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The keynote address for ABA Techshow 2017, traditionally one of the best-attended and most highly anticipated sessions, will not feature one speaker as in years past. Instead, the keynote will be a panel discussion featuring three disruptive forces within the legal industry: Mark Britton, CEO of Avvo, Charley Moore, CEO of Rocket Lawyer, and John Suh, CEO of LegalZoom.
ABA Techshow 2017 takes place from March 15 to 18 in its usual home at the Chicago Hilton. Planning board chair Adriana Linares has implemented several major changes to the annual extravaganza.
New tracks are added, along with health and wellness offerings and common-themed communities for attendees. Practice management and legal technology-related sessions are designed to create curricula at law schools. However, Linares may have made the biggest splash with the Techshow keynote address.
The three speakers’ presence made it more difficult than usual to get a sponsor for the keynote address, but “Clio jumped at the opportunity when we approached them about it,” says Linares. “I think it’s noteworthy that, like our panelists, Clio is a startup who looks at the profession so much differently’ than others in the legal industry.
At least two of the panelists aren’t sure what the fuss is all about. “I’ve seen a big shift in the membership of the ABA over the last few years,” says Suh. “For me, what started as the minority has begun turning into the majority, and there’s less fear about technology. Now people are thinking more about how to make tech work for them.”
While Britton agrees, he notes that “any time you do something different and important that brings about change, there are always people who are going to be resistant to that change.” Moore did not respond to an interview request.
Britton and Suh agree that lawyers should accept disruption and focus on serving the customer. “When it comes to LegalZoom, Rocket Lawyer or Avvo, it seems that people often ask the wrong questions,” says Britton. “The right question is: ‘How are companies like us helping consumers?’ When I see people jump up and down about us, they’re often focused on lawyer interests, not consumer interests.”
Suh emphasizes that technology is always subservient to the needs of both lawyers and their customers, and is simply a tool lawyers can apply to solve bigger problems.
“Too often the narrative shifts to: ‘How does tech replace what we do?’” Suh says. “I always say: ‘Whoa! We are a long ways away from terminators replacing lawyers.” Instead, Suh believes lawyers should take a more pragmatic approach, figuring out what technology can do to make their lives and the lives of their customer better.
The panel will be moderated by Paula Frederick, general counsel for the State Bar of Georgia, and Judy Perry Martinez, chair of the ABA Presidential Commission on the Future of Legal Services and the ABA’s 2019 president-elect-nominee.
Suh and Britton stress that they haven’t finalized the topics they’ll speak about and still must talk to Linares, Frederick and Perry Martinez. However, they both indicate that they wish to focus on the needs of those in attendance—especially solo and small firms.
“I’d like focus on what are the big problems that need to be solved,” Suh says. “When you think about the membership of solos and smalls, what are the key problems that plague them?” Solos and small firms in Suh’s view are concerned about generating more demand, having a deeper relationship with customers and growing in specialized practices. “That’s where I see Avvo and LegalZoom being interesting potential solutions,” he says.
Meanwhile, Britton points out that solos and small firms are in a better position to bring change than their BigLaw counterparts. “Turning around a big firm is like turning around a steamship,” Britton says. “Small firms and solos are a lot more nimble, and entrepreneurial lawyers just need approval from themselves.”
Britton estimates that he’s spoken to thousands of lawyers over the years, and the solo and small firm lawyers who are making a killing in the marketplace are the ones who have excellent perception of customers’ needs and can build, develop or integrate tools or systems to serve them.
As for emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, predictive analytics and automated chatbots, Britton and Suh emphasized caution. “We must ask ourselves–as an industry, as a firm, as a lawyer–how does it help our customers?” says Britton. “Tech can be cool but tech can also be irrelevant unless it truly serves the end user. So many companies fail because they got caught up with the shiny new thing rather than think about what they should be doing, which is serving their customers.”
LegalZoom is looking at ways predictive intelligence can identify companies at risk, but Suh says he doesn’t see anything groundbreaking in technology that will have a massive impact in the next year or two.
“We tend to overestimate the impact of technology over a two-year span, but underestimate it over five years,” says Suh. “It’s very hard to predict when that big breakthrough will occur.”