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Thursday, October 02, 2003

Proto-Blawger, Bob Berring

The Boalt Hall Alumni Association lunch was delightful. I bumped into some law school friends I haven't seen for years, and, if anything, Interim Dean Bob Berring has become an even better speaker than I remember. He first discussed news of the law school and its dean search, then moved on to the changing world of legal research. Since his articles on the latter subject have inspired some prior posts here, as well as the Blawg Ring's motto as coined by Rory Perry, as things were wrapping up I had a nice chat with Interim Dean Berring about weblogs and their rapid uptake by legal professionals.

Emerson? Pepys? Meet Uncle Zeb

It hit me today we had a weblog at Boalt when I was there, but it wasn't on the Web. It was a binder kept at the library reference desk that first appeared in 1982 (well before my time, mind you!). Then, it was Bob Berring's idea for soliciting ideas to improve the library. The format was both simple and strikingly familar. Entries appeared in reverse chronological order (if you started at the end). They were archived. The "template" consisted of blank paper with a line down the middle. On the left, students could instantly publish questions or make suggestions. On the right, The Institution would try to respond to each entry within 24 hours. Interim Dean Berring (who was then Dean of the School of Library and Information Studies) noticed that, very quickly, people started asking not about the library but the broader conundrums of their lives. Thus was born Uncle Zeb, "an ectoplasmic entity, the part of the brain that every law student sheds as they pass through the halls" of the law school. I was happy to learn while drafting this post that at least part of Uncle Zeb's wit and wisdom has made it to the Web (Uncle Zeb Online; The Best of Zeb '98).

Interim Dean Berring recalled two pearls from Uncle Zeb during his talk today. The first involved Zeb's advice to a male student who feared law school would destroy his marriage because reading cases robbed him of all libidinous tendencies: "Have sex before you study." The second was Zeb's answer to a student who couldn't understand why Zeb didn't get himself appointed dean of the law school: "Because my mother did not raise up any fools."

Boalt News

  • The law school had its highest number of applicants ever last fall, some 7,500. Its "yield" (ratio of acceptances to class slots offered) also was so high the incoming class had about 20 more students than originally anticipated.
  • The dean search is in full swing. The goal is to announce the new dean by year end, with the transition to take place at the end of the '03-'04 academic year.

Legal Research Meets Blade Runner

Interim Dean Berring discussed the transitional time in which we now find ourselves. Once, law was "real" if it appeared in the West National Reporter System. Today, it's "real" if it is included in the limited-access Westlaw and Lexis databases. (Berring mentioned describing West's Federal Appendix to his son as a collision of matter and anti-matter. It's a published set of unpublished cases.) The fear is that access to law will continue to be commodified. The nightmare is the day your voice-recognition activated personal research agent (say, a facsimile of Cameron Diaz) delivers the information sought at your request while completely concealing the selection and evaluation processes. Unless we're careful, we're headed toward a legal information delivery system designed by marketers, where the "product"—the law—is treated no differently than a package of Skittles.

To avoid this, Berring recommends paying close attention to the sources of your information, and relying on your allies the law librarians—"they're the people fighting for quality, and quality information"—and the younger people in your organization.

Further Reading

Interim Dean Berring's talk thus gave me a nice opening to bring up the topic of legal weblogs. When I described what has been going on in the last couple of years, his eyes lit up. We talked a little about TrackBack, and the Web's unique ability (with the help of intelligent technologists) to improve our systems for cross-referencing and validating legal information. These topics were explored a bit here and at LawMeme about this time last year. I'm hoping Interim Dean Berring will drop by and, one way or another, add his booming baritone to these discussions.


The Jonathan Club
Interim Dean Berring

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