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Law Librarians Ready to Dive Into Tech

Updated: Nov 18, 2022

In September 2017, the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) published an influential essay by Ed Walters. Walters exhorts law librarians to roll up their sleeves and wield for themselves the powerful tools grouped under the umbrella of “artificial intelligence.” The full benefits of AI, he argues, will only be realized in a “read/write” world where law librarians create solutions, not just consume them.

On July 14, AALL members will converge in Baltimore for the association’s annual conference. The spirit of Walters’ call-to-arms inhabits the official conference theme: “From Knowledge to Action.” Walters will lead a session devoted entirely to enabling law librarians to get past the “hype” of artificial intelligence and use it on substantive projects. There will also be a two-and-a-half-hour “deep dive” session that will familiarize attendees with the all-important APIs (application program interfaces) that govern much of how software applications exchange information. Librarians looking to get into heavy-duty “data wrangling” will benefit from a session on the open-source platform OpenRefine. Another session will teach librarians how to create their chatbots. These are just a few examples of the many action-oriented sessions scheduled over the three-day event.

It is a fitting theme for the final conference under Greg Lambert’s tenure as AALL’s president. Lambert is no stranger to creating solutions, having very early in his career helped to construct, a free resource for legal information for the State of Oklahoma. Lambert’s widely-loved Three Geeks and a Law Blog generally eschew company product pitches and focuses instead on the strategies and solutions law firms can implement themselves.

All of the above points to a future where technology solutions can increasingly be found not just in the Exhibitor Hall or the ever-popular Cool Tools Cafe (think speed-dating for software) but in the presentations (and hallway conversations) of librarians themselves. While this trend might seem like a bad thing for legal tech companies at first glance, it is not so simple. Indeed, it could well provide a boon.

Firms working towards their own AI or analytics solutions will quickly see the advantages of ensuring their internal data is easily accessible and in formats that lend themselves to data science. Many forward-thinking law firms are already well on their way. To borrow from the old saying, these lowered barriers to experimentation could raise all ships, facilitating internal and third-party solutions.

Moreover, there will be substantial opportunities for legal tech companies to provide law librarians with tools and data to better experiment. Perhaps not surprisingly, Walters’ company, Fastcase, is already getting started. Last year they released an AI Sandbox, and at AALL this year, they will debut an “Analytics Workbench”, which has the potential to serve as a Gutenberg Press for legal analytics. Imagine the sacred truths of “Moneyball” analysis spread beyond the priestly hands of pioneering companies like Lex Machina and given to the masses. Meanwhile, new companies like Gavelytics are opening up entire new continents of data by bringing previously inaccessible state court data into the AI arena.

We are in no danger of running out of intelligent things to do in legal informatics. Not every experiment will work, but the price of failed experiments will pale compared to the value of successful solutions. This is especially true given the increasing expectations of in-house counsel. During a recent podcast, Microsoft Assistant General Counsel Jason Barnwell noted that his company will be looking for law firms to remove the shackles on innovation and efficiency and to “think differently about how to do our work.”  The members of AALL—including law librarians and knowledge management directors—are well-positioned to answer that call.

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