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Comment: ILTACON in person-was it worth the risk?

For those who didn’t attend ILTACON in person this year due to the (again) surging COVID numbers, many of the large vendors like Litera, iManage pulling out and logistical problems related to travel, you may be asking yourself, “What did I miss out on?” or “Was it worth it sitting this one out—especially given that ILTACON was a hybrid event?”

For those who didn’t attend ILTACON in person this year due to the (again) surging COVID numbers, many of the large vendors like Litera, iManage pulling out and logistical problems related to travel, you may be asking yourself, “What did I miss out on?” or “Was it worth it sitting this one out—especially given that ILTACON was a hybrid event?”

The reality is ILTACON tried, and largely succeeded, to create the perfect hybrid educational setting for both in-person and virtual attendees.

Safety, Networking and Conference Value – In Person

While the conference was smaller than previous years conferences—2,000+ total attendees with a reported 680 onsite (although the numbers looked much smaller in person)—ILTACON offered the full range of events, including an opening reception, lunches, additional working sessions and some pretty interesting session topics like “The Future of Legal Services Pricing” and “Shifting Times Success Stories: Marketing & Business Benefits from the Pandemic” that were not available online. Other conversations that were intended for the open sharing of ideas like “Building Relationship Management: Building Bridges between IT and the Legal Business,” vendor roundtables or the G100 day and vendor product updates were also not available or recorded. And while the show floor was like a ghost town and the sessions themselves seemed fairly empty with the exception of a few (per my colleagues), the reality is many vendors, law firms and corporations made the most of it and were rewarded with the opportunity to meet with colleagues, clients and prospects—many for the first time in 18 months. In fact, ILTA reported in a press briefing that feedback from the vendors who attended or sponsored ILTACON was while the crowd was smaller, the quality of conversation was very high. The theme was Quality over quantity—especially as it came to conversation.

To ensure safety, ILTACON facilitators required all attendees who picked up a badge to verify COVID vaccinations, handed out safety pamphlets and even provided handy colored wristbands that signaled to others whether or not you were okay with being hugged or “high-fived,” “Okay with talking but not touching” or those that “wished to keep their distance.” Because ILTACON capped the number of attendees, the show floor and hallways remained fairly empty, and large ballroom-style rooms were used so people could spread out.

Because the main hall was so empty and there were plenty of benches to sit on, there were plenty of quiet places for attendees who hadn’t reserved a meeting room to meet and network. Given the dearth of attendees and the precautionary measures—there was generally more than enough space for ample social distancing if you were concerned about the risk of spreading or contracting COVID.

After hours at the show, however, is where the fear of COVID may have kicked in for some.

Social distancing was fairly minimal in other parts of the hotel—especially at all the networking events. While, ILTACON had their own receptions and gathering places for comedy nights and evening receptions, non-ILTACON sponsored events happened in the background. For example, on Monday, DISCO, Reveal, ZERØ and ECFX all had after-parties where the legal community gathered to talk shop, network and find out how colleagues fared during the pandemic. During all evening events—regardless of whether or not it was an event that was sponsored by ILTACON, it was as if COVID didn’t exist, with many legal professionals arm-to-arm, talking, dancing and catching up.

That said, the people I talked with felt the show was worth it to attend in person. The informational content and networking were well worth it once you overcame the fear of getting or spreading COVID.

Session Highlights and Virtual Logistic Challenges -Online

While the in-person badge got you into some of the interactive sections and some other interesting sessions that couldn’t be accessed online—such as the “Hidden Superpowers of 365”—if you attended virtually, you were able to catch most of the important educational sessions, including keynotes.

While there were some technical and audio difficulties the first day, these difficulties got corrected the second and third day. For example, I tried to attend the session “Never Too Big to Fail? Venture Capital, Mergers and Acquisitions in the E-Discovery Industry.” However, I couldn’t hear the panelists, all of whom were attending in-person at ILTACON. While they had mics, the mic only picked up the moderator and not the panelists.

With all the difficulty, however, the online app provided a way to attend a range of interesting sessions that provided a lot of rich educational content for those interested in having a finger on the pulse of the industry and hearing about what legal practitioners are currently working on.

For example, I virtually attended “The Changing Nature of Legal Procurement: ‘New Law’ and Aggregators of Legal Products and Services,” a spirited conversation between Brian Corbin of JP Morgan Chase & Co., Christian Lang of Reynen Court, Eugenia Frenzel of Perkins Coie LLP, Jae Um of Six Parsecs, and Jospeh Borstein of Lexfusion who discussed innovation in the procurement process, platformization and innovation among legal departments and legal services providers, and the proliferation of the legal tech supply chain. Perhaps the most surprising fact that emerged from the discussion was that more than $5 billion has been invested in legal tech in the past few years.

I also virtually attended “Artificial Intelligence in the Law Department,” a discussion between Cat Casey of Reveal Data, Brad Mixner of Mixner Consulting Group, Chris Austin of Bowman and Brooke LLP, Justin Hectus, Keesal of Young & Logan, Kiran Mallavarapu of Liberty Mutual and Scott Milner of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP. This session provided insight into what needs to be done to drive AI adoption in corporate legal, since currently interest in AI is coming primarily from law firms. Key ideas included providing more exposure to and education about the tools and technology, utilizing the expertise of younger lawyers who are more tech-savvy and expect to use technology in their daily lives, and demonstrating AI’s use cases for high-value services such as litigation and intellectual property.

During these two particular conversations—and most of the other sessions that I attended—a healthy online conversation was carried out in the background, where session participants were able to ask a variety of questions and get really insightful answers back.

On the second day, I attended the keynote, “Talent Development in a Hybrid Work Environment,” which discussed the state of work today, the myriad challenges and opportunities for law firms, and how to develop talent with a focus on maintaining balance in a hybrid work world. Key themes and questions emerged from the keynote: How do you balance work and home life? Is working from home taking time away from family? How do you create both online and offline communities—and how do you create meaningful work and manage a more holistic work process? Several strategies that could help the legal profession were discussed, including online mentorship with senior leadership training junior lawyers differently. This might involve having senior attorneys jump in on their junior colleague’s Zoom calls to listen in or working to fill gaps in areas where new lawyers most need to be trained. Overall objectives included focusing more on retention vs. hiring, bringing a more holistic approach to training and, most importantly, creating a collaborative and support environment where people are eager to do the work.

The ILTACON online app also provided attendees with a way to digitally network and talk with vendors. For example, users of the app could see who else in the ILTA community was attending and have an online chat with that person. You were even able to see and meet with the vendors via the virtual exhibit hall. Unlike just going to the booth, you could use the app to understand what a vendor actually does before reaching out and saying hi. That said, with all the ways of meeting people and digitally networking, there was limited swag in this format.

Despite the challenging logistics of the in-person conference, overall the sessions were fairly interesting and informative. Even if you were only able to participate online, there was a wealth of information and people to meet that kept most of us wanting to come back day after day.

In a slightly concerning end to the conference, all in-person attendees received notification an employee of a contractor working with ILTA to support ILTACON had tested positive for COVID-19 but because the exposure was minimal, that ILTA was continuing with the on-site portion of the last day. ILTA said it had taken the appropriate steps to ensure that this individual had minimal contact with ILTA staff and that they were not an ILTA employee or attendee. At the time of publishing, we’re not aware of anyone else contracting COVID-19.

Valerie Chan is founder and principal of strategic communications and digital marketing agency Plat4orm PR.