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SmallLaw: TechShow 2009: A Decade Under the Influence Plus Best of Show Picks

By Mazyar Hedayat | Monday, April 13, 2009

SmallLaw Blog 04-13-09450

Originally published on April 13, 2009 in our free SmallLaw newsletter.

The 2009 ABA Technology Show is over. As usual, it started Thursday and wound up Saturday with the celebrated 60 Sites in 60 Minutes. Predictably, the atmosphere was part lecture-hall, part trade-show, mostly meet-and-greet.

This was my tenth year attending and in that time I've enjoyed the show as a spectator, an exhibitor, a blogger, and, most recently, a columnist.

I've seen trends take shape and fade, witnessed "revolutionary" changes (that weren't), and took careful note of which vendors stuck and which ones were one-hit wonders. Below you'll find my observations on this year's show.

Still Crazy After All These Years …

TechShow is still:

  • Produced by a volunteer board of lawyers, consultants, and ABA staff under the umbrella of the Law Practice Management section.

  • An opportunity for attendees to network face to face rather than just via email or telephone.

  • The premier national venue for startups to debut and established vendors to introduce products.

  • A forum about technology concerns of the day — PC versus Mac, email security, Twitter, eDiscovery (the 800 pound gorilla).

  • The best opportunity that attendees will have all year to preview technology that will shape the profession; and

  • Dependent on perennial sponsors like LexisNexis and Westlaw.

Given the diverse forces that bring the show to life every year, it's impressive that the whole production comes to us without major snafus. This year was no exception, and saw the return of the concierge desk manned by members of the Blawgerati, including Adriana Linares, Kevin O'Keefe, Dennis Kennedy, and Tom Mighell (last year's chair of the planning committee). It's good to know there are some things you can count on. Then again ...

Shrinkage …

The standard elements of a successful show existed this year, including:

  • Star bloggers (everyone was taking video).
  • Celebrity authors flogging their latest books.
  • Vendors connecting with big money accounts.
  • Startups vying for attention and coverage.
  • Educational sessions with national experts.
  • Chotchkies-a-plenty (my personal favorite).

But there was a distinct difference as well — let's call it shrinkage. And no element was spared. Consider that:

  • Even deep-pocketed vendors like Wolters Kluwer and Kroll Ontrack were absent.

  • Many regulars simply did not make an appearance at all or kept a very low profile.

  • Vendor participation appeared to be around 50% lower than last year.

The upshot is that although the show floor at the Hilton is smaller than the spread at the Sheraton where the show took place for years, there still weren't enough vendors to fill the space. Why not? The implosion of high-profile law firms? Pervasiveness of attorney joblessness? Ripple-effect of recent events on Wall Street? Maybe — but then again, why would that stop a vendor if the need for their products existed? That's the real question.

My Second Annual Best of Show Picks …

Sure the current economic trough affected TechShow. But why stop there? The collapse of the housing and financial services markets has also left lawyers with fewer opportunities than they've had in years and forced them to meet unprecedented demands. In short, it has created an opportunity for lawyers to break with past practices, leverage their knowledge, collaborate, and streamline the way they work.

You could even say that the current recession has created the perfect opportunity for lawyers to use technology to solve their problems. Or at least we could say that if the vendors at the show delivered innovation instead of overpriced me-too products.

Don't get me wrong. It wasn't all bad. But honestly, how many eDiscovery ads do you see per week and how many vendors can the market handle? The overabundance of eDiscovery companies can be extended to nearly every category of exhibitors at the show. So it's no surprise that my picks for "Best of Show" were companies that brought real value to the table in four emerging fields.

1. Web-Based Practice Management: Clio

Both of the primary contenders in this space were at the show — Themis Solutions' Clio and Rocket Matter — and both get the job done. But in the end Clio brings more polish to its product in my opinion.

Built in Ruby on Rails (geeky but important), Clio looks familiar, is easy to master, and is effective even for a sole practitioner — yet it can handle hundreds of users without sacrificing security or functionality. Clio introduced offline functionality at TechShow as well, so that even when the Internet is down the application can keep time then re-synchronize itself as soon as you're online. The Clio practice management suite also allows users to collaborate securely with clients.

Clio's pricing makes it an ideal entry-level solution for displaced biglaw associates now starting their own solo careers (BigSolos as my fellow SmallLaw columnist Ross Kodner refers to them).

For more on Clio, please watch my video interview of Themis Solutions' co-founder Jack Newton.

2. Automated Backup and Storage: Mozy

I couldn't blame you for skipping this section. How boring is storage, right? Everyone knows you can buy enough storage to hold every fact ever known for practically nothing. So why even discuss storage? Because reliability and access remain the twin holy grails of this field — and you can't expect either from small companies no matter how innovative.

Let's face it: size matters. So it's no wonder that my Best of Show pick in this category is Mozy. This company with the catchy name is really the cuddly face of EMC Documentum, a company that knows security and storage better than practically anyone. Because of EMC's size and deep pockets, Mozy can give away gigabytes of storage for free even before it begins charging. Even then its plans are accessible to pretty much anyone — users pay a small price per computer per month, plus 50 cents/gigabit/month thereafter. Yeah, I'll take that deal.

3. Managed Law Office Services: Total Attorneys

There was only one managed services vendor at TechShow — luckily it would be a good choice even among competitors. Total Attorneys represents an idea whose time has come.

Like Mozy, it sells just enough at a price that is just right. Services include a full complement of administrative tasks that lawyers traditionally suck at: business development, call centers, back-office work, follow up, etc.

There is a catch however — buying managed services means paying retail. And the retail price of these services includes labor, materials, profit, overhead, shipping, taxes, lunch for the crew ... you get the idea. At the end of the day, lawyers often live on a thin slice of profit. Giving that away may not represent a viable long-term strategy. Still, outsourcing may be the only strategy that works for many sole practitioners.

4. Automated Activity Tracking: WorkTRAKR

I really believe that WorkTRAKR, the automated time-keeping application from VoIP provider Proximiti, has potential. The application is a winner even with its built-in limitations. For instance, it works primarily on telephones and email, entirely missing faxes, computer applications, and a number of other billing sweet-spots. But the company is moving in the right direction and the product shows promise. It is Web-based now and works via plug-ins with such standards as Outlook. With some tweaking, WorkTRAKR might actually take some of the drudgery out of billing. We can only hope.

Wrapping It Up …

In the last ten years, TechShow has showcased a number of prodigious advancements in technology. Chief among these has been the transformation of the Internet from a world-wide billboard to a research pipeline and, more recently, to a comprehensive practice solution.

TechShow 2009 gave us still more evidence that anywhere, anytime law practice has arrived. Chances are that next year's show will bring a spate of me-too Web-based practice management vendors, followed by the inevitable shakeout and acquisitions by larger players. I only hope that the best companies make the cut — and the entrepreneurs who founded them don't cut and run after cashing out. Here's hoping that the next ten years are as groundbreaking as the last ten were.

Photo by Adriana Linares, LawTech Partners

Written by Mazyar M. Hedayat of M. Hedayat & Associates, P.C.

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