Legal IT Networking and the IT Girls (and Guys)

April 30, 2004

If I cast my mind back ten years, I can remember only two types of event which legal IT people could attend – there was the Lawyer event held at the Marriott in London and, once every three months or so, a law firm would host a legal IT evening. There were also user groups where a certain amount of networking took place, but these were a little too product specific.

I didn’t attend the last Lawyer event in 2001 though I did get a few calls saying I could go free of charge (obviously not a good omen), and then it was no more. As for the legal IT evenings, they too dwindled down to once every six months or longer, and then ceased completely a few years back. This is probably explained by the fact that attendance was open to anyone in a legal IT department and, whilst we all have a great deal of respect for a slightly squiffy unix programmer who is very keen on giving the rundown on his latest project, getting cornered for an hour doesn’t lead to a fun networking-type of evening!

Consultation and Camarederie

I think what became clear to us all, even back in the days of the two-day Lawyer event, was that the most valuable part of the conference seemed to be the networking during coffee breaks, lunches and the first evening’s cocktails – this was where the most productive conversations went on. Although some of the talks given during the sessions were very interesting – many were less relevant. It can be awfully inspiring to hear about what one of The Great And Good have done with a portal – especially when it’s cost them more than the entire turnover of most of the listeners’ law firms – but was it really relevant? No, your average IT director is probably far more interested – as has been proved by recent events – in what he or she can say to the partners when they ask for a recommendation on a system about which he or she has no prior knowledge. Or even which ISP you use and why. off the record of course.

Unlike our law firms, which are essentially in competition with each other, legal IT people sharing experiences with each other doesn’t impact at all on client retention. We all know we will eventually resolve our technical or staffing or vendor issues – it’s just a question of how quickly we get there. I know that these days, it’s not uncommon for a partner to turn to their IT Director and say “what do other firms do about this?”

It has has become obvious that the level of networking which is now sustained has been a bonus for those vendors who cut the mustard. Those who do not are now afraid – very afraid – because most of us regularly talk to each other. Gone are the days when suppliers can tell us that so-and-so is seriously looking at it, because we soon discover via a quick e-mail that so-and-so only went to a demo of it. IT people in law firms – no matter what their size – all have similar problems and apart from conversations about “who do you use to do that” or ”this is how I resolved that one”, there is great comfort to be derived when you discover you are not the only one to experience certain internal problems not entirely of your own making. Mutual counselling has now become a hugely important part of the camaraderie which exists between many of us!

The New Network

In my opinion GlenLegal was the trailblazer for real networking among legal IT professionals around five years ago. The format of that event is similar to the Lawyer event, although delegates do have quite a few choices on which sessions they attend. Again most of the discussions on shared experiences and legal IT issues take place during leisure time.

We also now have the Legal IT Innovators Group, which is an organisation specifically for senior law firm professionals and law firm clients (both IT and legal) involved directly in all aspects of IT. The group is self-funded and initiates consultations on such worthy subjects as e-billing. I believe LITIG is well on its way to pioneering the might of the voice of legal IT in its own right in the years to come.

We still have trade shows such as the Barbican and latterly Islington. In January this year, the LSSA said that there was a crisis of confidence in the legal IT industry’s trade show organisers: “Over the last five years there has been an identifiable decline in the impact and attendance at exhibitions attempting to cover this specialist market. A saturation of similar events has only succeeded in impairing the focus of both clients and suppliers which has impacted on the overall quality of media coverage for the industry and led to reduced time and effort put into establishing an effective and dedicated conference and exhibition event.” But then I read that Islington was particularly well attended this year so I guess the jury’s out on trade shows.

Most recently the invitation-only (see note on unix programmers above!) By Legal For Legal came about following a discussion on the best and worst features of the usual events in the IT calendar. It is organised by four IT Directors (I’m one of them) and is supported by a limited number of suppliers of legal IT. IT Directors pay nothing; vendors pay very little in comparison to other events – and any surplus funding is given to a pre-designated charity. There are no set talks by any individuals, but roundtable discussions chaired by legal IT consultants. The subjects for discussion are decided by all the attendees.

Happily, there’s no paucity of networking these days – it’s a rare week when some invitation or another doesn’t land in my in box or on my desk. It seems another genre of IT girl has emerged which has nothing to do with TP-T and her ilk!

Jan Durant is Head of IT at Lewis Silkin