I wish to start this article by thanking the 2022–2023 Grants and Awards Committee for providing me with resources to attend this year’s conference. I would encourage all CALL members to avail themselves of the opportunity that the Grants and Awards Committee offers each year to help subsidize attendance at the annual AALL conference. This article aims to share my reflections on some of the sessions I sat in on.
As the title of this article implies, I went into this conference thinking the hot topic that would dominate all the conversations would be generative AI and its impact on our profession. While it is true that there were many substantive discussions on this topic, as the conference progressed, it became clear to me that another topic became a very dominant undercurrent for me, and that was the idea of the invitation, how we offer it and maybe most importantly, to whom do we offer it.
The conference started for me the day before the conference officially opened. I attended the Private Law Librarians & Information Professionals (PLLIP) Summit on Saturday, 15 July. In an attempt at full disclosure, I was part of the planning committee for this year’s summit and moderated a “fireside” chat with one of the speakers (pipe included).
Adapting to the New Normal? The Psychology of Coping with Change
By far, the session that gave me the most to think about was Dr. Larry Richard’s discussion of the psychology of attorneys in a post-pandemic world. There was a great deal to unpack in Dr. Richard’s talk, but my key takeaway is that attorneys often lack resiliency. The reasons for this are varied, but it is usually due to a general negativity bias, and overall cognitive empathy in all professions has been on the wane.
Dr. Richards suggested we must look at our reactions to change to counter this. We always have a choice when confronted with some sort of change or complex situation. Much of this thinking is based on the work of noted psychologist and survivor of The Shoah, Dr. Viktor Frankl. Dr. Richard suggested that we can reframe our thoughts in difficult situations and thus short-circuit the threat circuit we all have running in our minds. There is something called the “dosage effect” in that the more we can inject positivity into our work environments, the more lasting effect there will be.
The key for all of us is how are we (read: me) going to be the exemplars of positivity and healthy optimism in our respective institutions? I was left with the happy challenge of being that exemplar in my firm. I don’t believe we are called to be pollyannish but take every opportunity, be it challenging or not, as a chance for personal growth and maybe, by trying to reframe the situation, a chance to demonstrate a healthy, positive mental attitude.
The American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) 2023 Annual Meeting and Conference, “Map our Future,” was hosted in Boston from Sunday, July 16 through Tuesday, July 18 2023
What truly set the tenor of the conference for me was Charles Vogl’s keynote speech on The Art of Community. He spoke of the power of invitation and his own experience of invitation while a divinity student at Yale University. He made a powerful statement that there is a difference between an invitation and an email list. So often, we (read: me) spend time collecting connections on LinkedIn or “friends” on social media that we forget the invitation.
According to Mr. Vogl, the invitation is absolutely essential if we want to build community. Mr Vogl also posited the notion that invitations can be so powerful that even if the invitation is refused, the refusal itself is of little consequence. Mr. Vogl’s story and speech were so powerful that I went through the rest of the conference looking at things through the lens of opportunities for invitation and connection. It was by far the most helpful keynote at any conference I have ever heard.
Working with vendors has always been an essential part of what we do as law librarians, and this led me to attend the session titled Collaborating with Vendors: Marketing, User Needs, and Product Development. In the years since I joined the profession (2007), I have seen relationships with vendors change and, sadly, often become more confrontational and less collaborative. In my opinion, the reason for this change lies with the vendors and law firms. I see less involvement by firm library committees and a greater reliance on accountants, consultants, and purchasing departments when contracts are negotiated.
Because of this, fewer practitioners, attorneys in particular, are in the decision loop, and sometimes products are canceled simply based on budgetary requirements and not on whether a specific service is needed or delivering value. On the vendor side, I have seen a diminution in the level of service being offered. Vendor reps are being forced to cover more firms; consequently, a deep understanding of a firm’s needs can go lacking.
One of the points made in the session is that we need to somehow re-develop a sense of assuming good faith and good intentions on the part of all parties when it comes to contract negotiations. Library staff can be instrumental in helping mediate the discussion between vendor SMEs and practice group leaders. It can also be helpful if people from the vendor’s engineering/development side can become involved in working with a firm’s library team or practice leadership to help explain how a particular feature of a vendor’s platform can help an attorney solve a legal question or answer a business question.
In my opinion, we cannot leave these discussions totally to a vendor’s sales and marketing team. By broadening who takes part in the discussion about the utility of a vendor’s platform, I think we will be able to get closer to realizing the good faith and good intentions of all involved and demonstrate the value to be gained by both parties to a negotiation.
Access to Justice
One of the topics that has been growing in importance is the access to justice. In the past, I thought this applied to people who did not have access to adequate counsel in civil or criminal matters or to the courts because of the lack of means. The session entitled Incarcerated People are Patrons Too! Improving Legal Information Services For Incarcerated People. Through this session, I learned of prisoners’ and detainees’ difficulties in accessing legal materials and any library facility in general. I also learned that the state libraries have been doing most of the heavy lifting in trying to change this, which started me thinking.
Most law firms have some sort of pro-bono practice and do excellent work, but what usually happens is that they undertake representation of a particular person or class of persons. When that matter is over, they move on to the next matter. It’s sort of the “wash, rinse, repeat” model of bringing about justice. I thought that maybe the firms should be taking up the challenge of helping prisoners and detainees have adequate access to legal materials and libraries in general. This session has inspired me to approach my firm’s pro bono practice on this subject.
As with any conference, some sessions hit the mark, and some don’t. This year, there was one session I sat in on that turned out to be counterproductive. I was sitting in on a session entitled Diversity and Inclusion Symposium: Are We Neglecting “Inclusion”? I was looking forward to a lively discussion on how we can move beyond diversity just being a numbers game (how many of X type of associates/partners/staff are there at a firm or law school). I must admit that the discussion was fascinating, and many good points were being made until somebody commented on all the artwork in their library being pictures of “old white men.” Upon further reflection on that comment, I had to say I was deeply offended.
I don’t consider myself anywhere near ready for the scrap heap, but to some, I may be regarded as an old white man. I began to question whether or not I had a place in the discussion around diversity. I began to think that putting up with comments like this is the price I must pay as we move towards a more diverse and inclusive profession. I wondered if my invitation to help build that diverse and inclusive profession was rescinded. I sought guidance from AALL leadership, and I am sorry to say that what I got was a highly nuanced non-answer.
It took talking with my firm’s head of DEI and a partner whose opinion I trusted and valued to assure me that my contribution was not only wanted in the DEI discussion but desperately needed. My invitation had been validated.
In conclusion, I would say that this conference experience was a good one, maybe even better than last year’s conference in Denver, because the specter of COVID-19 was less present. The meeting left me with a renewed commitment to make more meaningful invitations to people to include them in my personal and professional life, and that is one thing you won’t be able to do with generative AI.