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[Editor’s note: As we kick off Legalweek 2018, here was my recap of Legalweek 2017, which originally appeared on Above the Law.]

When a legal conference opens with a keynoter who confesses his lack of familiarity with the legal profession, the talk can rapidly disintegrate. I’ve seen it happen. At best, the audience merely squirms in their seats while the lucky few in the back dart out. At worst, a storm of tweets mocks the speaker’s tone deafness until the Q&A period arrives, when all hell breaks loose.

Quite the opposite happened with Andrew McAfee, the opening-morning keynote speaker at Legalweek: The Experience, this year’s expanded version of the venerable Legaltech conference in New York. Although McAfee confessed to knowing little about the legal field, the author of The Second Machine Age (affiliate link), a New York Times bestseller, nonetheless captivated the tech-loving audience with his talk on the rapidly accelerating power of technology and the characteristics of the companies that successfully use that power to disrupt their industries.

Who will be the disruptors? “Evidence-driven, outward-looking platform builders with geeky leadership,” is McAfee’s answer. These are companies that are bold in their vision, iterative and experimental in their development, have a reverence for evidence and data, and are open and egalitarian in their structures, he believes.

Unfortunately, in the day-to-day scheme of things, disruption is hard to come by. Progress, for the most part, comes in baby steps. McAfee may have set disruption as the theme, but the changes on display at Legalweek were far more pedestrian. This is to be expected and is by no means a criticism of any company that exhibited there.

Perhaps the most disruptive change at the conference was parent company ALM’s reinvention of Legaltech as Legalweek. Honestly, Legaltech was crying out for a shake-up. Long a showcase of varied hardware and software products, Legaltech had in recent years become so dominated by e-discovery, both in its exhibit hall and programs, that it had become exclusionary of other technologies and interests.

The solution, engineered by John Stuttard, a trade show veteran who joined ALM last April as senior vice president of global events, was to broaden the conference’s scope, to offer a little something for everyone. In addition to Legaltech, there were tracks for small firms, legal marketers, legal knowledge professionals and legal CIOs, as well as a legal women’s forum.

Reconfiguring a conference that has been generally successful for more than three decades is a bold move, without doubt. But did it work?

As another in a long line of Legaltech shows, the conference was a success. I don’t know the official numbers on attendees and exhibitors. I’ve heard conflicting reports that they were up or down. The exhibit hall seemed to have fewer booths overall, but I cannot say for certain. But attendance aside, the conference was on par with other Legaltechs in its programming, activity and energy.

The Legalweek part of it, however, seemed largely invisible – not just to me, but to many people I spoke to. In fact, I spoke to a number of attendees who were oblivious to the conference’s parallel tracks, even though they all ran in the same hotel and shared the same exhibit hall.

Beyond the impressions of others I spoke with, I have little basis on which to say whether the parallel tracks worked. I attended only one of them, the LegalSmallFirm track, where I was a participant on two panels. While the panels were quite good, I thought (my participation notwithstanding), attendance at both was low. In a ballroom with a capacity of 600, we had maybe 30 or 40 people at each program – and few of them were actually lawyers in small firms.

One hurdle was the price of entry. A pass to the LegalSmallFirm portion of the conference was $975. That is a steep price for a small-firm lawyer, and it included only limited attendance at Legaltech sessions outside the LegalSmallFirm track. A pass to the women’s forum was even steeper — $1,895.

Legalweek brought a couple of other “firsts.” For the first time, at least in recent memory, the conference charged for admission to the exhibit hall — $45 in advance or $115 if purchased on site. Observationally, that did not seem to make any dent in exhibit hall traffic, and some exhibitors I spoke to said the traffic seemed on par with other years.

The other first, to my memory, was a session that was closed to the media, and another in which the media were instructed in advance not to quote one of the panelists. The irony is that attendees who were not registered as media were allowed to tweet from the presentations. So what was the point of a media gag?

Still, I give ALM and Stuttard credit for trying to shake things up. And for a first effort, it went well. No doubt, Legalweek will return next year, and, no doubt, “the experience” will be more refined.

As for the technology on display at Legaltech, I saw only one product that could potentially be considered disruptive. And, actually, it was not “on display” as an exhibitor, but is a company I met with off-site.

The company, The Expert Witness Exchange, is still at least several months away from launching its platform. But the idea has the potential to disrupt how lawyers find, vet and choose expert witnesses. It plans to use analytics to enable attorneys to make data-driven choices about experts, something that is not, to my knowledge, currently available on the market.

To say there were no disruptive products at Legaltech is not to say there were no innovative ones. There were, and I will be writing about some of the them at my blog Lawsitesblog.com. Progress, as I said earlier, typically comes in baby steps. While keynoter McAfee set disruption as the theme, I’ll take progress however it comes.