Why attend an ABA meeting?

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I am at the American Bar Association’s annual meeting in Chicago.

It is not surprising that it is in Chicago again. Not only is it the principal home of the ABA, but there are just a handful of US cities big enough to take a convention of this size. If you look at the roll call of hosts, you see that the same few places occur again and again: Chicago, San Francisco, New York. Sometimes it breaks out: Disney Florida one year (where the foreign guests had a look of perpetual surprise on their face), and Honolulu another (where the appeal of the beach was a challenge – I think that is why the ABA never goes to Las Vegas, which would be big enough to take them).

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Sometimes, the annual meeting goes to the rest of the world. In recent years – last year, in fact – the ABA dipped its toe abroad, and went across the border to Toronto. But I remember when it came to London in the late 1990s. The hotels were so small in comparison to the giant US convention hotels (the main conference hotel in Chicago, the Hyatt Regency, has more than 2,000 rooms) that they had to use dozens of hotels rather than the usual handful.

There are some abiding traditions for a European visitor: the hotel breakfast room is pretty full at 6.30 in the morning, often with lawyers having business meetings, or grabbing a coffee after their jog; dinners can start similarly early, say at 6.00 or 6.30pm; there are sometimes stellar speakers – I have seen Maya Angelou and Bill Clinton, and this time there is an opportunity to hear the lawyer writer, Scott Turow; and finally there are the other traditions of US life on which you can take your pick – for instance, the bewildering number of salad dressings or breads when you order a sandwich.

Why should anyone who is not a US lawyer come, particularly given the overwhelming size of the meeting? The answer is to learn. Of course, you may not have an interest in US law, but – because of the size, wealth and innovativeness of the USA – many developments start here and spread to the UK. There is a wide range of sectional interests covering every area of practice, but I will take as an example the one that interests me, the section of science and technology. Much of the world in which we now practise has been shaped by US developments: Google, Facebook, iPhones, let alone older technology such as Microsoft. I find that as a result US lawyers usually face technological issues earlier than we do in Europe, and have wonderful industry experts to assist them.

Looking at the programme compiled for this meeting by the section of science and technology, it is clear that the challenge caused by computer programs in relation to litigation discovery is a big topic. There are two sessions devoted to it. First, there is "Can a computer do it better, faster, and cheaper?". Although humans are still used for determining relevance and privilege of documents, there is now something called ‘predictive coding’, or computer-assisted review, which can bring down the costs of e-discovery. The session blurb claims that research has shown technology-assisted review can be more accurate and efficient than exhaustive manual review.

The second programme on the same topic – "Ethical and practical considerations on the use of artificial intelligence in e-discovery" – looks at the consequences of using artificial intelligence technologies to replicate human judgement in the search and review of electronic information and social media in the context of litigation.

There are further sessions on developments in the mobile payments area, and the legal consequences of telemedicine.

Whatever your choice of practice area, there is something for you, together with the interest of the particular city in which the convention takes place. You are too late for this year, but be warned now: next year it will be in San Francisco from 8-13 August 2013.

Jonathan Goldsmith is secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents around a million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs.

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