ABA Techshow

At ABA Techshow, generative AI tools and how they help lawyers work faster took center stage

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Illustration of time and money

Photo illustration by Sara Wadford/Shutterstock.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Until now—possibly.

Taking place from Feb. 14-17 at Hyatt Regency Chicago, ABA Techshow 2024 hosted 1,764 attendees and covered various issues relating to legal technology, ranging from basic tasks such as using email and word processing to more advanced concepts like generative artificial intelligence.

While the legal profession long has been known as one that has been hesitant to embrace change, especially in the technological realm, this year’s show felt different—perhaps because of the transformative effect that generative AI tools have already made.

“In my 37 years in the profession, I have never seen technology come as fast and quickly and as fully as generative AI,” Reid Trautz, senior director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s Practice & Professionalism Center, said during a panel discussion titled “Your Future Starts Here: Technology and the Next Era of Legal Practice.”

“We need to decide whether to get on board with it or try to avoid it, but I don’t think you can avoid it,” Trautz said.

Jayne Reardon, formerly the executive director of the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism and a 2021 ABA Journal Legal Rebel, argued that the prevalence of generative AI tools has caused a shift in the way that lawyers and legal professionals think.

“It strikes me that going back to 1985 and before, what we’ve always focused on was doing the same thing faster,” Reardon said at that same panel discussion. “This is a different moment, where there is the opportunity for creation and doing things completely differently than in the past.”

The new oil

Speed, augmented by generative artificial intelligence, was the clear winner at the opening night of Techshow as 15 startups competed to win the annual startup pitch competition, aka Shark Tank for legal tech companies. The competitors created various technologies they believe lawyers could use in their practice—and the common denominators were products that would save firms time and money.

“Can you please raise your hand if you love the billable hour?” Scott Leigh, the co-founder and CEO of AltFee—a legal pricing and fixed-fee management software company based in Vancouver, British Columbia—asked during the competition. One hand popped up. “Almost without fail, the worst part of the job has to do with the billable hour. AI equals efficiency equals billable tasks taking less time,” Leigh said.

AltFee, which launched in 2020, was voted the winner of the eighth annual competition. Instead of relying on the traditional billable hour, AltFee uses technology that helps firms align pricing with tasks—many of which are done by AI. The company believes that 89% of law firms earn the same or more when pricing with AltFee.

The startups Beagle, Civille and Altumatim shared how they could transform the legal technology world by making searches faster; increasing traffic to firms’ websites; and harnessing the power of AI to reduce the time it takes to review documents, respectively.

As seconds ticked by on the large screens behind the presenters, it was clear to the competitors that lawyers are tired of wasting their time on just about everything. They don’t want to read through thousands of pages of documents; they don’t want to type redundant emails; and they want to locate their drafts with the click of a button.

“Imagine how much time that can save on a daily basis,” said Blake Adam, the co-founder and CEO of Startup Alley competitor Gretchen, an AI-powered legal email-drafting technology.

Saving time via automation was a topic on the minds of some show attendees. The legal arena, once a sluggish, slow-to-adapt-to-tech field, is snowballing into a zone where automation can make or break a law firm.

“It used to be a reactive business model,” said Bruce Karlson, the CEO of Word-Tech, a task automation company based in Kansas. A firm was hired, it did its job, and it waited for the next phone call. Not anymore. Today, he said, “the old data is the new oil.”

A firm needs a way to automate that data to create a streamlined business practice that it can use as a pipeline for new customers. The firm that has smart data and smart ways to process the work and the ability to keep the cost down will win.

That’s the reason why Beckie Pettis, co-founder of Pettis Webber Pacific, a 21-person estate planning firm in Vancouver, Washington, was attending her first legal tech conference. While her firm already uses a few generative AI tools, she was hoping to learn new ways to help her firm become even more powerful—without adding additional risk.

“I want a more specific awareness of the AI tools for the purposes of streamlining better legal production and design, plus better client experiences at a higher caliber,” Pettis said.

Sarah Gardiner, the marketing manager at Caret, attended with her team to educate firms about the brand—despite the slew of competitors literally surrounding her booth. Gardiner pointed out that her company does technology and automation—a problem she thinks most attorneys are seeking to solve.

“A lot of them are stuck in the processes in place that they already have, but they’re interested in seeing what’s out there if there’s another solution that can meet their needs,” Gardiner said, adding that automation is the most pressing need. “Some don’t even notice how often they’re doing the same thing over and over again, but you can streamline things,” she said.

This story was originally published in the June-July 2024 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Need for Speed: At ABA Techshow, generative AI tools and how they help lawyers work faster took center stage.”

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