Leaving most legal innovation conferences, our heads are filled with the latest tech buzzwords, including “AI” and “blockchain.”  Not so at the recent Inspire Legal conference, which focused on crowdsourcing a “curated set of the most pressing problems facing our industry” – instead of showcasing the “brightest, shiniest new tech widgets.”  It was a novel approach to bring together a diverse group of participants with two things in common: an interest in legal innovation and a willingness to think about the challenges of our industry in a new way.

Participants at Inspire Legal were instructed at the outset to focus on problems, including the “who” and “why,” but – for that one day – to ignore solutions or the “how.”  The day was broken into two primary activities, two Forum Workshops where tables of 5-10 participants would hash out problem exercises, and two sessions of Unpanels designed to challenge and engage participants.

Matt Homann, an expert facilitator with a passion for driving creative thinking to solve big problems in legal and other industries, led the Forum Workshops.  Participants completed problem exercises that included brainstorming a “challenge worth solving” and drilling down to the “key stakeholders (and the impact they feel is).”  By focusing on the “who” and “why” – instead of “how” – there was a noticeable shift in appreciation for the many perspectives and challenges of participants in our industry versus the all-too-common “well, they’ll have to change” mentality that can accompany solutions-focused discussions.

The two sessions of Unpanels were each divided into four groups and focused on topics like “What is the role of lawyers (if any) in evaluating legal technology?” and “Does outside counsel evaluation really lead to improved service delivery?”  These Unpanels reflected a change of pace from the usual panelist format – so much so that it was often difficult to figure out who were the actual “(un)panelists.”  For example, in “Who is going to pay for the next generation of lawyers?,” Bill Henderson kept a swift pace and diversity of viewpoints by encouraging members of the audience to swap out with panelists and using a timer to enforce limits on speaking time.  The result was a revolving group of people up front and an audience that felt encouraged to pay attention and speak up.  Dropping in on another session, it was remarkable to see all cellphones put away, no formal panelists up front, and – inspired by the senior executive of a major bank to go “off the record” – unvarnished conversation about the challenges of law firm / client collaboration bouncing across the room.

All day, the halls of New York Law School were full of conversation and introductions among participants clearly inspired to talk openly about their challenges.  Half the participants were legal educators, practicing attorneys (from both large and small firms), and end clients, including from the major banks that often drive law firms’ decisions regarding new technology.  The majority of remaining participants were technology providers – mostly startups – and other service providers eager at the opportunity to listen rather than sell.

At the end of the day, all conference participants were asked to vote on twelve distilled problem statement(s) with the two standouts being: (1) “How might we better enable collaboration between lawyers and allied professionals and stakeholders in the legal industry?” and (2) “How might we mobilize our stakeholder institutions to adequately prepare attorneys for modern, collaborative, legal service delivery?”  As it turns out, when you roll back all the talk of innovation and technology, there are fundamental challenges like communication and education that are crying out for attention.

Christian Lang, the founder of Inspire Legal and a former Davis Polk attorney, has practiced what he’s now preaching.  Christian spent the past few years building a network, asking questions, and fostering discussion, rather than jumping head first into a “we have the solution!” startup.  He’s built up a following on his blog, Blacklines & Billables, including the “Voices of…” series of podcasts featuring the viewpoints of participants at various conferences, and his popular New York Legal Tech Meetup (currently at over 1,300 members).  With Inspire Legal, Christian has inspired more of us to do the same – to focus on problems first, solutions second, and – at all times – getting to know and appreciate the perspectives and challenges of others in our industry.

You may also be interested to take a look at Bill Henderson's assessment of US-based legal industry events:

A theory of legal industry events (083)

And also Bob Ambrogi's review of ALT's second conference, which he says was “a reckoning.”

For ALT, It’s Second Conference Was A Reckoning