This year, the AALL (American Association of Law Librarians) Annual Meeting & Conference returned to Washington, D.C., for the first time in a decade, as more than 2,000 attendees (up from 1,400 last year) gathered July 13–16 under the theme Capitalizing on Our Strengths.
In addition to the conference, some 60 AALL members from 25 states capitalized on the capital location, spending a Day on the Hill doing advocacy training and lobbying. They focused on three key issues: the passage of bipartisan legislation to free up access to federal court records through the PACER system (the Electronic Court Records Reform Act of 2019; HR 1164); full funding of the Library of Congress, and especially the Law Library of Congress; and restoration of Net Neutrality protections (the Save the Internet Act of 2019; S 682). Noting that within a day of their visits, another Congress member had signed on to co-sponsor the PACER bill, AALL government relations director Emily Feltren pronounced the event a great success.
Opening Keynote and Business Meeting
After some business meetings and workshops, regular programs got underway with a moving keynote address, “A Law Library Saved My Life,” by Georgetown University law professor Shon Hopwood. Hopwood used the story of his life journey from convicted bank robber, to jailhouse lawyer, to attorney and law professor as context for a plea to reform the American criminal justice system. He credited an assignment to work in the prison library with turning his life around. Using his developing legal skills to get two cases accepted for review by the U.S. Supreme Court and to win sentence reductions and other victories for fellow inmates, he learned the importance of service to others.
Hopwood also became convinced that the majority of his fellow prisoners are redeemable and deserve a second chance, contrary to the negative messages that “you are garbage” and “you will be back” that are reinforced daily by the conditions of prison life. He closed by describing his current efforts on behalf of criminal justice reform, and he encouraged attendees to get involved—to visit prisoners and to consider teaching a course for them.
Save for the annual business meeting and a forum for board of directors candidates, the opening keynote was the only plenary session. Points of note from the annual business meeting include the passage of resolutions commending state political leaders for securing the adoption of the Uniform Electronic Legal Material Act (UELMA), which mandates free public digital access to state legal documentation. Since last year, the number of states that have adopted UELMA has grown to 21, along with Washington, D.C. As for the financial status of AALL, outgoing treasurer Jean Willis reported a healthy picture, with total assets of more than $6 million and 2018 annual revenue of more than $4 million, up 1% from the previous year.
There were a variety of program formats. At one end of the spectrum were formal, half-day deep dives on a single topic attended by hundreds, and at the other were 45-minute unconference-style informal conversations among a handful of participants. The overall effect was one of learning opportunities geared to a wide range of interests and learning styles.
A deep-dive session on the federal and state court analytics market was both insightful and well-attended. The exploding market for analytical tools has been driven by attorneys’ business needs and enabled by the growing digital accessibility of state and federal legal material, along with advances in AI technology. In the increasingly competitive legal business, attorneys are seeking advantages in areas such as understanding how different judges tend to rule—and why—and ensuring that they haven’t missed any relevant precedents or points of law. An array of vendors has responded with new and frequently enhanced products.
The deep dive opened with a presentation on a test of seven products, carried out collaboratively by 27 law firm and law school librarians and involving 16 test questions. The results were tabulated in a detailed spreadsheet. So which product was the overall winner? There wasn’t one, of course. Needs vary, so buyers must make their own decisions based on their particular requirements.
This was followed by a panel of vendors discussing the state of the art in capturing and analyzing state court materials—even to the level of county courts. A challenge is that there is no universally adopted standard for file formatting and labeling, so the proliferation of state and local jurisdictions means that the aggregator must deal with multiple inconsistent practices. Moreover, entity extraction—the identification and processing of personal and corporate names—continues to require a “human in the loop” to make final decisions. Natural language processing systems still cannot be trusted to perform flawlessly on their own.
The third and final panel included senior product managers from several vendors assessing their progress to date and the prospects for further enhancements of their capabilities. They highlighted challenges in integrating information and analytics into workflows, anticipating user needs, and maintaining privacy, as well as other ethical considerations. While the vendors presented a generally optimistic picture, audience questions and comments revealed a degree of frustration with vendor performance that hasn’t always lived up to expectations.
Faculty Services Librarians
An equally insightful but much smaller session dealt with the developing role of faculty services librarians in academic law libraries. Faculty services librarians from about a dozen law schools gathered in a circle for an informal 45-minute discussion. They compared notes on roles and responsibilities, which include research assistance for faculty scholarship and promoting the status and impact of their schools and of individual faculty members by ensuring that faculty publications are findable and accessible. Challenges include advertising, encouraging faculty members to participate in an institutional repository, and dealing with new technologies and developments, such as recommending participation in ORCID and adapting to recent changes in the methodology for U.S. News & World Report’s law school rankings.
Most of the approximately 90 exhibitors in the exhibit hall were specifically focused on the legal information marketplace. Vendors I talked to professed to be pleased with the overall traffic and enthusiasm. Products and services on display largely echoed themes of more content and more technology integration that were found in the program sessions.
Dominant vendors Thomson Reuters (Westlaw), LexisNexis, and Bloomberg Law had their own distinctive approaches and highlights. Westlaw emphasized the Quick Check capability recently added to its Westlaw Edge product. LexisNexis demonstrated an advance version of its forthcoming Counsel release, and Bloomberg presented enhancements to its services under the rubric SmartLaw. Smaller vendors presented an array of innovations. For example, Gavelytics and Tyler Technologies both offered products for the access and analysis of state and local court documentation, while vLex offered an expanding database of international legal materials.
All in all, this year’s vibrant AALL conference closed with optimism and enthusiasm for next year’s conference, which will be held July 11–14, 2020, in New Orleans.