Legal Geek 2018 : The One where Reality overtook Hype

Legal Geek 2018 - Where Reality overtook HypeOn 17 October I attended the 2018 Legal Geek Conference in Shoreditch, London.

This was the third Legal Geek Conference but my first.

Legal Geek have committed to always being free for legal start-ups and they continue to focus on this.

They have defined a simple ethos for their events:

  • Come to make friends, not to sell
  • Dress comfortably (please, please, no ties). However, The Rt. Hon. Lord Richard Keen dared to be different by wearing a tie!
  • Come to learn and to teach.
  • Look after your fellow law-gends, you may need their help someday.
  • This is your community, please pitch in and help. You will be rewarded.

Apparently the number of delegates attending has doubled each year. 500 in 2016; 1,000 in 2017 and 2,000 in 2018. I suggested this might be called Vestbirk’s Law 😉

With 40+ LawTech start-ups eager to meet delegates and more than 100 international speakers imparting their stories across three stages there was a lot to take in.

I will provide you here with some of my main takeaways from the day.

Following an introduction from Jimmy Vestbirk, and the apparently traditional high fiving amongst delegates, the first speaker of the day was George Biggar of Taylor Wessing. He was one of the four oarsmen who broke the world record for rowing the Atlantic last year. They undertook this feat to raise awareness of mental illness and to raise money for the charity MIND (this year’s conference charity).


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A post shared by 1 Ocean-3,000 Miles-4 Oarsmen (@the_four_oarsmen) on

In his talk George shedded light on mental illness. But he also provided lessons that lawyers/LawTech start-ups can take from a team of four achieving a world record crossing of the Atlantic in just 29 days, 14 hours and 34 minutes. These included support and communication.

George also endorsed incremental improvement. He said:-

Little things make all the difference.

Most successful sports people stress the importance of incremental improvement. The story of Sir Chris Hoy’s success and that of other UK cyclists at the 2012 Olympics demonstrates this. British Cycling’s performance director Dave Brailsford told the BBC how “marginal gains” underpin everything he does:-

The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.

Some legal technology commentators don’t get or understand the importance of this. They see it as black and white. Either you are innovating with a major legal tech development (more column inches, hype and publishing revenue in those) or you are not being progressive.

I spoke about improving at ReInvent Law London 2014. It is certainly not a “tired and self-defeating” approach. It works and my law firm, Inksters, would not be anywhere near where it is today without it.

Those that suggest improving is not progressive have clearly not tried implementing change in a law firm and have no concept of the budgets that might be involved in most law firms (certainly those that are not BigLaw).

If money is no option you could try going big with legal tech overnight but chances are that you might just become the next Clearspire.

Legal Geek - Robot
Beware the shiny new robot Helen Burness!

The fact that big shiny new toys are not always best was highlighted by Caroline Hall in her talk.

These shiny new toys may well end up being shelfware:-

Shmuli Goldberg of LawGeex told us: “Don’t buy LegalTech”. The premise for this surprising statement from a legal tech vendor at a legal tech conference was that lawyers are not implementing the legal tech that they do buy. That in itself, however, is no great surprise to me.

Apparently legal tech adoption by law firms post piloting a product is 92% failure. So just 8% success in adopting legal tech. That leaves a lot of shelfware lying about.

Shmuli said to stop buying legal tech if you are curious about it. But if you have a problem that needs resolved then do buy legal tech that will resolve it. You are then not just buying legal tech but resolving a problem.

The need to automate document production for greater efficiency should, you would think, be a problem that most, if not all, law firms would want to solve. However, Caroline Hill told us that less than one quarter of law firms with 50+ fee earners have automated in a meaningful way. I reckon the reality is much worse if you delved into “meaningful way”. And what, I wonder, is the position with those many law firms with under 50 fee earners? My law firm has a dedicated Legal Process Engineer driving automation but that, I know, is unusual.

Legal Geek - If Innovation Falls in the forrest

In an all women panel chaired by Lisa Young of Axiom it was highlighted by Erica Handling, EMEA GC at BlackRock, that whilst AI used on a specific project saved time and money there was disappointment with how it lived up compared to its promise. Furthermore, some basic tech issues needed to be dealt with first:-

We’re still really trying to get e-signatures and document automation.

Real life problems that will likely be sorted through time by incremental improvement.

Stuart Barr of HighQ (sponsors of the after party) told us to leverage the Legal Tech we already have. Sage words and again refreshing to hear from a Legal Tech vendor. He, like Shmuli Goldberg did, told us we must find the problem needing solved.

