Here we sit on the virtual eve of the 2018 International Legal Technology Association annual conference.  ILTA, as most readers probably know, is primarily made up of large law firms and better known legal technology vendors and the conferance, along with ABA techShow and LegalWeek are the largest legal tech events.

Once again, I plan on attending and look forward to learning, networking and seeking out vendors in the legal tech space. But I wonder about the future of big conferences like this one. All of these conferences are spectacles, expensive to put on, expensive to attend, and expensive to travel to. In many instances, the bang for the buck can certainly be questioned, especially when there may be other alternatives for the same content at less cost. 

I was fortunate enough to be part of two recent panels-one on cybersecurity and one on blockchain- at the annual meeting of the Federation of Defense and Corporate Counsel. Due to some health problems with my wife, I was not able to attend either one in person. How did we do it? Simple: in both cases, I, along with the other panelists, attended via livestream with the GoToMeeting app. 

I have to admit, I was a little apprehensive as to how this was going to work, having, like many, experienced all sorts of technical and logistical issues with video conferencing particularly when this technology was in its early days. Despite having panelists from such diverse locations as Hawaii, San Francisco and London, though, the panels went off without a hitch. The four of us appeared on a large screen in the meeting room and we could see the attendees and each other on our screens with the use of a camera in the room. 

The benefit was obvious: it enabled us to get some really high power panelists (not sure I’d put myself in that category btw) that because of the time and expense of physically attending a conference at a remote location (in this case, Hawaii) we would not have otherwise been able to get. I have been to other conferences where remote speakers presented, such as South by Southwest which a few years ago had Edwin Snowden via livestream and have concluded it’s a pretty effective way to get high quality content. And lets face it, those who attend most big conference these days expect to see the speaker on a large screen anyway. 

Is it the same as being there in person? Obviously not.

Is it the same as being there in person? Obviously not. There is not as much interaction with the audience (you can’t tell as easily for example who you’re putting ) and the interaction among the panelists was a little different: it was harder to break in on whoever was talking and offer counter points and comments. That made the discussion a little more formal. And of course the ability of audience members to come up afterwards and chat with the speakers was not present. But thanks to the camera in the room and the ability to see the other panelists, it was not as artificial and faceless as, say, an ordinary audio webinar. 

So as live-streaming gets better and better, the future of conferences may be more and more virtual.

So as live-streaming gets better and better, the future of conferences may be more and more virtual. Which sort of begs the question: if we can livestream quality content, why have a conference at all? Why would people go to the time, trouble, and expense of attending an event in a remote location to get something they can just as easily get at home? It is perhaps this very thing that is beginning to manifest itself in declining attendance at conferences and even other large gatherings such as sporting events. The quality of the virtual is so good that in many cases, its better than live.

But the live event still has something that the virtual one does not, at least not yet: the ability to network. I learn more from attending conferences by talking to people on the exhibition floor or over drinks than I do in attending presentations (where I’m often too tempted to multi-task anyway). But networking quality is usually proportional to others attending: if people stop going to conferences, the networking becomes worth less, leading to even less attendance.

So what’s the answer? In May, I was a speaker/panelist at an Exchange Forum on cybersecurity and insurance put on by Today’s General Counsel Institute.  This group had a different approach: they put together a small group of attendees, asked 3-4 speakers to talk for just a few minutes on a general topic and then opened the session up for a group discussion with everyone participating. We all gained insight from each other and, of course, got to talk about what the group wanted to talk about instead of what the speakers thought the group wanted to discuss. 

The results were quite invigorating. An open source discussion pooling the collective knowledge and involvement of all the attendees instead of passive learning in the traditional sense. I have seen the same sort of thing at legal technology training sessions I have conducted: learning from one another versus preaching to a multitude about stuff they may already know or have little interest.

The future of big conferences may lie here: small group discussions facilitated by a few experts but designed to group learn.

The future of big conferences may lie here: small group discussions facilitated by a few experts but designed to group learn. Punctuated by keynotes from very good and qualified expert speakers who attend remotely and via livestream. Network events designed to group together  those with similar interests. Doing things that can’t be done virtually and maximizing technology and the human element. 

That would be a different approach.





Photo by Casper Rubin on Unsplash