The Virtual Law School
This is a Conference Report published on 31 October 1997.
Citation: Wilson I, 'ALTA '97, The Virtual Law School ', Conference Report, 1997 (3) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <http://elj.warwick.ac.uk/jilt/confs/97_3alta/>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/law/elj/jilt/1997_3/alta/>.
The 1997 Australasian Law Teachers Association Conference was held from 2-5 October at the Faculty of Law, Sydney University of Technology. The conference theme was 'The Virtual Law School'. Some 200 delegates attended from across Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific.
Though eponymously a body of individuals, ALTA in fact is just as much an association of university schools and faculties where law is taught. Fittingly, at the 1997 annual general meting held during the conference, the University of the South Pacific was elevated from associate to full membership.
Most ALTA conferences are characterised by three disparate functions, and this year was no exception.
2. Plenary and Sub-plenary Sessions
Firstly, a number of plenary and sub-plenary sessions are scheduled where invited speakers (with varying degrees of success) attempt to address the conference theme. In Sydney there were a total of 11 contributors to plenary sessions and a further 17 speakers addressed sub-plenary meetings. Of the main plenary speakers, two who should perhaps be highlighted as of particular interest in terms of the conference theme were:
- Justice William Gummow, of the High Court of Australia: Judicial Overview of Legal Education. His Honour rose above a total failure of the audio system to remind delegates that those whom they now teach will be the mainstays of the legal profession in their respective jurisdictions 20 years hence. After some light-hearted recollections of his own early days studying and practising law His Honour arrived at a serious issue. In his view, modern curricula and the pressures of economic rationalism in law schools deny us the best scholars and the best lawyers. According to His Honour, we are denied the best scholars because pressure to publish results too often in voluminous but inferior output, often of a wholly derivative nature. We are denied the best lawyers because quantitative research constraints impair qualitative teaching inputs. His Honour did not directly address the 'Virtual Law School', but implicit in his remarks was a caveat to ensure that this ultimate expression of the flexible learning imperative does not result in further erosion of standards. Justice Gummow made no attempt to conceal his disappointment with the product of Australasian law schools, and his audience was left with much upon which to reflect.
- Professor Charles Nesson, Harvard Law School: The Intellectual Legal Minefield of the Internet Braving a satellite video link and a 15 hour time difference, Professor Nesson described his direction of a project in which unit modules are specifically crafted for and delivered via the Internet. Included in Professor Nesson's address was a wealth of information on the pitfalls encountered by himself and his team, in particular the legal difficulties associated with linking to other sites and the ability to assert and enforce ownership rights in Internet materials.
Other plenary session contributions were:
- Brian Fitzgerald, Griffith University Law School: Navigating Cyberspace, Frontier Land or Legal Minefield
- Moira Scollay, Australian Privacy Commissioner: Legal Privacy Issues on the Internet
- Justice Arthur Emmett, Federal Court of Australia: Alternative Views to Intellectual Property Issues
- Benjamin Wright, Attorney, Dallas Texas (by telephone): US Electronic Commerce Law
- Andrew Lambert, Solicitor, Sydney: A Practitioner's View of Cyber Law
- Professor Furukawa, Senshu University, Japan: Legal Education Reform in Japan
- Judge Ann Ainslie-Wallace, District Court of NSW: Judicial Perspective of Advocacy
- Justice Grant Hammond, High Court of New Zealand: Contemporary Legal Education in New Zealand
- Justice Kevin Lindgren, Federal Court of Australia: Preparing for Practice at the Bar.
It is curious that so many of the plenary speakers did not directly address the conference theme of 'The Virtual Law School'. Those delegates expecting a myriad of perspectives on how technology might be employed to provide a high quality legal education were left wondering if they had missed something.
Sub-plenary session topics included 'Pre-admission Training and Skills Towards 2000', 'Internet Legal Retrieval Into the 21st Century', 'The Virtual Library', 'The Virtual Classroom' ad 'Funding the Virtual Law School'. The majority of these papers were given by legal academics from Australia and New Zealand.
3. Interest Groups
The second function of the ALTA conference is to facilitate the annual meetings of some 40 or so 'interest groups', ranging almost across the entire spectrum of legal interest. Delegates generally attend up to four such meetings, at which brief papers are given and general discussion ensues. For this writer, perhaps the most interesting session was that of Legal Education by Michael Lambiris, from the University of Melbourne. With the assistance of the Victoria Law Foundation, Michael has embarked on an ambitious project to bring to Australia the kind of collaborative project that is familiar to UK. readers as the Law Courseware Consortium. The project is well under way, and with the help of the LCC it will result in the development of an integrated suite of computer aided learning software for Australian conditions.
Perhaps the most disappointing note in this area of the conference was the lack of any meetings by the Law and Computers Group. This was justified on the basis that plenary sessions were directed to the material normally reserved for consideration at sessions of this group. Many delegates felt however that the group would have provided a valuable 'breakout' function at which material from the larger sessions could be discussed.
4. Networking and Socialising
The third function of the ALTA conference will not be unfamiliar: the opportunity to network and socialise with one's peer group, to catch up with old friends and generally to have a good time. The Thursday welcoming cocktail party was well attended by those arriving on the night before the conference opening and, despite the din produced by so many voices in the concrete-walled foyer that was the venue, was voted a success. This of course generally means that copious amounts of alcohol and food, in that order, should be available and that was indeed the case.
On the Friday evening the conference dinner was held at the New South Wales Houses of Parliament. As might be expected, the standard of food and wine was very high. Unfortunately the intended host, NSW Attorney-General Jeff Shaw, could not be present due to commitments overseas. Rumours abounded of fortunes won and lost at the casino afterwards, but none was verified. On the Saturday evening the 'publishers dinner' took place at the Law Faculty, sponsored by Butterworths and the Law Book Company.
Papers from the 1997 ALTA conference can be ordered through the Conference Secretary, Associate Professor Michael Adams, Sydney University of Technology Law School: fax +61 +2 9514 3400.
The 1998 ALTA conference will take place at the University of Otago in Dunedin NZ. This will coincide with the 125th anniversary celebrations for the law faculty there. Though being held in the depths of winter (July) at the southernmost university in the world (46 degrees south latitude!) we have all been assured of a warm welcome and the best of Kiwi hospitality.