Readers of this blog will be well aware that I have little time for Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain or indeed any other legal tech hype at conferences. At the beginning of this year I predicted the trend to over hype legal tech would continue. Indeed that happened at conferences earlier in the year but then exceptions to the rule were noted. Now at Legal Geek 2018 it came as a refreshing change to positively hear the hype called out for what it was. You could literally see some hypsters squirm.

There was a session from Noah Waisberg of Kira Systems entitled ‘Don’t Believe The Hype’.

Noah reckons you can spot the hype on a press release from:-

  1. Unclear customer commitments
  2. Future plans not past achievements
  3. Hiding how it works

I have written about the seven deadly sins of legal AI predictions that you can also use to spot the hype.

Noah threw sequins from the stage with one real diamond amongst them to illustrate the preponderance of hype in legal tech.

Noah more brutally but with great need (and to much applause from me) told legal journalists to “do real journalism”. More squirming in some seats.

There were real journalists at Legal Geek 2018 who do provide independent critical thought in their writing but there were others there who do little other than copy and paste, peddle the hype and pander to their sponsors. A few days later and there is unfortunately no sign of them taking on board Noah’s advice. Indeed, from tweets over the weekend, quite the contrary.

Continuing to bust the hype we had The Two Alexs: Alex Hamilton of Radiant Law and Alex G Smith of Reed Smith.

First up was Alex Hamilton with the Gartner Hype Cycle.

Gartner Hype Cycle CurveWith Legal Tech it can seem at times that we are probably at the Peak of Inflated Expectations and heading towards the Trough of Disillusionment. However, maybe Legal Geek 2018 showed us that we are already past that peak. Realisation has sunk in within the mainstream that things are not what they were previously painted to be. The rose tinted glasses have come off.

Alex Hamilton pointed out that:

Everyone is feeling inadequate about their lack of progress implementing tech improvements … but the reality is no one has done it.

He invited onto the stage Ciarán Fenton who talked about behaviour and subsequently wrote this nice piece: #LegalGeek is an oasis in a desert of behavioural dysfunction.

The other Alex, Alex G Smith, told us that there’s a very boring narrative in the ‘legal ecosystem’ pushed by bad media (highlighted again at Legal Geek!) and bad consultancy:

  • Big Law – bad
  • Old Legal Tech – bad
  • New Law – good
  • Law Companies – amazing
  • In-House Teams – swamped
  • LegalTech – rebel alliance
Legal Tech - Rebel Alliance
We all want Rebel Alliance stickers for our laptops!

Regardless of which one you are you can improve (don’t think Alex used that word but you know that I like it) by getting into a room with no tech in it to do design thinking on white walls with pens and post it notes. You need to find a real problem:-

  • Don’t be led to a problem
  • Understand the problem
  • Don’t start with solutions looking for a problem
  • Solutions are often easy

This was just a taster to design thinking. Legal Geek had, the following day, an entire design conference at which Alex was also presenting and there was, amongst other things, legal design lego workshops. I unfortunately was not able to attend that.

Legal Design Geek - Lego
Lego Workshop at Legal Design Geek

I tried to take in some more design thinking at the main conference where Molly Riggins of Freshfields had a break out session on ‘Implementing design thinking in a law firm’. Unfortunately, this was in a noisy main exhibition space where little could be heard unless you were wearing the headphones supplied. They didn’t have enough of those for the audience and I missed out. It was like being at a silent disco watching everyone dance with no idea what the music they were listening to was. I moved on.

Legal Geek - Freshfields headphones
The Freshfields silent ‘disco’

Next door to the Freshfields stand was Thomson Reuters who were doing interactive brainstorming and whiteboard sessions on ‘Automated Law’. So some real design thinking in action and no need for headphones. I chatted with fellow Scot, Andy Wishart, about the challenges surrounding automation of checklists for document review. He wrote my input onto post-it notes that ended up on the whiteboard. That might just influence the future development of Contract Express. More incremental improvements in practice perhaps 😉

Legal Geek - Thomson Reuters - Automated Law Whiteboard
When it comes to designing Legal Tech you can’t beat a whiteboard and some post-it notes

This blog is about the past, present and future practice of law. When I first started it I blogged:-

Whilst there will be an emphasis in this blog on the present and future practice of law you sometimes have to glance back at the past to see/appreciate the future.

This is exactly what Dana Denis-Smith of Obelisk did in her presentation of the history of legal technology using a sound only PowerPoint. She loves placing all tech in its historic context to avoid making mistakes and ensure maximum adoption. Well worth a listen:-

Christina Blacklaws (President of the Law Society of England & Wales) referenced from the past the TV programme ‘Tomorrow’s World’ and the fact that some predictions they made didn’t materialise but others did. The future is not always what we think it might be.

