Sexism at LegalTech?

Last year, I did a quick run through LegalTech, the trade show for businesses with a lifespan of about a month to show how cool their legal technology is. It was the “swag report,” and it was for fun, though some of the vendors who got caught on video didn’t think it was funny at all. Defectum humoris non curat lex.*

I didn’t return this year. One year of wading through that crap was enough. It was a crashing bore.  And there was someone who will follow my lead, saving me from any thoughts of having to suffer LegalTech again.

But there are others who not only went to LegalTech this year, but did so because they wanted to go. I know, but it’s true. My old pal, Niki Black, was there.  She has an interest in legal technology that I don’t necessarily share, which is cool. Each to their own. And she decided to test these “innovators” while she was at it.

After talking to all of these innovators, I decided take a tour of the Exhibit Hall. But instead of seeking out booth swag, I decided to recreate an experiment that I conducted at the ILTA conference last fall.

The rules were simple: I would slowly walk through all sections of the Exhibit Hall and try to make eye contact with and smile at those manning the booths. Anyone who provided a verbal response to me, even one as simple as “hi,” made the cut. I walked through each section of the Exhibit Hall, which housed over 160 vendors, three times. It took me nearly 1.5 hours.

During her leisurely stroll, she ran into some friends, who agreed to act as a “control” for her experiment. They were, of course, male.

So just to sum up, both Tim and Jack walked by a section of booths only one time, not three, and between the two of them they walked by approximately 50 booths. They were acknowledged eight times total.

I walked by 160+ booths at least three times and was acknowledged a mere six times.


Not exactly a scientific experiment, but I feel fairly comfortable declaring this: Houston, we have a problem. It’s called sexism. And it ain’t pretty.

Niki understates the problem. There are a handful of people who have a significant influence on how these “new, proved, greatest thing EVER!!!” innovators are perceived in the blawgosphere. There aren’t a whole lot of lawyers who give a damn, and fewer still who have sufficient interest to note their existence.  And Niki is one of those few, and one who would be inclined to look favorably toward what others would be less inclined to promote.

In other words, if there is anybody whose ass these innovators should kiss, it’s Niki’s. It’s like Restaurant Per Se treating the New York Times food critic like dirt.  These budding businesses should have had a picture of Niki in hand so that they could gush on her in the hope of currying her favor.

Instead, Niki was largely ignored.

I also walked away wondering if I’d somehow acquired the superpower of invisibility.

But was it sexism?  The nature of innovators tends to be rather progressive, so that one would suspect that they were acutely aware of issues like sexism, and would be attuned to its insidious nature.  Were these just the stupid or venal misogynist innovators?

Or did it relate to another facet of the nature of innovators, that they couldn’t care less about anything other than their mutt of a tech product gaining traction and money?  But that doesn’t explain why, seeing Niki walking through the tech Kasbah, they would assume that she had nothing to offer them. Was she not worthy of giving them a purchase order? Was her insights on the internet not important enough to spread the good word about their business?  Why not? Why was this titan of legal technology treated as if she was . . . a girl?

Having been through the LegalTech Exhibit Hall, and suffered the pitches about nothing of any consequence, I’m constrained to concur with Niki’s conclusion. She was ignored because she was female. She was ignored because the exhibitors didn’t think some woman walking through was worth enough to their potential bottom line to even bother with a quick “hi.”

But there is a different message to this sexism that shouldn’t be ignored.  It’s easy to say you’re not sexist, and to sincerely believe in gender equality, when there is no money on the table. The Exhibit Hall folks were busy doing what the desperate and clueless do, scanning for the person they thought most likely to give them something of benefit.  Screw their gender politics. They want money. How quickly such banal concerns as stereotyping go out the window when there’s a buck to be made.

When they saw Tim Baran and Jack Grow, they plugged them into their prejudice and figured it was worth their while to pretend to give a shit that they existed.  When they saw Nicole Black, not so much.

Money knows no gender, but stereotypes die hard. By ignoring Niki Black, these innovators really blew it. When it comes to the choice between equality and a buck, progressive innovators made their choice to go with the guys.

*Hat tip to David Post.

26 thoughts on “Sexism at LegalTech?

