It cracks me up no-end to have to explain to my kids that I was on an innovation tournament judges’ panel at the AALL annual meeting. As I’ve said before, innovation is often in the eye of the beholder but it’s not a word they would probably use for me (although they do see me as a tinkerer and crafter!) The judges had a rubric to base our assessment on but there’s still a subjective quality to any sort of judging. I thought the winners were great exemplars of what law libraries can and are doing. It also made me think about tournaments and innovation more broadly.

I tend to think of innovation as a very large horizon, involving change and improvement. To that extent, there is ample room for people to do innovative things in law libraries. The only thing I tend not to think is being very innovative is something that is strictly a software or hardware installation. There needs to be innovation on top of the tools.

Needless to say, I was very impressed by Blank Rome’s Andre Davison and LIttler Mendelson’s Allison Reeve. They are deserving winners of the AALL Innovation Tournament and clearly innovative law librarians.

Preparation and Presentation

Each competitor had 5 minutes. One of the many things I was curious about going in was what they would do with it. When you’re in grade school, a 5 minute presentation can feel like eternity. The reality is that, in business, 5 minutes is a blink of an eye.

We often talk about elevator speeches or pitches. It can be useful to have a pithy statement of what your law library is currently doing. Mine tend to be about 10 seconds, no more than 2 sentences. They reflect the most immediate projects or issues in our library, and the content varies based on who I’m talking to.

The most effective elevator speeches start with “Thank you, [your team’s or individual on your team’s] help on [law library project] was really beneficial” or something like that. You can then add a sentence updating them on where your team is extending the success.

I was struck by the presentation styles of the two winning entries. Both Andre and Allison had clearly prepared for their 5 minutes. I have not been in that sort of timed situation in a long time (law school?). And I have not given a presentation in a competitive format in just as long. It’s a very tight set of requirements to succeed at just getting the information across.

Thoughts:

  • don’t introduce yourself with a bio. It’s a waste of time and attention in any presentation setting, but particularly when you have just minutes. If you’re on the stage, (a) you are pre-qualified by being selected and (b) if people want to learn more, they can do it on their own time. Where you went to law school and all the great experience you’ve had isn’t the point of the presentation. My favorite introduction: “Hi, I’m David Whelan, and we’re going to talk about [topics] today.”
  • practice. It was clear that the speakers knew their schtick. Andre had brought a prop, which meant he needed to prepare his timing in order to incorporate it at the appropriate moment. If you are doing a longer, less controlled presentation, your practice may need to be more flexible. But in a 5 minute pitch, where you are not going to be interrupted, you have 100% control and can prepare word-for-word what you want to say.
  • remember your context. Most of my presentations to lawyers are educational and “how to”. An innovation pitch isn’t. It’s more like a governance board presentation. You are identifying a problem, a solution, and a road map to success. Whenever you prepare a presentation, it’s important to remember what you’re trying to do and who the audience is.
  • PowerPoint helped. I nearly always use PowerPoint slides. I know that there is a counter-argument, that slide decks are bad. While I don’t subscribe to the different learning styles approach, I do think that slides can help in certain information contexts. In a 5 minute presentation based on a rubric, it was effective to have a slide that told me where in the rubric the presentation was. A slide deck can help to orient – or re-orient – an audience without the presenter having to do it verbally.
  • there is no value in PowerPoint slide conservation. If you use slides, your audience needs to be able to see them. If they can’t, your slides are wasted. Throughout AALL, I saw presentations that had 2 and 3 screenshots on a single slide. The end result was that all of the screenshots were illegible. Invariably, the presenter said “You may not be able to see that”. Not good. If you have 2 screenshots, use 2 slides. 3? 3 slides. You can create layered effects so that people can understand the relationships between the slides, but don’t forego legibility.

Innovation Content

But was it innovative? I thought the two winners did a good job of explaining why projects they had already dug into were innovative.

Thoughts:

  • All competitors were from law firms. I’m not sure what that means. I know innovation is happening in other law library contexts. It may mean that we don’t think of innovation that is process-driven or programmatic being as innovative as projects that have a technology component.
  • Do some pre-work. The two winning competitors had already spec‘d out their work. I was very impressed by how far along they were, showing some of the obstacles they had run into, as well as partnerships they’d made to move their project forward. Lawyer (user) feedback and IT development and systems resources were the sorts of building blocks that make or break these sorts of innovations. It’s like already knowing there is a market for your product, rather than just asserting that you think people will like it.
  • Manual is a barrier. There was a threshold – which I’ve experienced myself – where these projects were clearly going to hit a barrier because they relied on manual processes. Someone had to interact with the process to move it along. (If you attended Abigail Ross‘ AALL 2019 session on alerts, RSS triage was clearly limited by manual intervention) It was clear that, at some point, each of these projects were going to hit a ceiling unless they could be freed from manual processes. A law librarian or library staff person doesn’t scale. If your innovation needs people, it will hit a hard ceiling unless you have unlimited people. Hopefully, the cash infusion for these projects will help them move past manual limitations. I can see where some law libraries would reject an innovation where success required greater people involvement.
  • The ability to reproduce results. This was a tournament that was going to pay out prizes from a membership association. I was curious – and asked – about how portable the innovation was. If the innovators were successful, would anyone else outside the law firm be able to benefit from their success?

The portability of success was something I was curious about because of who was running the tournament. I do not believe in benchmarking because it makes an assumption that context A is the same as contexts B and C. Therefore, anything B and C can do can be replicated by A. That’s clearly not the case. One law library’s ability to recreate what another is doing requires on a lot more than “we’re also a law library.”

Andre’s project used technology like SAML to support reduced friction database access. Allison’s project was SharePoint-centric, using document libraries and potentially relying on workflows. SAML, workflows, and document library configurations are all things that are potentially things others can recreate.

How Do We Amplify Innovation?

As you read the last paragraph, you might have thought, “I wonder what resources *I* need to recreate those things in my law library?” In my environment, where we own SharePoint but do not have any IT resources that understand it, things like workflow creation require third-party consultants. Document library configurations may be something I can do or may require a system admin that has elevated SharePoint privileges to set up for me.

One thing the law library world lacks is a good way to share and reproduce results. I think we’re pretty good at sharing our stories, although the audiences may be limited based on who can get to a conference. It strikes me that we would be able to nurture innovation more if there was a way to share reproducible innovations more broadly.

It might be documentation that others could follow like a road map. It might be people who have done the innovation making themselves more noticeably available to help people following in their footsteps. I’m not sure. But it seems like there’s an opportunity there.

I write and think a lot about open source. If you haven’t read the chapter in Eric Steven Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar called The Social Context of Open Source Software, I’d recommend it. There are existing systems of collaborations based on reputational enhancement that might work in law libraries.

It was a lot of fun to participate in the innovation tournament as a judge. It’s rewarding to see creative people talk about creative ideas. It was good to see money going to law librarians doing practical projects in the same way that money has flowed to law librarians for research and writing.