the balance of attendance has shifted a bit in favor of vendors and exhibitors. While sitting around the podcasting mics, I heard a note of concern. “If the clients aren’t massively outnumbering the vendors, doesn’t that spell doom?” some mused.

Not only doesn’t that spell doom, it actually speaks to the evolution of the legal technology space and TECHSHOW deserves credit for evolving along with it. There’s a superficial view of legal tech that assumes it’s all about the vendors selling to the lawyers and while that’s certainly the ultimate goal in this business, the horizontal sales may be just as important.

For the last several years, we’ve all agreed that “consolidation” is the watchword of the space. Companies merge, platforms integrate, new entrepreneurs pop up, and the cycle repeats. For a startup legal tech provider with a killer app focused on a tiny corner of the practice, it’s as important to impress the heavy-hitters flush with private equity funds as it is a divorce lawyer from Peoria.

Even companies not looking to get bought could use some networking. Not to deploy the corporate speak, but there are synergies out there. Can this client intake bot be a boon to that CRM platform? Can the tech underneath this MedMal tool become a soft-IP solution? Technically this anecdote was from Legalweek, but Opus 2 told me that even though they focus on litigation and dispute resolution, they’ve gotten inquiries from other areas about adapting the underlying tech for transactional work. That’s the sort of result that can come from connecting with peers.

Someone worried out loud that a show moving in the direction of more exhibitors becomes a “vendor echo chamber” — except they didn’t say “echo chamber” and absolutely referenced another form of communal recreation. I responded, “I’m not sure the legal tech space doesn’t need those.” Sometimes it’s critical to providing the best product to the consumer that people pull themselves away from their own work and see what everyone else is doing.

I can’t count the number of times over the last few years that I’ve had a sad meetup with someone promising a product to deliver some “first-of-its-kind” capability when I could already think of three vendors who provided that last year. Figuring out where everyone else is can be the first step to serving the client.

Whether or not TECHSHOW invited this — and it could just have happened slowly without any conscious philosophical change — it’s to the show’s credit to recognize that it doesn’t need to judge its success by having throngs of lawyers outnumbering exhibitors 10 to 1. There’s an opportunity to provide value to attendees coming at the show from all different angles.

HeadshotJoe Patrice is a senior editor at Above the Law and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. Feel free to email any tips, questions, or comments. Follow him on Twitter if you’re interested in law, politics, and a healthy dose of college sports news. Joe also serves as a Managing Director at RPN Executive Search.

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