November 29 by Jason Smith
Just before Thanksgiving here in the U.S., I had the privilege of being invited to Alice Springs, Australia, to give a presentation on Artifical Intelligence (AI) in the legal profession at the ACC Australia National Conference. As someone who frequently presents at conferences and CLE events around the globe, I have to say that this year’s conference down under was truly a remarkable event for the hundreds of corporate counsel that attended. The conference had two primary themes: Engagement and Innovation.
The conference location was clearly part of the Engagement theme. Alice Springs is the third-largest town in the Northern Territory of Australia and is known as Mparntwe to the Arrernte, the original inhabitants who have lived in the Central Australian desert for thousands of years. The population of Alice, as it’s known to locals, is just under 28,000 with almost 19% being Aboriginal Australians. There are over a dozen languages spoken by the citizens.
The Aboriginal culture is based on respect – for the land and for the elders. As such, the program kicked off with a keynote by Shane Phillips, Indigenous Leader, CEO of Tribal Warrior and 2013 Australian of the Year discussing diversity and encouraging collaboration between corporate stakeholders and local communities. The plenary sessions often began with an “Acknowledgment of Country” where the speakers would make a statement acknowledging the original indigenous custodians of the land and paying respects to the elders, past, present and future. As an American with admittedly little historical knowledge of Australian national politics, it certainly put things into perspective as I reflected on the often contentious rhetoric back home.
And it certainly invoked a level of engagement among attendees that I haven’t witnessed at other conferences.
Innovation at ACC Australia 2017
The conference was also jam-packed full of discussions around Innovation – from a look at cyber-security, privacy and risk in the new information age, to the deployment of emerging technologies to help corporate legal departments operate. And speaking of legal operations, there were a few sessions on that – though it seems Australia may still be a few years behind the U.S. in terms of the growth of this area. Several references were made to the successful organizations like CLOC and ACC Legal Ops, recognizing that this role has exploded in corporate legal departments in the U.S. – despite the fact that very few Australian corporate legal departments have yet to adopt this very important role on their legal teams.
There was a track dedicated to technology innovation and it included several sessions on data governance, analytics and risk as well as my session entitled, “Will Robots Replace Lawyers? The Magic 8-Ball Says ‘Ask Again Later’” where I explored the tectonic shift occurring in the legal profession where artificial intelligence is being leveraged by legal teams like never before. The session began with a basic overview of Artificial Intelligence and many in the audience were surprised to learn that they use AI daily in their personal lives already. From automobiles with automated braking systems to mobile phones that can suggest restaurants based on GPS-location and coupon availability to credit card fraud alerts.
Once the audience was comfortable with the idea that 1) robots were not coming to steal their jobs, or take over the world… yet; 2) AI could be harnessed to do many of the mundane tasks, much faster and more accurately, than they can; and 3) that they can start small, think big and scale fast with the right technology, they became very engaged in the conversation, turning my presentation into more of a Q&A session.
It’s probably not surprising that the focus of my session revolved around AI in contract management. I explained several areas where they could easily leverage AI technologies like Machine Learning (ML) and Natural Language Processing (NLP), combined with chatbots to gain immediate benefits in managing their contract portfolios. I highlighted how some Apttus clients are already deploying Max in ways that eliminate the need for manual data entry, contract review and negotiation. I showed how ML and NLP is being used to review vast contract repositories to identify obligations and extract key metadata hidden in long-forgotten documents buried in antiquated databases, either existing legacy contracts of a company in anticipation of upcoming regulatory changes like ASC606 / IFRS15, or when performing due diligence during the typical Mergers & Acquisitions cycle.
The conference included several networking events in the evenings as well. There was a Welcome Reception at the Telegraph Station in which the entertainment was provided by a group called Drum Atweme, a collection of some amazingly talented and inspiring young Arrernte girls, some of whom spoke as many as seven languages. The group was originally founded in 2004 to meet the needs of at risk Aboriginal youth who were interested in music. It was an inspiring evening to say the least. Aside from networking with fellow attorneys, listening to beautiful music and ultimately having to evacuate ahead of a sudden thunderstorm, the event was topped off by a competition among the kids who instantly found an interest in seeing who could collect the most ribbons from attendee badges. It was something I hadn’t experienced at any other legal conference in my entire career.
And it was priceless.
The final night saw the awards banquet, where Karen Grumley, Pacific National Legal Counsel, was formally introduced as the new President of ACC Australia, followed by the presentation of the 2017 Australian In-house Lawyer of the Year Awards. Once the meals were consumed and the trophies hoisted high by the winners, the dancing began. And despite our outwardly appearances as reserved, conservative legal professionals, the party in the desert continued well into the early hours of day three.
During those final hours of the conference, ACC Australia launched the CLO Club, with sessions designed for the Chief Legal Officer, including round table discussions allowing CLOs to benchmark and network with peer organizations in a highly interactive format.
This was my second year to attend ACC Australia’s National Conference and I was honored to have been invited as a speaker. I highly recommend this conference for Australian lawyers – both in-house and outside counsel (oh, who am I kidding? I highly recommend this conference for any lawyer on planet earth). The foundations have been laid for an incredible organization providing all the networking, education and training that we see at the ACC in the U.S. with a much more tightknit group of professionals who truly give you the sense that they’re all in it together. Having finally been the guy with the different accent among the Australian legal community, I can honestly say I’ve never felt more welcome than I did down under. Next year’s conference is in Brisbane… and you can bet that I’m already working on new, innovative topics should I get the invitation to return.