In 1969 mankind took a giant leap forward: the British and Irish Association of Law Librarians (BIALL) was formed! Its annual “study conference” has been a highlight of each year for law librarians ever since; the 50th-anniversary event was no exception. Around 250 attendees, exhibitors and speakers converged on Bournemouth, a seaside destination on England’s south coast, to learn, network and celebrate. Over forty seminars, talks, product demonstrations and meetings took place over the three days of the conference—too many to describe here, but these were some highlights.
Fifty years of legal change
The special guest speaker was the most senior judge in the UK: Baroness Hale of Richmond, the President of the Supreme Court. Reflecting on her long career, she set out what she considered to be the five most fundamental developments in the legal landscape since she was an undergraduate at Cambridge University in the 1960s:
- the growth in judicial review of administrative action;
- the impact of European Union law;
- the writing of human rights into UK law;
- the recognition of equality as a fundamental legal right; and
- the devolution of lawmaking from Westminster to regional assemblies and other bodies.
Baroness Hale spoke with great authority on these trends and related personal anecdotes along the way, particularly about her experiences as a “serial smasher of glass ceilings for women”. She recalled the 1960s, when she could not apply for a mortgage without a male guarantor, when women were told openly during job interviews that their salary for a particular role would be set at two-thirds of the rate for men, and when unaccompanied women were not allowed into public bars during the day. Of all the changes discussed, she believes the recognition of equality had been the most far-reaching.
Artificial intelligence: reality or hype?
Robin Chesterman, Head of Product at Justis, delivered a scathing attack on the hype surrounding the use of artificial intelligence in law. He showed us the agenda for the 3rd International Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Law from 1951. Yes, you read that correctly: 1951. The hype is nothing new, but it is more extreme than before—“peak nonsense”, as he put it. AI is a term used so broadly that it is meaningless. Previous similar hype bubbles such as inference engines (1960s), fuzzy logic (1970s), expert systems, neural networks and big data have all promised more than they delivered and have been followed by a “winter of disenchantment.” Robin discussed in some detail the principles of machine learning—which he differentiated from AI as real, rather than words on a PowerPoint slide—and explained how impossible it is to apply those principles to legal information in a way which could lead to the creation of “robot lawyers”. Machine learning depends on formalised data, but legal information such as legislation, cases and commentary does not fit into neat boxes in the way that other topics can. Law is linguistic, not data-driven. The idea of a machine being able to actually understand legal language, apply it to a given matter and offer sound advice remains a fantasy, he said.
Social media for lawyers
Kevin Poulter, a partner in the Employment team at Freeths LLP, advised us on how to use social media for professional purposes. After entertaining us with several horror stories of legal tussles resulting from reckless posts, he stressed that common sense is vital. Think of it as being similar to working on a train, he said—there could always be someone looking over your shoulder. Or on social media, millions of people.
Design thinking for law librarians
Sophie Thomas of Osborne Clarke walked us through the four stages of Design Thinking: Research, Ideate (a term she disliked, along with her audience), Prototype and Implement. Design Thinking, or Service Design, puts people at the centre of our work. It strives for tangible, hands-on activity rather than theoretical concepts; trying to make the invisible visible, turning ideas into physical objects. It tries to escape from software and technology into the realm of user-centric thinking, to “create an experience that meets the functional and emotional needs of customers.” In the librarian’s increasingly digital world, this approach could well be a way of keeping in touch with our users.
With an awards dinner, an exhibition featuring a host of publishers and suppliers, and a 50th birthday party, this was a busy and rewarding three days. I wonder what will be on the agenda at the 100th anniversary?
This article was originally published on LinkedIn: LAC Group at BIALL’s 50th Anniversary Conference.