Looking at that past and context is so important as many in Legal Tech today think it is only just beginning and don’t appreciate the journey we have been and still are on. This is something I highlighted earlier this year in my post: Hack the Past: How the Legal Profession knew nothing about Technology.

This lack of realisation by some was emphasised by a slide in another presentation entitled “The World Has Changed”. That is somewhat stating the obvious!

As someone said to me this was lawyers thinking it “has” changed rather than it’s “always in a state of change”. Of course it is the latter. We are on a journey. Some people take that journey at a different pace. We shouldn’t necessarily criticise that and think we are superior if we are using ‘AI’ when we clearly aren’t or shouldn’t be.

Another speaker asked for a show of hands as to whether the audience wanted to see the status quo remain or real change happen. Eyes were rolled at this point rather than hands raised. Again no understanding of reality.

Thankfully these were a couple of exceptions in a day where reality overtook hype.

Legal Geek - Canadians - Legal Innovation Zone - Ryerson University
Hersh Perlis and Chris Bentley

Two Canadians facilitating real change are Hersh Perlis and Chris Bentley. They appeared on stage in Canadian ice hockey shirts to tell us about the Legal Innovation Zone at Ryerson University in Toronto. I was pleased to see them there and catch up with them afterwards. I met them at the Legal Innovation Zone last year when I was over in Canada for Mitch Kowalski’s book launch: Legal Innovation in Toronto.

Christina Blacklaws, President of the Law Society of England & Wales, announced at Legal Geek 2018 the launch of the LawTech Delivery Panel. This is a team of industry experts and leading figures from government and the judiciary, that has been formed to help the UK legal sector grow and fulfil its potential:-

By identifying both barriers to and catalysts for growth, the panel will provide direction to the legal sector and help foster an environment in which new technology can thrive.

The core membership of the panel is:

  • Christina Blacklaws, President of the Law Society
  • Rt Hon Lord Keen of Elie QC, Justice Minister
  • Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Vos, Chancellor of the High Court
  • Professor Richard Susskind, Technology Advisor to the Lord Chief Justice
  • Dr Anna Donovan, University College London
  • Rosemary Martin, General Counsel, Vodafone
  • Gary Campkin, TheCityUK
  • Sonya Branch, General Counsel, Bank of England

LawTech UKIt is branded LawTech UK.

With at least two Scots on board (Lord Keen and Professor Susskind) let’s hope that they foster links with The Law Society of Scotland and their latest initiative: Lawscot Tech. Duplication of effort should be avoided if they can be pulling resources.

The LawTech UK panel is gender equal and gender equality was a theme at Legal Geek with many female speakers. This included a Women in LawTech Panel with Ivy Wong, Joanna Goodman, Julia Salasky and Caroline Ferguson. You can read about that session at the Technomancers Legal Tech Blog.

I’ve written a lot about the presentations (and only really covered a small percentage of those) but what about the start-ups? After all I did say at the beginning of this post that the focus at Legal Geek is on the event always being free to start-ups and, of course, showcasing what they have to offer.

There was a session on the Second Stage where you could hear presentations from certain start-ups (bookended by talks by Joanna Goodman and Caroline Hill) but the best way to find out what they were really up to was to go and meet them in the start-up village.

Legal Geek - Start-up Village
Legal Geek – Start-up Village

With 42 start-ups represented in the start-up village and queues at most stands time to get around them was limited at the short breaks available. I only managed to speak with a few but what I saw showed enthusiasm, dedication and problem solving (remember that as an important takeaway from some of the talks).

Although apparently Access to Justice solutions were notably absent:-

With hindsight I should have spent less time in talks and more time with the start-ups. If I go again next year I will certainly do just that.

Kevin O’Keefe was out and about at Legal Geek interviewing founders of some of the Legal Tech companies represented there. You can catch those interviews at legaltechfounders.com.

Legal Geek, in association with Thomson Reuters, produce The Legal Geek Start-up Map which is handy for checking out all the start-ups out there. But there could of course be new ones appearing in between map refreshes.

Legal Geek didn’t feel or look like your typical legal conference. Parts of it reminded me of Dan Katz’s Reinvent Law, Paul Gilbert’s LawFest or Justin North’s JD Horizons (minus the breakfast Martinis but with AI Paisley Snail Pale Ale instead).

Legal Geek - Thomson Reuters - AI Paisley Snail Pale Ale
Tastes more fruity than snail like – Did the AI get it wrong?

