Recollections of SCL in the 1980s and Early 1990s

April 5, 2013

I have before me the first newsletter of ‘The Society for Computers and Law Limited’. The layout and font in the main body of text suggest that an early dot matrix printer was employed, and the artwork of the main headings was almost certainly created using Letraset (sticky transfers). It is dated ‘Summer 1974’ and announces simply in its first two lines that the Society ‘got under way on the 11th December 1973′. The document extends to four pages and is fascinating. The third sentence reads, ‘Is it perhaps significant that the computer press gave more coverage to the Society’s launch than the legal press?’ Prescient in its opening paragraph, SCL (as it was not yet known) here foreshadowed the frustration that legal technologists would feel down the decades when struggling to spread the word of the potential of computers for lawyers. 

Most of the second and third and fourth pages are devoted to clippings from media coverage of the inaugural meeting and prominently feature Sir Leslie Scarman, then a Lord Justice of Appeal. He was the Society’s first president. The final sheet is a list of the 64 members, as at 8 May 1974. Mainly, they are individuals. Scanning down the list, my eye is caught by ‘B T Neill’, later Lord Justice Neill and an outstanding president of SCL; and by ‘C F Tapper’, Professor Colin Tapper of Oxford, the academic father of computers and law. I owe much to these men, both of whom inspired my work in the field. 

As a 12-year-old schoolboy, I was not a member in 1973. That was the year, though, that I held my first (four function) electronic calculator.  Although allegedly for the pocket, it was a big beast. The red, eight-digit LED (light-emitting diode) display seemed to come straight out of a sci-fi movie and was a source of great excitement. But I did not consider computing until 1981, when I was studying law at Glasgow University. This was the year that IBM launched its PC and, as I read predictions about the likely ubiquity of computer technology, I became convinced that it would have immense impact on the legal world. In the spirit of the time, I elected to write a dissertation that was entitled ‘Computers and the Judicial Process’. 

As I began my library research, I quickly encountered the Society. It was clearly the UK focal point for the use of computers in the law. I phoned the contact number, an Abingdon number, and was met by one Mrs P H (Diana) Hastings, then Administrative Secretary of the organisation. She sounded like a bluff, tough cookie but was fantastically helpful. She was trying to reel in the Society’s first student member. The deal was this: membership would be £5 on an annual basis and, for a further fiver, Diana would send me everything the Society had ever published, which is how I end up owning the first newsletter. 

The writings of members of the Society helped me greatly in these early days. But I quickly came to see that very little serious academic work had been undertaken in the field. I felt I could fill that gap and applied to Oxford to write a doctorate in computers and law, under the supervision of the same Colin Tapper. I began work in 1983 and finished in 1986. For most of this period, I was a passive member of the Society, but I read and enjoyed all materials that were sent to me.  I was particularly impressed with the Society’s support for the clarion calling Slot Report (Lawyers and Technology – The Report of a Study of the Use of Technology by Solicitors) of 1983.  

In 1986, I decide to engage more fully. With my doctorate submitted, I felt I had something to contribute and I put myself forward to give a paper at the Society’s summer conference in Warwick. I gave a lecture on the move from database systems in law to knowledge-based systems. The delegates were muted in their response (I would come to get used to this), and preferred to talk about their word processing and electronic conveyancing. The highlight of the event, for me, came during the cocktail party before the conference dinner. A distinguished gentleman approached me and said, kindly and with authority, that he had enjoyed my recent article in the Modern Law Review. This was Sir Brian Neill and the article (my first serious publication) was unforgivably entitled ‘Expert Systems in Law: A Jurisprudential Approach to Artificial Intelligence and Legal Reasoning’. I was dumbfounded that anyone had read the thing and overwhelmed that my reader (possibly my only reader) was none other than the President of the Society. 

In September 1986, I left Oxford and joined what was then Ernst & Whinney (later, Ernst & Young) to work on the development of expert systems in tax. A few months later, I was invited to join the Council of the Society. Diana said they wanted some ‘new blood’. I came on board in March 1987, at the AGM. In those days, the Council meetings were very formal and were held in the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, in Russell Square, London. I found them quite daunting – 25 or so senior individuals (judges, barristers, solicitors), talking earnestly and following a strict agenda. I tried to contribute, largely on technology issues, and endeavoured to avoid saying anything juvenile or foolish.  

