The Legalweek 2022 Conference: A Return to the Old Normal?

The Legalweek 2022 Conference: A Return to the Old Normal?

Zero to sixty. Two weeks, two back-to-back live conferences, after not having been to one for two years.

I already wrote about the first of the two, ABA TECHSHOW in Chicago, the timing of which made it a karmic bookend to a long strange trip. For many in attendance there, TECHSHOW 2020 had been their last live conference before the pandemic, and TECHSHOW 2022 their first re-entry to live conferencing.

That was followed this week by Legalweek in New York City, where the same was true for many: This was their first live conference since leaving Legalweek two years earlier.

Maybe it was because this was my second live conference, but what most struck me this week was how normal it all felt.

The Hilton, for decades the conference’s default venue, buzzed as it always had. The exhibit hall was packed tight with vendors showing off their wares and offering up their swag. End-of-day parties offered libations and lubrication to eager crowds.

Unlike TECHSHOW, which had been hybrid with both both live and virtual programs, this was live only. Few conference-goers wore masks as they rushed to the next seminar, browsed the exhibit hall, or mingled at parties.

It was a dramatic and — for most attendees — welcome counterpoint to the past two years. But the normalcy of it all was somewhat jarring. As if reading my mind, the day of my return home, a headline in The New York Times declared, After 2 years of Pandemic Life, Turn Toward Normalcy Is a Shake-Up.

The article offered the reminder that, on the two-year anniversary of the World Health Organization’s declaration of the pandemic, the virus has not gone away. “Rates of new infections, while improving, are still higher now than the beginning of last summer.”

In fact, the organizers of Legalweek are still hedging their bets even for next year. Having had to postpone this year’s show from its originally scheduled Jan. 31-Feb. 3 dates to mid-March because of the Omicron surge, they have scheduled next year’s show to again be in March, just in case another surge occurs over the next holiday season in November and December.

But at the Hilton, it certainly felt as if the pandemic was a thing of the past. The only tangible signs that it continues were the vaccination checks for registrants, the few masked faces, and the persistence of hand sanitizer as swag.

Otherwise, it was all so normal. In fact, there were moments when it felt hard to believe that two years had intervened since we were last together. I said much the same of TECHSHOW, writing:

Two years after we’d last seen each other, it was as if it had been just yesterday. Except now those friends seemed all the more dear, the opportunity to spend time together all the more precious.

Yet there was something different about the “normalcy” of Legalweek. Maybe because it was bigger than TECHSHOW, maybe because it draws more of a large-law and corporate audience, the normalcy felt less precious and more business-like. Frankly, it felt more like business as usual.

From the vantage point of ALM, the company that produces Legalweek, it certainly approached business as usual. ALM’s CEO Bill Carter told me that this year’s attendance was about 60% of 2020’s attendance. But the number of vendors that exhibited at the show exceeded the 2020 number, he said.

Carter also said that overall revenue from the show was on par with 2020. In part, he said, this was because more attendees bought higher-level passes — a fact that also suggests they were serious about the legal tech market.

Of the vendors I spoke to, I heard mixed reports. All seemed pleased with the numbers of attendees coming through the exhibit hall, but they differed on whether the attendees were there as serious prospects or just to surf the swag.

But on one point the vendors all agreed: A live exhibit hall beats a virtual exhibit hall hands down.

After two years away, it was good to be back and to have it all feel so normal. But I keep thinking about that New York Times headline, and about why the return to normalcy feels a bit jarring.

Over the last two years, we have all spoken so often of the “new normal,” of the silver lining that seemed to be spurring lasting changes in how we practice law and go about our professional lives. Hybrid is here to stay, we’ve all oft repeated, with all the benefits that brings for clients, for courts, and for legal professionals.

Yet here was this decidedly non-hybrid conference, where the only option to participate was live. Yes, it felt wonderfully normal and, yes, it seemed to be very successful.

But it was also evidence of how easily we can slip back into the way things always were. Was it, in some way, a harbinger that our return to normal could end up, sooner or later, becoming a return to the old normal?

For those who attended Legalweek, it was so easy to fall into the feeling that it was much like old times. Nothing wrong with that. Still, I hope that as we emerge from the pandemic, we do not settle too easily into the way things used to be. I hope that the comfort of the old normal does not cause us to abandon the gains of the new normal.