Legal Geek Conference 2020: The ultimate technological experience

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LONDON — This year is testing every single promise ever made by technology providers or firm managements that their systems were agile, responsive, and available remotely.

The COVID-19 pandemic also meant that the annual Legal Geek conference was held online this year, rather than in the Old Truman Brewery. However, the London conference still held true to form and doubled in attendance once again. From across the world, more than 4,000 people joined in online — a cross-section of legal practitioners, legal operations professionals, technologists, legaltech startup leaders, business executives, regulators, and representatives from courts and government — along with investors and academic professionals. While some may have missed the conference’s spiritual home in east London, the online version created the opportunity to have an even bigger, more accessible event that featured global speakers, innovative interactive sessions, and even real-life connections.

This year’s panelists were keen to stress the ubiquitous and digitally connected nature of their work without mentioning the global pandemic, but the semi-official theme of the conference focused on the start of a new decade — the 2020s — with a sense of being on the cusp of an uncertain future. To that end, there was also a welcome focus on well-being sessions that offered many different ways to help manage stress for hyper-connected professions and workplaces.

With all the sessions recorded this year, you can still grab a ticket and access the virtual conference. Of particular note, is the presentation What’s Trending Now? presented by Thomson Reuters Andy Wishart on the state of the market, featuring legal insights gleaned from data taken from Thomson Reuters and Acritas Sharplegal about what your peers and clients are thinking about right now.

Your workspace may be online, but where is your headspace?

Two different conference workshops looked at some of the challenges that arise in digital product design when you can’t connect in physical space (i.e., put post-it notes up in huddles around a white board). In a session titled, The Trials & Tribulations of Digitizing a Design Sprint, Jason Dunning, senior manager at DWF Ventures, talked about the principles of setting up your idea for a design sprint — a time-constrained risk reduction process — and why it’s not just a case of the facilitator sharing screens over Zoom. “My preparation list doubles for online” both in terms of the technology and also the behavioral psychology of being “together alone,” says Dunning.

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By contrast, in the Working from Home, Creating Together session, the Eagle Labs team asked us to think about ideation and design thinking as a sport. Finally, Vijay Rathour, the head of the Digital Forensics Group at Grant Thornton, gave a truly eye-opening session on hacker tools and issues to watch for with virtualized architecture.

Show me, don’t just tell me

Visual learning and presenting attracted a lot of attention this year as people looked more at good design principles, charts, and a generally more user-friendly experience of workflow. Just because lawyers are very good at digesting massive amounts of text doesn’t mean they wouldn’t prefer data to be more intuitive too.

Mo Syed and Daniel van Binsbergen, the COO and CEO (respectively) of U.K.-based legaltech company Lexoo, shared their process for creating a visual playbook in a talk titled, How to Build a Visual Contract Playbook with your Team in 20 Minutes. Playbooks are ways of mapping out the scenarios for a corporate process or a negotiation; and given that they’re meant to help solve problems, a visual approach should help greatly to literally get everyone on the same page.

Taking the wider-angle lens, the workshop Devil or Darling: Exploring the Power & Potential of Data Visualisation in an Ethics-Conscious World was an important reminder of how pretty images can seduce us away from critical thinking and how best to explain your choices when picking a style.

Understanding the client side

In past conferences we had seen countless examples of how the in-house lawyer is increasingly an innovator, driving changes around procurement, exploring work with outside vendors, or engaging with other professionals in the business. Lawyers in private practice are catching on to this as well. In The New Age of Law Firm & Client Collaboration, Jack Shepherd from Freshfields opened with the provocative statement that lawyers are “perfectionists, control freaks, and risk averse and… don’t like revealing gaps in their knowledge.” This combination can make it hard for lawyers to get close to their clients, said Shepherd. His advice? Don’t guess, feel free to ask, but above all try hard to understand your client’s world so you can better anticipate their needs.

Indeed, transformation was a real theme of this conference as ideas mature from the back of an envelope (or an email) into an minimum viable product that need testing and more importantly, buy-in. All the sessions and workshops seemed to cover this to some degree, but the so-called Bitesize sessions offered lots of more specific how-to tips and processes if you’re thinking about how to take legal design principles into your organization.

Picking just a few of these Bitesize nuggets:

  • Chris Grant and Shara Gibbons, both of Barclays’ LawTech unit, gave a talk from the trenches about how they test what clients want;
  • Steve Gong, head of Global Patent Operations, Technology & Tactics at Google, made a compelling argument for how lots of small changes can add up to a whole lot more referencing of the butterfly effect.
  • Similarly, Pilot Projects: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly by Rik Nauta, CEO and co-founder of Donna Legal, was the presentation I wish I had seen five years ago; and
  • Outside law and technology, but allied to both, was a fascinating presentation by Dr. Grace Lordan from the London School of Economics on behavioral science that covered issues of resilience, leadership, and group-think which are very relevant when making sure your approach remains human-friendly.

Conclusion

By any measurement, 2020 has been one heck of a year. So far, it has forced change and the need to co-operate upon anyone who still believes in a divide between law and technology. Now, on a daily basis we see that the only things that matter are for solutions to be found, and for us to be kind to people at the other end of a Zoom call who are struggling in much the same way as we are.

Hopefully, those changes will become embedded in the way we tackle problems over the rest of the 2020s.