“Some people see things as they are never and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not.”
For months, ILTA (the International Legal Technology Association) remained committed to its annual in-person conference in Nashville on August 23 through 27. As most of you know, the ILTA Conference is on the largest in the legal tech space.
As 2020 drug on and the pandemic got worse, we all saw most events either canceling or going virtual. ILTA stubbornly and almost single-handedly hung on to the idea that we would be back to normal by August. As March turned into April and April turned into May and June, most of us thought ILTA would cancel the whole thing at the last minute. That it couldn’t shift fast enough to virtual to have a worthwhile conference.
But on June 7, ILTA boldly announced the Conference was on, and it would be completely virtual. Could ILTA do it? Could it shift that quickly? (For those of you who have participated in event planning, especially one as big as ILTA’s annual, you know planning it on a three month timeline is well neigh impossible.)
The ILTA>On Virtual Conference
Last week ILTA held its virtual Conference reimagined as ILTA>On. What Joy Heath Rush, CEO of ILTA, and the ILTA leadership did was execute a remarkable pivot. ILTA was bold. It tried new things, most of which worked. It put on a conference that is probably now the gold standard, at least in legal tech circles. ILTA pulled it off in spades.
First things first. I am tired of hearing people begin a conference by saying this is the first and hopefully last virtual conference. Or, as Bradford Kaufman of GreenburgTrauig recently said in an article, “there is a [no] substitute for the many benefits that come from working from work.. Or that real conferences are sooooo much better. That we are just surviving till it all comes back.
Well, folks, get over it. ILTA’s attitude (and mine) is let’s take the new reality and look for the good. Let’s work with today’s reality and maximize opportunities. And there’s plenty. First and foremost, by reducing the attendee price and taking travel costs out of the equation, you open your conference up to greater attendance. ILTA had 2200 registrants, 400 more attendees than were at its in-person meeting held last year. The attendees were from some 21 countries, an increase from 13 the previous year.
ILTA focused on content. They got speakers to come who otherwise would have declined due to the expense and travel logistics. They had fun events like comedians and games. They worked hard to network with hallway chats. They tried to reimagine the exhibit space.
And they succeeded in ways quite remarkable and will have a lasting impact.
How? When I go to conferences like ILTA>On, I come back charged up and energized. Ready to advance new and exciting ideas. Focused on being a change agent. Can you imagine what adding 400 likely young and energized people to the legal tech ecosystem might do over the next year? What changes they might wrought? It’s mind-boggling.
ILTA also encouraged the use of the Zoom chat feature during presentations. This chat feature lets you have real-time interactions with audience members and speakers during a presentation. This real time interaction makes for a much more interesting and intimate discussion. You aren’t sitting in the back of a massive conference room watching a presenter on a giant poorly lit tv screen in the front of the room. You aren’t alone with no one to talk to. You can instead talk to everyone. And the presenters aren’t isolated in the front of the room physically separated from the audience. They aren’t wondering what the audience is thinking. You can read and see it real time.
And yes, you cant network in the hallway. But let’s face facts, if you want to talk to a specific person at the conference, you can set a time to do it virtually. You don’t have to overcome physical logistics or getting from point A to point B, only to have the whole thing fall through and then try to pick another time. Hoping that you can get it in before the conference ends. Yes, you lose the chance encounters, but you gain the flexibility to talk to those you want and need to.
So many advantages if we look for them and adapt to new ways of thinking are there for the taking at virtual conferences.
I had a chance to meet (virtually) with Haley Altman, founder of Doxly, and now the Global Director of Business Strategy at Litera. (Altman is a keen observer of the legal tech space and a fascinating person to talk to by the way). We laughed that had we tried to have this conversation last year when the conference was at DisneyWorld, it probably never would have happened. I was off-site, Altman was staying at one of the various onsite hotels. The presentations were all spread out. We were both whizzing around all the days of the conference. Timing and logistics would have made meeting difficult. In the virtual world, though, logistical friction becomes almost moot.
I wanted to talk to Altman, and a dynamite keynote Litera put on. Altman led off this Thursday keynote of the conference. Her theme summarized for me what ILTA pulled off and the overall theme of the Conference: make bold moves.
She told me, like me, she was tired of the survival mindset of many people. As she put it, we don’t know when this will end or what will be forever changed. But we do know that today’s circumstances present the chance to be bold. To try new things. Speaking of the Litera virtual conference, which was her brainchild (and one of the first in the legal tech space), she saw it as a “unique opportunity to try this.” Now’s time, observed Altman, when “people are giving more grace to new ideas”. It’s a time for opportunity, not hand wringing.
But What About the Exhibit Hall?
No place is the need for this mindset shift more evident than with exhibit halls. Virtual exhibit halls far and away draw the most criticisms and ire at virtual shows like ILTA. At in-person conferences, the exhibit hall is the place to be. To see and be seen. To collect goodies from vendors. But in the virtual world, that doesn’t work. It’s hard to get people in a Zoom chat room with vendors. It’s hard to network the same way. I keep hearing the same hue and cry from all sides: there’s no way to have a virtual vendor experience, so why try. Let’s just wait till we get back to normal.
What’s needed is a reimagining of the vendor sponsorship space. A reinventing of the “exhibit Hall” into something different.
The problem though, is not the new medium we are using. It’s trying to push an old concept (in-person exhibit halls) into the new medium. What’s needed is a reimagining of the vendor sponsorship space. A reinventing of the “exhibit Hall” into something different. Five years ago, who would have imagined that we would order so many goods online. We all thought we had to go to the store to touch and feel products like clothes and even pick out groceries. Jeff Bezos and Amazon didn’t try to recreate an in-store experience. They reimagined the whole shopping experience, which is what needs to happen in the vendor exhibit hall space. Be bold. Try new things.
I spoke recently to a vendor outside the legal tech space about a recent conference in which she was one of several sponsors and “exhibitors”. She told me she got more leads at the conference than she ever did when the conference was an in-person event. After my jaw hit the floor, I asked her how? First, she worked hard to be one of the presenters on a relevant topic at the conference. Then she hosted roundtables in which attendees could sign up and participate on various relevant issues. Not hard sales but good honest discussion. And finally, she hosted “ask the expert sessions” where people could come with questions and get answers. She let people know when she would be available to talk and be present. She rethought and reimagined the whole experience.
“Virtual conferences are in beta”. What do you do in beta? You try new things.
As Albert Barsocchini recently so astutely observed during an Ari Kaplan recent virtual lunch, “virtual conferences are in beta”. What do you do in beta? You try new things. Some work, some don’t. When they don’t you reimaging. You reinvent. And each version gets better. Kudos to ILTA for seeing that a live event wasn’t going to happen and then pivoting to a virtual one overnight. That’s bold. (By the way, if you want to see how people can network in a virtual world, check out the Ari Kaplan virtual lunches that happen daily. I see and talk to people all the time there that I would never have seen and networked within a physical world. It works).
But we all can move the needle here. Altman is right: its time to think bold. To try new things.
Robert Kennedy once said, “Some people see things as they are never and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not.” That mindset is needed now more than ever.