A Brief History of SubTech

SubTech In the Beginning

By Marc Lauritsen – May 2016
The idea of an international conference around ‘substantive’ legal technology in legal education and practice arose in conversations between Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and me at Harvard Law School circa 1988. Viktor was then an LL.M. candidate. I was a clinical teacher who served as ‘director of lawyering information systems’ at that point, having recently finished running Project Pericles, Harvard’s first major law & computers project. Viktor was enrolled in a course on Computer-aided Practice Systems that was being taught by Professor Larry Farmer, visiting from Brigham Young University, with help from me.

I had also recently led a ‘legal informatics knowledgebase’ project, funded by the National Center for Automated Information Retrieval, which sought to document the many people, centers, events, and publications that had already arisen in the law/tech field. We had profiles of scholars active in the field, and an annotated bibliography of hundreds of articles and books. It struck both Viktor and me as odd that there was little evident cross-fertilization across the several continents, and that some of the leading figures had never even met. Many scholars in the US were not particularly aware of each other, let alone of fellow scholars in Europe or elsewhere. And while there were many events about the law of technology, there were few that went deeply into the technology of law, especially in connection with legal education. Many conferences were dry sequences of paper presentations and ‘talking heads.’

international photoSo we hatched the idea of an international event that brought people together who were active in the field in an informal, convivial context. As relative unknowns ourselves we didn’t expect to encounter any institutional rivalries. We enlisted Professors Don Trautman and Larry Farmer as co-organizers and proceeded to plan. Viktor returned to Austria to direct a graduate program on Rechtsinformatik and secured the cooperation of Professor Johannes Pichler in having the conference hosted at the law faculty of the University of Salzburg. Marc visited there in 1989 to give a lecture (auf Deutsch!) and work with Viktor on event planning. We sent out conference invitations and got a surprising and gratifying number of acceptances.

Here’s a very cursory review of the ensuing years (mostly skipping the ‘substance’!)

Over the Years

Salzburg (1990)

Our first conference attracted about 50 participants from around the world, including – in large part due to the events a few months earlier – participants from Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Romania. For most, the conference was deeply enjoyable and rewarding. I remember meeting Colin Tapper and his protégé Richard Susskind at the gate of one of the early events. Social activities included a reception at the palace of Salzburg’s ‘mad bishop’, with its trick fountains, complete with a classical ensemble concert. Peter Seipel gave a rousing closing keynote. A couple dozen of us took off for a delightful day trip to Prague on Sunday.

Chicago (1992)

Ron Staudt enthusiastically took up the baton and made what had been a one-time event into a series by organizing a second conference at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, whose new law school building boasted some of the latest technologies. Memorable side events included an architectural tour via boat on Chicago river, a banquet at Cliff Dwellers restaurant, and an open air concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival.

Paris (1994)

Danièle Bourcier hosted us at the Sorbonne in Paris. We were joined by veterans like Lucian Mehl, who had published about AI and law in the 1950s. Side events included a dinner-dance cruise on the Seine on Bastille Day, where rowdy celebrants showered us with bottles and cans from bridges. We also gathered for a reception/banquet at the Senate, in the Palais du Luxembourg.

Montreal (1996)

montreal photoEjan Mackaay was the lead organizer at the University of Montreal. We had a memorable banquet at the botanical gardens.

Stockholm (1998)

Peter Seipel welcomed us to the University of Stockholm, and had the good sense to shorten the conference name from “international conference on substantive technology in legal practice and education’ to SubTech. There was a wonderful closing reception at Peter’s farm, and the bus ride there passed scenery that included a nude volleyball match.

Cambridge (2000)

The tenth anniversary conference was held at Harvard Law School under the leadership of Terry Martin, Peter Murray, Viktor, and myself. Howard Gardner gave a keynote. One innovation was continuous videotaping of the event, resulting in a skillfully edited compilation that was given to everyone on DVD at the closing lobster fest at Cadence Farm, accompanied by jazz band, following a tour of the nearby Fruitlands museum. The multi-media conference summary was also put on the web.

Warwick (2002)

Abdul Paliwala organized festivities at the University of Warwick. Richard Susskind gave a keynote. One side event was a trip to (what some believe was) Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford on Avon.

Seattle (2004) – Bill Anderson hosted us at the University of Washington. Larry and Kate Farmer threw a reception in the penthouse of nearby hotel, with panoramic views of the city.

Oslo (2006)

oslo photoJon Bing and Olav Torvund hosted the 2006 conference at the University of Oslo.

Williamsburg (2008)

Fredric Lederer brought us to William & Mary Law School in Virginia, where we convened in the futuristic courtroom of the Center for Legal and Court Technology. We had a surprise speaker at our banquet in the Great Hall of the Christopher Wren Building:  Patrick Henry (“Give me liberty or give me death.”)  Ethan Katsh gave the keynote.

Zaragoza (2010)

Fernando Galindo hosted us at the University of Zaragoza. The major themes in 2010 were: Institutional Overviews, Modeling Legal Knowledge, Technologies of Practice and Legal Administration, Teaching Platforms, and New Directions. We had a fascinating bus tour of the city, including the cathedral and the legendary Aljaferia palace.

New York (2012)

Dan Hunter hosted our 2012 event at New York Law School.

Vienna (2014)

Erich Schweighofer was the lead organizer in our conference at the University of Vienna.

Richmond (2016)

YTBW!  (yet to be written)

Running themes

Those of us who have attended more than a few SubTech conferences recall some persistent themes. One was the collaborations that blossomed among people who first met at the conference. Another was the eerie repetition of the ‘lost bus’ episode that happening in connection with an reception at a country home at the Salzburg conference. For many of the subsequent conferences some vehicle bearing a subset of participants would find itself momentarily lost. And of course we remember the growing list of conferees who are no longer with us: Don Trautman, Don Berman, Patricia Hassett, Carole Hafner, Jon Bing, …

In the meantime

Viktor has gone on to an illustrious career, with stints as professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, National University of Singapore, and the Oxford Internet Institute. Larry Farmer recently retired after his long career at Brigham Young. Over the years I’ve taught at five law schools, done about dozen courses in visiting and adjunct roles, and written a bunch of quasi-scholarly articles, but my main activity has been outside of academia. It’s been an honor and a pleasure to have remained part of this unusual conference series.

The Future

Like a moveable feast, SubTech will pop up somewhere in the world in 2018. A presumptive venue may be announced by the end of this year’s conference.

As the world of law becomes increasingly transformed by technology, SubTech continues to play a distinctive role among the various law|tech series, such as the International Conferences on Artificial Intelligence and Law, BILETA, Jurix, CALI, Legal Tech, the ABA Techshow, and new events like the CodeX FutureLaw conferences at Stanford. So far at least, SubTech has uniquely been not only multi-disciplinary and international, but dedicated to building bridges among the worlds of academia, law practice, access to justice, and entrepreneurship.


Some links

There’s been little attention in print to the SubTech conferences, and most of the websites for specific ones are no longer available. (It doesn’t help that there are similarly named conferences on ‘submersible technology’ organized by the Society for Underwater Technology and another on subway technology!) The following links appear to be at least partially live.

(Some old material can be found via the ‘wayback machine’ – e.g., https://web.archive.org/web/20030421005352/http://www.juridicum.su.se/iri/subtech98/ and https://web.archive.org/web/20090126053725/http://www.legaltechcenter.net/subtech/index.html, about the 2008 event)

[This ‘history’ is a work in progress. Additions and corrections heartily welcomed. Send them to marc@capstonepractice.com.]

Photo by The British Library

Photo by Internet Archive Book Images