I do however have some tips for Jimmy to make next year’s event even better:-

  • More seats please at the main two stages to avoid standing room only. There was plenty of room for them.
  • Loud speakers at the back of the hall in the Second Stage where it was difficult to hear at times.
  • Ask Freshfields to bring more headphones next year for the silent legal tech talks.
  • Move the Law Society Lawn into the Work Room / Quiet Zone. That will enable speakers to be heard and we don’t really need a Work Room / Quiet Zone at a conference.
  • A dedicated tea stall (with a range of teas) to compliment Climpson & Sons coffee stand.
  • More water points. I only clocked one but there may have been more.
  • A brief summary of what the legal start-ups do listed in the conference programme. The programme just had their logos and nothing more. If you want to focus on meeting particular relevant ones at the event you really need to know what they actually do.

These are very minor quibbles for what was a very well organised and enjoyable conference.

And do keep up the good work Jimmy by having speakers that provide reality over hype.

However, Jimmy might have his work cut out organising things next year because if Vestbirk’s Law holds out there will be 4,000 delegates there!

Reactions on Social Media (LinkedIn and Twitter)

In addition to the responses in the comments section below there have been reactions to this post on LinkedIn where I posted:-

I’ve reviewed Legal Geek 2018. I suggest that we have reached a turning point where reality has overtaken hype insofar as Legal Technology is concerned (at least at Legal Tech Conferences!). Do you agree?

To keep the responses together with the original post itself I have copied the comments here:-

Alex G Smith (Innovation Manager at Reed Smith LLP):

The Legal Geek year the hype burst and everyone started talking sense and the start-ups got insight into the reality of change from people at the cutting edge of transformation, cultural change and the need to bridge the gaps the legal ecosystem has opened up, just everyone get talking and more importantly listening. Great summary Brian, great to see you as ever, keep on cutting that edge.


Jan Roggen (Partner at Adhemar.law):

Don’t buy #legaltech  – solve problems.


George Biggar (Senior Associate at Taylor Wessing):

Great summary of LegalGeek Conference 2018.


Adrian Samuel  (Innovation and Client Experience at SO Legal Limited):

Helpful summary thanks Brian Inkster


Alex G Smith (Innovation Manager at Reed Smith LLP):

Thanks Brian – and thanks for picking up on the ‘The Narrative’ in my talk around how we live in silos and need to break those down. Maybe time to Drain the Coffeefilter of the parts of the ecosystem that keep us apart from proactive and shared change. There were a lot of nodding in-house lawyers’ heads in the crowd. I only go to events that are mixed and balanced now, and with some views from outside the bubble. Great to see you as ever. I hope start ups were beating a path to your door to see how you innovated your approach, firm and model.

Joe Reevy (BD Software automation innovator and former partner):

Take a look at crosselerator.com Alex…does just what you are talking about.

Brian Inkster:  

Thanks Alex G Smith. I think events are becoming and will have to become more mixed and balanced or people will, like you and I do, vote with their feet. The same is true of reports on #LegalTech.

Joe Reevy:

It’s always pay to publish as it were. We took a stand against this years ago. We will only attend as exhibitors if free, as speakers if paid (or sometimes free) and we never pay to publish anything in print. I like the Calico legal (well done Pauline Freegard MBA and Katrina Bevan !) idea that we all contribute knowledge etc and are prohibited from on the page selling……


Joe Reevy (BD Software automation innovator and former partner):

nope, not yet (says the man building AI into automated new instruction generation!)

Brian Inkster:

Is AI necessary/essential to achieve the desired result in that product Joe Reevy?

Joe Reevy:  

NO Brian Inkster. It  (Crosselerator.com) works very well without any AI. What AI will add is the ability firstly to PREDICT the needs and likely aspirations of clients (in your metier) and use that to drive ‘we can help you with’ or ‘we’re doing a seminar on’ type messages to people automatically. That will make the firm look really proactive (a HUGE USP) as well as driving in instructions per se.
After that, we want to add pricing automation, so clients/contact can be offered highly targeted service offerings with full price transparency.
To do this in a 10 partner fir would probably be a full-time job for 2 marketers (and you’d need the cooperation of the fee earners). What we’re building will need neither.


David Gilroy (Leading UK digital marketing expert for law firms. Web design, SEO, PPC, social media & CRM. International speaker):

Helen Burness should get a photo credit!  An excellent summary Brian.

Thanks David Gilroy – I’ve now added “Helen Burness” into the photo caption!


