I was fortunate enough to be invited to and attend last week’s Solid West Summit on Legal Innovation and Disruption in San Francisco. The Solid conferences are the brainchild of David Cowen, who runs the Cowen Group, a legal recruitment, professional development and thought leadership agency. The Summit describes itself as a “TED Talk style summit focused on innovation and the business of law”. David holds Solid Summits at various national and international locations throughout the year.

The Summit Format

The conferences are by invite only and Dave routinely draws some of the top thinkers in the legal tech and innovation space including Chief Innovation Officers from some the country’s largest firms, practicing lawyers, leading product and service providers and thought leaders. Primarily– although not exclusively– geared toward larger business and commercial firms, it’s one of those conferences that you leave tired, stimulated and a little intimidated by the smarts of the people you hear from.

The format itself if interesting. The attendees sit at tables for 8-9 people. Each session consists of some 3-4 presentations each limited to approximately 7 minutes. (It’s amazing how much information and insight can be provided in 7 minutes; the crap that most presenters throw out there is eliminated, and you get to the heart of the matter crisply). Then the folks at the tables talk among themselves about what they heard and what resonated. This is followed by the tables sharing with the group as a whole what they learned and thought. Then the conference moves to another session and topic. The attendees change tables 2-3 times over the course of the day, so you are always meeting new people with fresh insights.

All of this is presided over by Dave who is one of those full of energy, passionate kind of guys who manages to make everyone he talks to feel like the most important person there. Dave and his team keep things moving through the day on a tight but doable schedule.

Even though Dave and I travel in similar circles and have been at the same place at the same time quite often, we only recently actually met and talked and this was my first time attending a Solid Summit.

My Top Ten

So, what did I think after my maiden race? (Pardon the horse racing reference but I am from Kentucky). Here are my top 10 takeaways (Yes Dave, I know. There were many more important things I am not mentioning in the interest of time and space):

1. The Summit format or something similar to it is likely the future for many conferences. Both this Solid Summit and the Today’s General Counsel Exchange Legal Ops Forum in which I participated as a moderator earlier last week use the audience to drive much more of the discussion. Both eschew long winded power point driven presentations where the presenter drones on with no ability to know if what he or she is saying resonates with the audience. And let’s face it, the old regurgitation model has been abandoned by most enlightened educators for some time. (Here’s an article on just this point along with my views on the future of legal tech conferences.). Why we still use it for grownups is beyond me.

Why we still use it for grownups is beyond me.

2. Summit did a decent job with speaker diversity. Roughly one-third of the presenters and panelists were women. This compares to the 44% women representation at ALM’s Legalweek, 27% at Inspire.Legal and a dismal 17% representation at ALT. (Figures courtesy of Kevin O’Keefe who recently commented on the “manly” diversity situation). Summit also had a good number of ethnic groups represented on the dais, however. And based on the quality of the women and minority speakers at Summit and other conferences, it’s pretty clear that the notion that there aren’t enough qualified women speakers in the tech space is bogus. So, we should expect and demand that future legal tech conferences provide diverse panelists and presenters. By the way, several of the Summit speakers recognized that from a business perspective, better solutions are discovered when diverse teams attack the problem. The same holds true for conference presentations

3. Several speakers commented on a phenomenon that I have previously discussed: despite professing to want innovations from their outside lawyers, few clients really demand it or even welcome it. Certainly, there are outliers, but when firms like Baker McKenzie and Hogan Lovell given their size and breadth notice this reluctance, its hard to ignore. Why is this the case? I continue to believe that its because in house lawyers get the same training and often have the same prior experience as outside counsel and they just aren’t comfortable-yet-with other models. That combined with the fact that in-house lawyers are often too busy to manage a new model; they barely have time to manage the old one. And they are also faced with explaining why and whether new models will avoid costs or a bad result. Always a dicey proposition.

4. A big theme of the show: analytics, analytics, and analytics. Not only analytics for litigation and strategy but, interestingly, analytics for risk assessment and predictions to prevent claims before they ever happen. Or, as I have discussed before, use of analytics to predict claims that may turn into problem –and expensive–litigation so that they can be resolved sooner.

