Let’s Redirect Energy In Meetups, Hackathons, & Conferences to Progress

Time to put our energy into moving forward rather than burning time

A s we all know, the legal industry likes to focus on using lots of time to accomplish very little. After all, that is the business model on which most firms are still built. The billable hour did not become popular because it drove efficiency, it became popular because it drove revenue. Spend six hours on a three hour project and you were promoted to partner. While that may seem cynical, those who have lived through the experience know that the billable hour was not a good way to drive efficiency, quality, or timeliness habits.

Our modern incarnation of the “spend time” not “build value” approach to law is the plethora of meetups, hackathons, and conferences focused on chatter about law. Now, I understand that such gatherings can build enthusiasm for doing things differently, introduce people to new ideas, and can be fun. They just seldom result in anything substantive. They are rallies without follow up. Everyone shows up, has a good time, and then goes back home. Nothing happens.

If we compare what law likes to do to other areas, we can see some of the major differences. Conferences and meetings in other substantive fields have several purposes that overlap with what law does, but which also result in forward progress. The participants discuss and share substantive research. This both gives participants new ideas and encourages the sharing of substantive information. In law, we tell stories; in other fields, they share data.

Conferences in other areas also have the social aspect of law conferences. Researchers from around the world meet, talk, and share what they are doing. In law, I’ve found, hackathons, meetups, and conferences tend to be gossip sessions. Most participants have no data or research to share, so the focus of conversations turns to gossip. Fun, but not productive.

At this point I’ll pause. All of you who have an instance or two to share that is contrary to what I’ve said should vent now. Yes, there are times when law meetups, hackathons, and conferences rise above the average. But, I contend, they are few and far between. I seldom see teams from hackathons follow up with real applications after the event. Meetups are intended to be social events, and while they do well at that function they accomplish little else (well, they do allow the speakers to perform). Conferences typically involve little research or data. They lean more toward storytelling or opinions. In sum, a lot of energy (and money) is spent, but there is little to show for it.

There is one thing I have seen come from these events: the celebrity lawyer who moves from meetup, to hackathon, to conference. These celebrities are invited to speak, participate, or lead such events. They have little of substance to provide, but they say what the audience wants to hear.

It is easy to join the celebrity club. First, make sure you have someone who will pay for your travel and lodging. If you have sound financial backing, you can appear at as many events as you want. Second, say what the audience wants to hear, don’t provide critical commentary. Third, keep your name in the press. Foster your image as a leader by taking advantage of every opportunity to talk about yourself (I mean, your ideas). And finally, never get caught in the trap of having to show substance. Substance will be your death.

The trend towards accepting PR over substance has moved beyond the social gathering to our law schools. Top law schools are bringing on board, for a year or two, individuals who have nothing to offer but the PR and elixirs they sell at the industry’s social gatherings.

Imagine what would happen if the same practice were followed by, say, the biology, physics, or math department of a major university.

Department Chair: So, tell me about your research.
Candidate: Haven’t really done any.
DC: Well, tell me about your papers.
C: Haven’t published any.
DC: Hmm. Well, tell me about what you’ve been doing.
C: I go to meetups, hackathons, and conferences and tell people what they want to hear. Things like “our industry needs to change” or “PhD programs should be different.” They like that type of stuff.
DC: Well, that sounds great. Why don’t you join us for a year or two as a visiting professor.

This practice of hiring the PR/elixir seller isn’t an isolated incident, it seems to be happening at many schools. One questions the value to students and faculty from bringing these individuals on board. More importantly, one questions what it says about our profession.

Let’s Join The Rest Of The World

The heading describes much of what is missing in the legal industry. We have isolated ourselves from the rest of the world, to our detriment. So, I propose that we change course. Instead of vacuous meetups, hackathons, and conferences, let’s put some substance into what we do. If you want to have a meetup, then require each speaker to present real research backed by real data. Sort of an enhanced poster session. The speaker can’t just talk about stuff, they must show that they have been engaged in substantive research, that they have real results to report, and that they have a research agenda going forward.

To hold a hackathon, require that each team have a plan for following up after the event. Whatever a team does won’t end after three days, they must report out three, six, and 12 months down the road. The hackathon organizer should have the ability to follow up. They also should publish the results. Hackathons should be limited to those who want to develop and pursue real solutions, not just have fun (and miss school) for a few days. (Yes, I understand that eating pizza, drinking Red Bull, and playing around with your team is more fun than going to law school classes, but that should not be the purpose of hackathons.)

If you want to hold a conference, then the same type of rules apply as for meetups, though somewhat enhanced. Speakers must present in-depth research, not just talk for 45 minutes. If they can’t back up what they say with data, then it isn’t worth saying. Other participants can try out ideas in poster sessions. In other words, let’s turn conferences into substance. If someone wants to talk about how they believe AI is the next best thing, then they should show how they are using it and the results they are getting. If someone else likes project management, then they should give details: provide data on before and after. What did they really save in time or resources? Let’s stop the puffery and get to the substance.

I’ve heard many conference organizers muse about how to make their events more worthwhile. My suggestion: make them into substantive sessions rather than a chance to travel to another city and visit with friends.

Regaining Respect

Lawyers want to be treated with respect. We have spent a lot of time and money going through training and think of ourselves still as members of one of the learned professions. And yet, we don’t act in a way that shows we deserve that respect. We make decisions based on guesses and hunches, allow ourselves to be swayed by irrelevant factors, seldom use data, and overall have no standards to apply to what we do. To get respect, we must earn it.

We can start by working on the fundamentals. Let’s show that when we gather to discuss what is going on in the law and our profession, we base it on real data. Our discussions focus on what we know, not what we guess. Let’s show that those who get respect in our profession deserve the respect because of what they have done, not how successful they have been with a PR campaign. If we want to maintain our standing as a profession, we must act like professionals.


Ken is an author on innovation, leadership, and on the future of people, processes, and technology in the legal industry. He also is an adjunct professor and Research Fellow at Michigan State University’s College of Law. You can follow him on Twitter, connect with him on LinkedIn, and follow him on Facebook.