Helen Burness (Flexible, enthusiastic legal marketing person. Director at Saltmarsh Marketing):

This is a brilliant write-up on a great day. Who on earth is the grown woman getting a selfie with a mirror man though?! Oh yes. That would be me. 😬

Alex G Smith (Innovation Manager at Reed Smith LLP):

Reputation building! Have screenshot and archived.

Helen Burness:

Alex G Smith #personalbranding

Alex G Smith:


Brian Inkster:

There were two of them. Does Chankubator have a twin?


Tara Taubman-Bassirian (GDPR, Data Protection and IP consultant):

Brian, you could have crossed Ametis Taubman whom you could not have recognised. She is with Introhive.

Interesting approach with regard to Blockchain and AI. You might have noticed the French CNIL and German data authirity’s recent guidance on Blockchain and GDPR. Not an easy one. As for the AI, the French data base of legal cases with a Google kind of search engine is a very useful tool. I especially love the search by the name of the law firm.

Brian Inkster:  

I didn’t know that Tara Taubman-Bassirian. I’ll look out for her next time. Does that French legal case search really use/need to use AI?


Amit Sharma (Approachable solicitor helping businesses with commercial property and business law):

Great write up – I am up for pilotisation – ai reads my docs – provides summary. I review with my experience to read between the lines to advise client.

Brian Inkster: 

Yes, Amit Sharma, no need to worry – you will still be an important part in the process for some time to come.


Peter Connor (Global Change Agent – helping lawyers and compliance professionals transform):

Interesting takeaways from Legal Geek courtesy of Brian Inkster – “Shelfware” software thats purchased at great expense and sits on the shelf unused! Legal Tech adoption 8% in law firms! Just one of many reasons to say that innovation and change is not all about Tech. Legal Design is key.
I would add – Legal Design is often not used to maximum effect and it too is just a means to an end and not the only means. Innovation and change requires a comprehensive and holistic approach following a framework with a clear Vision of new and more effective Way of Working  utilising a range of ‘means” not just tech and not just legal design.

Joe Reevy (BD Software automation innovator and former partner):

Oh gosh does that resonate! 80% of our legalrss clients use the system solely for content provision and don’t access the best of breed social sharing/enews automation/social media management etc built in. Drives us crazy.


Tom Barker (Director of Strategy, Change and Operations at Irwin Mitchell):

One of best / most comprehensive summaries of the LegalGeek conference. Nicki Clegg, Charlotte Wedd worth a read


Alex G Smith (Innovation Manager at Reed Smith LLP):

Brian Inkster and Orsolya Szabó have both fantastically summarised their insights from last week … touching on purpose before technology, on change (however small and nudge) and culture before technology and on designing better experiences and processes. Very honest and human reports that reflect the messages and takeaways I took from so many speakers that at last we have got over the ‘shiny baubles’ bump in the road, onto hard work, hard yards and co-designing with our users. #legalgeek

Orsolya’s here https://lnkd.in/dc52Wa8

Brian’s here https://lnkd.in/dzRK4QQ

Melissa Lyon (Associate Principal at Hive Legal | Winner BD Professional of the Year 2017 | Finalist Legal Innovation Index 2018):

Well said Alex. Brian’s and Orsolya’s fantastic summaries made not being there a bit easier. Also makes me so much happier to see that more of us are now focusing on what matters rather than shiny new toys that don’t necessarily improve the experience for us or our users.

Orsolya Szabó (LegalTech Consultancy | Humanizing Tech in Law):

Thanks Alex for sharing and reinforcing the message!

Alex G Smith:

Not a problem, both of your well written, thoughtful and reflective pieces of a rather chaotic/busy two days were worth putting side by side to reflect that collective moment of commonality we had around the path forward. Thanks for taking the time and mental space to write it.


John Craske (Head of Legal Service Design & Delivery at CMS):

A really good summary of last week’s LegalGeek conference by Brian Inkster.  I really recognise the feeling of reality creeping in above the hype  #legaltech


On Twitter the following tweets were made in response:-

Andrew Neill (@legalIBA):

Great – and very detailed – round up of #LegalGeek by the inimitable Brian Inkster on @TheTimeBlawg

Well worth a read, whether you were there or want to get the essence of the day.


Bram Fokke (@BramFokke):

Great summary of @wearelegalgeek by @TheTimeBlawg


Dana Denis-Smith (@ddenissmith):

Thanks for this fabulous summary of an amazing day @wearelegalgeek last week. And thanks for recommending my talk for a listening history of tech. Making noise without the hype.


Nick Pryor‏ (@NickPryorLaw):

Great review of Legal Geek 2018 from @TheTimeBlawg Still reflecting on easily the best legal tech event of the year. The energy and community buzz are 100

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