And too often, we have partners viewing compensation and status as a zero-sum game and therefore collaboration with other partner means at least in their minds less money and prestige

5. Lots of discussion of the impact of silos on the profession and how to break them down. Speaker after speaker talked about the need for legal–in house and out–to collaborate with others in the business to get better results. This is, of course, true but how to get lawyers especially outside lawyers to do this is remains a stubborn problem. Too many lawyers are still are hung up on the lawyer vs. “non-lawyer” status. Outside counsel still have a business model and ethical restraints that create ceilings for the professionals that don’t happen to have a law degree. And too often, we have partners viewing compensation and status as a zero-sum game and collaboration with other partners somehow means, at least in their minds, less money and prestige. The good news: in house seems more and more demanding of collaborative engagements and that the “non-lawyers” be in the room and be players. That’s a start to force cultural change.

6. Clearly, the in-house representatives at the Summit expect and want tasks associated with a matter to be unbundled and farmed out to the most qualified and efficient workers. They want outside lawyers to partner and partner joyfully with ASLPs to get a more efficient result, a model I described in the mass tort context some time ago. They gotta keep demanding this.

7. There is continued tension between the desire to have flat or alternative fees and law firm culture that prevents these from working. It’s easy to see from the associate level: where your path to advancement is based on billable hours you can’t blame associates to not be enthusiastic about a model that contemplates that they bill less, not more. The partner issue is a bit more nuanced. If partners know the fee is preset, meaning clients won’t necessarily be looking at the time, at least in the same way, the partner tendency is to bill aggressively. It was duly noted that the only way alt fees will become mainstream is for law firms to look at profitability and advancement in different ways.

The only way alt fees will become mainstream is for law firms to look at profitability and advancement in different ways.

8. Lots of talk about new models for successful and in-demand lawyers. Clients want lawyers who understand business. Who want to work in teams. Who want to collaborate. One in house speaker even went so far as to say she preferred to hire lawyers who had significant experience outside the practice of law because she found them more understanding of her concerns. This is entirely consistent with the view of the Big 4 which I described previously as well: accounting firms explicitly recognize they are in the business of business. That’s what clients say they want and the Big 4 look for lawyers that are of this mindset. Relatedly, lots of in-house representatives claimed that law school and law firm pedigree don’t matter as much anymore. But privately they also recognize the old IBM conundrum from back in the day: no one would ever criticize a procurement officer for selecting IBM just like no one will ever complain about an in house counsel hiring a national,  well-pedigreed firm in a big matter even if that firm will not get the best result, render the best advise and process the work appropriately.

9. From the law firm side of things, there was an interesting panel discussion about the benefits of utilizing a chief innovation officer within the firm. But all panelists mentioned that they had to move slowly, get small wins and tread lightly. Evolution, not innovation was the theme of the day from most of the outside representatives. While that may be the practical solution, query whether the marketplace will wait for evolution. So far it is although some speakers seemed to believe we are at the proverbial tipping point. It will be interesting to see where we are a year from now.

10. On an optimistic note, one vendor speaker mentioned that process mapping, technology, and ASLPs will enable in house counsel to do more work in house with less resources. There was a great story recently about how an ASLP, Elevate, through the leadership of its new general counsel, Steve Harmon, completed an acquisition in-house that they would have normally turned over to outside counsel they knew would charge more than they should. Why is this important? Because it could mean for outside firms to compete, they will have to provide more of a value proposition to in house to get work. They will have to show, really show, from an economic perspective why they can do the work more efficiently than in-house.

I continue to believe that it won’t move unless and until the customers–the legal departments– make it so

Folks, this was about a good a conference as can be had in this space. Well planned, well thought out, lots of really good content. But the real question is whether the needle will move or whether we will continue to just talk in the echo chamber about change. I continue to believe that it won’t move unless and until the customers–the legal departments– make it so.

On that note, the Summit closed with a fascinating discussion of the possibilities for a new position in the legal department: that of Chief Legal Officer, a concept that has been discussed in the literature recently.. And the CLO might not be a lawyer. So here’s a what if…what if the GC reported to the non-lawyer, business person CLO? Now that’s a discussion for another day.