  1. mb

    At this point, I don’t think it’s fair to discount the possibility that a man might believe that he is in violation of some sort of harassment standard any time he speaks to a woman without her prior, verbal consent. Maybe you’re right, and they just don’t see the dollar signs when a woman walks by, or maybe they just don’t want to go viral on the internet for saying hi. When you wrote this morning that women now claim that an institution’s failure to punish anyone they point at, without evidence, or sometimes against the weight of evidence, is hostile to them, I have a hard time taking any of their complaints seriously, even when backed by highly scientific evidence like, as here, a woman walking through a venue a couple of times and self reporting what she wanted to find.

      1. mb

        And more to the point, I can’t even guess what standard would disprove “sexism”. A cursory look around your nearest shopping mall or department store will show that a 50/50 allocation of retail space, particularly the most prime, visible space is not the norm, and I haven’t heard any woman complain that retailers are sexist against men.

        I just cannot care about this. And nothing she can ever say will ever make me care. Ever.

          1. mb

            The second part didn’t occur to me until after. And I do care about me not hearing women’s ridiculous complaints. What I don’t care about is if it hurts her feelz or if she expects me to do something about it for her.

  2. Steven M. Warshawsky

    What a shocker! A bunch of legal tech geeks afraid to talk to an attractive young woman who is smiling and making eye contact with them. I don’t think the word for this is “sexism” . . . .

  3. Paulus

    Ugh, my high school Latin is rising up like a foul bile. Your quote reads “Lack of moisture does not cure the law” You probably want “Defectum festivitatis non curat lex.”

    Now to go wash out my mouth…

      1. David M.

        Even if I’d seen it before I caught my flight, just this once, I wouldn’t have corrected your Latin. Our word “humor” comes from the Aristotelian theory that our moods are produced by imbalances between four bodily fluids: blood, phlegm, and black and yellow bile.

  4. maz

    Only four (or eight; hard to tell from context) acknowledgements from 50 booths? Either the legal technology market is so painfully nascent the creators are handling their own sales, or it generates so much dough it doesn’t *need* any more sales. Having at times worked trade shows for everything from independent record labels to Mom-and-Pop telephone companies to sex clubs, the goal was acknowledge every person who walked past — if you get them to make eye contact, they often feel obligated at least to come over and see what you’re pimping — rather than to try run a mental D&B on passers-by. (Of course, I’ve not worked in an industry with obvious signifiers, like white shoes, to go by.) Still, from Black’s description, I’m picturing more a trade show for feelthy French postcards, with customers sidling up to the booths, avoiding eye contact, than any sort of professional exposition.

  5. LTMG

    Badly designed experiment which, under the microscope of rigorous statistical analysis, would prove nothing. On the other hand, it could well be worth repeating the experiment after someone designs it properly.

    1. SHG Post author

      If you’ve ever been to a trade show, you avoid eye-contact with the exhibitors at all costs, lest they grab you and won’t let you go unless you beat them off with a stick. It may well be a poorly designed experiment, but in this situation, it doesn’t take much.

      1. Turk

        Been there, done that, got besieged even when looking away.

        I likewise must agree that there are only two reasonable explanations, either sexism or general fear/insecurity talking to women.

        1. SHG Post author

          I considered the geek factor (fear of women), but most of the people staffing booths are women, and the quest for money transcends even the fear of flying, so I suspect the guys who have never spoken to a living woman before would overcome their fears and push themselves to do so if they thought it was in their financial best interest.

          1. Corporate Tool

            In-house counsel shun wearing anything on the exhibit floor that identifies us out of self-defense. A female colleague describes some of those exhibitors as stawkers. Nicole should borrow a corporate ID insread of press credentials next year and see what happens. I think it is not sexism as much the absence of anything marking her as their chosen prey.

            1. SHG Post author

              When I walked the exhibit floor last year, my tag read “Curmudgeon.” I was deluged with interest. Stalkers is a good description.

  6. EH

    Facial neutrality, disparate result. Hard to classify that as “sexist” or not.

    Most lawyers who have purchasing power (partners and other high-status positions) are also, disproportionately, men. The disproportion is actually quite large. That status is, almost certainly, the result of sexism.

    That is also an accurate description of reality.

    So if you are looking for efficiency and your job is “aim most accurately at the people with checkbooks,” you would apply a facially-neutral rule to reality and you’d probably focus on men.

    If your job is “treat all people the same irrespective of their likelihood to buy your product” then you would act specifically to counteract reality and you would focus on everyone.

    Facial neutrality, applied to an existing non-neutral environment, will produce differing outcomes.

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