As the American Association of Law Libraries wrapped up its annual conference in Boston last month, I checked out of my hotel and made my way through the Prudential Center shopping mall that connects the Hynes Convention Center to the various hotels that hosted the conference’s attendees.

As I passed a food court, a woman wearing a conference badge stopped me and asked what I thought of the conference. Before I could even collect my thoughts enough to answer, she pointed to a nearby group of people, all from the conference, and said they had just been discussing it, and agreed it had been an “unconference.”

She did not mean that in the complimentary sense of the trendy small conferences with no agendas that are called unconferences. She meant, she explained, that the conference never coalesced into what felt like a conference — into an event with a cohesive theme and clear purpose.

Had she not beat me to the punch, I would given her a similar answer, and I immediately agreed with the assessment of her and the others in her group.

Honestly, it both pained and disappointed me to say that. In the past, I have been a fan of this conference. For example, in advance of last year’s conference, I wrote:

“Often, when I hear people rattle off the names of the leading legal technology conferences in the United States, this one is not even on their radar. That is a huge mistake. Both in its programs and its exhibit hall, the AALL conference is one of the top conferences for anyone interested in legal tech.”

This year, however, the conference seemed to lack the vitality of prior years. It has taken me a couple weeks to coalesce my thoughts on why that was, but I was spurred to write this by my friend Steve Embry’s post yesterday at his TechLaw Crossroads blog, Navigating the Evolving Legal Landscape: The 2023 AALL Conference and the Brave New World.

As Steve notes, we had discussed the conference on our Legaltech Week show and agreed that, as Steve put it, “this year’s show seemed a little disjointed.”

No Center of Gravity

Partly to blame, in my opinion, was the venue. Given that I live not far from Boston, I was happy to see it chosen as the host city. But, once at the conference, it quickly became clear that the Hynes/Prudential layout is not well suited for a smallish conference such as this. The Hynes, itself, is cavernous, as convention centers are wont to be, and so it requires lots of walking through empty spaces to get from here to there, even though most of the actual programs, once you reached them, were in a fairly compact space.

Beyond the convention center itself, convention-goers were spread across an assortment of hotels. While all of these hotels connect to the Hynes and to each other through the Prudential mall, all require a hike to get from one to the other.

While the spread-out layout was good for getting one’s daily steps in, its effect was that the conference lacked a center of gravity. There was no single place for convention-goers to congregate, such as a lobby bar or even just a central lobby. One of the attractions of attending an in-person conference is the happenstance of who you might run into. But running into people from this conference was hit or miss, save for the scheduled receptions and presentations.

Also the victim of an unfortunate layout was the exhibit hall. A broad concrete center section divided the hall into two parts, with some exhibitors on one side, the rest on the other side, all connected by a long narrow corridor. Had this been a ginormous exhibition hall, that might of worked, but given the relatively small number of exhibitors, around 60, this split made each half feel even smaller and less cohesive.

A Time Of Uncertainty

So while one could blame the physical plant for the conference’s lack of vitality, I actually think that was only a minor contributor. In fact, I don’t think it was at all the fault of the conference organizers. Rather, I think it was a matter of unfortunate timing, made so by the sudden onslaught of generative AI within the legal profession and the resulting sense of uncertainty that so many of us feel.

As a profession, we suddenly find ourselves betwixt and between a past we thought we knew and a future we do not fully understand. Unfortunately for the conference, it happened to land in the midst of that state of limbo.

In fact, law librarians may be particularly prone to feeling this uncertainty, as they confront the sudden arrival of a technology that few truly understand and that some believe could threaten their futures.

I mean, just a week before the conference, a survey came out from Wolters Kluwer and Above the Law in which a majority of legal professionals expressed the belief that generative AI puts librarians and others involved in knowledge management and research at risk of obsolescence.

I don’t believe that for a second. In fact, I’ve written about the increasingly essential role of the law librarian in the age of AI. “Never has the role of the legal-information professional been more essential,” I wrote.

My friend and co-panelist on Legaltech Week Jean O’Grady expressed a similar belief: “I have heard it all before,” she wrote. “For the past 20 years the end of law librarians was imminent and yet for those 20 years we have been at the forefront of introducing new technologies.”

That said, there was a palpable sense of insecurity and uncertainty at the conference. Law librarians have many questions about what this new technology is today, how it will evolve, and what it will mean for their futures.

I have to think that the generative AI onslaught affected the conference even before it officially convened. No doubt, given how long in advance conferences are planned, the AALL had to make adjustments in the schedule to ensure there were panels focused on generative AI.

And while there were several panels with notable experts in generative AI, even many of those seemed lackluster and to fall in that limbo of betwixt and between. Some of the speakers I saw gave what were effectively the same talks I’d seen them give before in other contexts, without substantially adapting them to the audience at hand. It was as if even they didn’t quite know what more to say about this technology that hasn’t already been said.

(Probably the best panel I attended was the one pictured above, “Hunting and Gathering on the Legal Information Savannah,” moderated by Susan Nevelow Mart, professor emeritus at the University of Colorado Law School, with panelists from the four leading legal research companies, Joseph Breda, president of Bloomberg Law; Brian Mismash, vice president of product strategy at Thomson Reuters; Vijay Raman, vice president, search and global platforms, at LexisNexis; and Edward Walters, chief strategy officer of vLex.)

Seize the Opportunity

I know I am sounding entirely negative about this conference, and I really do not mean to be. I was glad I went, and I certainly will return next year (if they’ll have me).

But I believe the conference suffered from this moment in time in which it occurred — a moment when so many of us have so many questions and when the answers to those questions remain so unclear.

I fully believe what I said above: Never has the role of the legal-information professional been more essential. But I also believe that many of the people who came to this conference were not so convinced of that.

In the end, the real takeaway from this conference should be that the law library profession needs to move beyond the uncertainty and seize this opportunity to define and demonstrate the critical role it stands to play in the development of generative AI within the legal profession.

As a profession, we are at a crossroads, heading into uncertain terrain, and few are better suited to help us find our way than law librarians.