One of my favorite legal tech Conferences is put on by the American Association of Law Librarians, better known as AALL. I attend every year and write about what I observe. My articles on previous shows can be found here, here, here and here.
This year’s Show was July 15 through 18. Unfortunately, it was sandwiched in the middle of my lengthy travel schedule. I have had numerous ABA leadership responsibilities and spoke at an industry conference, all of which kept me on the road more than usual. I had to miss the opening Sunday night session and reception. Because of all this, I haven’t gotten around to providing my thoughts on this show. Under the maxim, better late than never, here goes.
The Law Librarians conference was held in Boston. As always, AALL focuses on the future of law librarianship and how the profession can adapt to the changing landscape of legal information. Fittingly, the theme of the show was “Map Our Future.”
This year’s Show focused in large part on the transformative role of technology and generative AI in legal. There were lots of discussions and presentations around topics like technology, data analytics, and the evolving role of law librarians. In addition, there were networking opportunities and, as always, a chance for attendees to explore products and services from vendors. But to be expected, generative AI dominated the discussions.
The Evolving Role of the Law Librarian
Historically, law librarians were charged with maintaining large paper repositories of legal knowledge. But in one of the early sessions I attended, one of the panelists, Jean O’Grady, an AALL member and writer of the well-known Dewey B Strategic blog, offered an interesting and perhaps telling comment for a conference looking to map the future. According to O’Grady, law librarians need to call themselves something different mainly because what they do today is far removed from the traditional view of the law librarian.
A library is less a place than a service, and librarians are the ones that provide that service.
I have always thought the same thing. And while the argument for keeping the name is that it means something to constituents, it conveys the wrong impression. In fact, the term law librarian may be the opposite from what they really do, especially in today’s world. Labeling the folks that attend the AALL conference as librarians is a misnomer. It’s a holdover from days law firms and academics had large paper libraries.
But today, the library is often more virtual than paper, and the person in charge of it is more of a knowledge management worker. A library is less a place than a service, and librarians are the ones that provide that service. Rather than managing and cataloging books, law librarians are charged with assisting lawyers with technology and using critical virtual tools. They are essential legal professionals.
Today’s librarian is responsible for such things as capturing and enabling the reuse of lawyers’ collective wisdom. They manage the processes and systems that identify, save, profile, disseminate, and use prior work. Today, of course, that work is stored digitally. Law librarians are charged with managing the accumulated expertise to solve legal and business problems. They are responsible for the substantive technology that drives quality and efficiency. Their jobs are important and rapidly evolving. Law librarians need to be on top of technology and invocation and be nimble. It’s a tall order.
Because this is what today’s librarians really do, they come to the AALL conference with a different mindset. To learn from each other. To enhance their ability to do their jobs. To learn about new technology and where the profession may be headed. To some extent, the attendees have more in common with the lawyers and legal professionals attending ABA’s TechShow than those participating in LegalWeek or even ILTA. The focus is knowledge and learning.
So with that rapidly evolving backdrop of what today’s librarians do, especially with generative AI changing the job even as we speak, what was this year’s conference like?
In our weekly legal journalist roundtable, there was a feeling that this year’s show seemed a little disjointed. And that it perhaps lacked some of the enthusiasm of the past. I felt some of that. But the fact that the Conference came when it did in my travel schedule, and I missed the opening gala may have contributed to that feeling.
But the vibe at this year’s show could also be due to more general circumstances. The biggest issue on everyone’s mind is generative AI, which was in full evidence at the show. Lots of sessions on generative AI. Lots of vendors were talking about it. Generative AI dominated the hallway discussions and networking.
The problem is that generative AI and it’s potential is so new and it is developing so fast that no one knows where it’s going
But the problem is that generative AI and it’s potential is so new and it is developing so fast that no one knows where it’s going. It’s hard to predict what changes it will create for the profession in general and law librarians in particular. One need only think about Microsoft’s AI product, Co-Pilot, which will be out soon. Given the ubiquitous nature of Microsoft products in legal, who knows how Co-Pilot will change the profession, knowledge management and the responsibilities of law librarians.
So, the future and discussion of it by necessity have to be a little vague and ill-defined. But if law librarians knew all the answers, they would sell their AI knowledge for $600 million, as a recent vendor did.
The Exhibit Hall
The logistics of the vendor hall also may have impacted the perceived disjointed feel. It was cut in half by a large cement wall, and you had to walk down a long corridor to get from one side to the other. It was like two separate exhibit halls, making the vendor space seem smaller. I know what it’s like to work with exhibit space limitations. AALL did the best they could under the circumstances, but it still made the exhibit hall seem less robust than in years past even if it really wasn’t.
AALL managed to curate a diverse array of vendors
I don’t have numbers but do note that the exhibits seemed a bit of a mixed bag this year. There has been a lot of consolidation in the industry. So that made the number of vendors offering traditional legal tech products to seem reduced. But AALL nevertheless managed to curate a diverse array of vendors. These vendors included academic institutions and several vendors from outside legal. The latter seemed intent on adopting and marketing their products to legal. And several vendors marketed only paper products which was interesting.
Just like the programming, which dealt with subjects the future of which is still uncertain, the AALL vendor space reflected this uncertainty. The market is clearly changing. Vendors and attendees grappled with the uncharted territory that lies ahead. But the notion of a law librarian’s role being transformed into that of a curator of collective legal wisdom was underscored. The Conference highlighted the growing significance of law librarians in driving informed decision-making and problem-solving.
Thomson Reuters Reception
The conference ended with a nice reception from Thomson Reuters. Thomson Reuters did a nice thing: it invited everyone. In the past, so many vendor parties required an invitation. Most of the time, the invitations are not hard to get: you just have to know someone and know about the event. The fact that TR invited everyone shows an openness and an understanding of the critical role all the attendees play in the legal space.
So all in all, it was a great conference. It was a little different than in prior years. But we need to get used to differences. Things like generative AI, consolidation, and the need to be nimble are impacting the profession. And, for that matter, legal tech conferences.
Thanks, AALL for helping us see that.