Later that year, out of the blue, I was invited to the offices of Speechly Bircham, to meet with the chairman of the Society, Bradley Brown. I was apprehensive. Perhaps my wings were to be clipped, for speaking too much at Council meetings. In the event, Bradley, an affable and warm man, asked me if I would be willing to stand for vice chairman of the Society, for the period, 1988 to 1990, with a view, all going well, to taking the chair from 1990 to 1992. I was amazed that they would countenance someone so young, but I needed no urging. The chairman while I was vice chairman was to be Keith James, Senior Partner of Needham & James. Keith was larger than life, a bon viveur, who was passionate and knowledgeable about law office technology where he was the earliest of adopters. His was the first mobile phone I ever used. This was in early 1989 and he carried it in a large wooden box. Bradley and Keith were typical of senior officers of the Society in the late 1980s: senior solicitors who gave enormously of their time. 

Rewinding a little, 9 November 1987 was a key date in the history of the Society. It marked the arrival of Ruth Baker, who was recruited to take over from Diana Hastings. She grasped the tiller on 1 January 1988 and we never looked back. No-one has contributed more to the Society than Ruth. She retired this year, after 25 years outstanding service. I think it fair to say that Ruth was not sure about me in the opening months of her reign. I was 27 when I became vice-chairman and Ruth perhaps worried I was too inexperienced for the job. But she soon knocked me into shape and we evolved one of the most productive and enjoyable working relationships of my career. More, we became and remain firm friends. The basic division of labour was this: I had lots of ideas, Ruth told me which ones were daft, and then she ruthlessly (forgive me) implemented the rest. 

The scope and activities of SCL today can be traced to a strategy meeting that the Council held at a hotel near Heathrow on Sunday 12 February 1989. Keith chaired it with great aplomb and asked me to make the introductory presentation. I came armed with a set of overhead projector foils, the most important of which depicted a four-box grid. I suggested that the Society could operate in one or more of four disciplines: basic computers for lawyers; advanced computers for lawyers; basic computer law; advanced computer law. There were relatively few computer lawyers in the UK at the time but we anticipated huge growth in the field and saw this as a possible new strategic direction. Founder members, such as Colin Tapper and Richard Morgan, were widely acknowledged experts in the field but, until then, the Society had focused far more on computers for lawyers. Although that focus remained for some years, the shift away from legal technology to technology law at SCL began on that cold February afternoon in 1989. It really took hold, though, when Christopher Millard became chairman in 1994. 

By the time I was chairman, I had moved to Masons (now Pinsent Masons) and felt more comfortable within the legal profession. For most of my term as chairman, the president of the Society was Sir Brian Neill. If readers will forgive me for quoting myself, the following recollection from a festschrift for Sir Brian captures the mood of our Council meetings: 

‘My fondest memories are of council meetings that he attended while I was supposedly in the chair.  In the squabble one invariably finds when a diverse group of senior individuals assembles round the table as the committee of a voluntary organisation, Brian’s presence dominated in the most benevolent of ways and his great sense would always prevail.  After frenetic debate on given issues (all of which seemed to be contentious), I would turn to Brian for help.  When he spoke, all others remained silent.  In his deep, mellifluous tones, he would succinctly summarise all sides of any given argument and then move compellingly but with a lightness of touch towards outlining his own position.  Persuasive, diplomatic and quintessentially judicial, he would settle discussions with authority.  It was a joy, as chairman, to have an instant appeal process to hand.’ 

This is taken from a chapter I wrote for a book that Lord Saville and I edited – Essays in Honour of Sir Brian Neill: The Quintessential Judge (2003) to celebrate Sir Brian’s 80th birthday. Lord Saville was SCL president from 2001 to 2011 and along with Sir Henry Brooke (who took over as President in 1992, at the tail end of my chairmanship) this triumvirate of judges worked tirelessly for decades in the cause of courtroom technology. I stand in awe of their industry, intelligence, commitment, public spirit, open-mindedness, and good nature. 

My happiest moments as chair were at the informal dinners that we enjoyed after the executive committee meetings. We sat for hours, enjoying good-humoured banter. Around the table were the late Alan Brakefield (Honorary Treasurer) and David Kidd (Honorary  Secretary) – behind the scenes, these men put in considerable hours for the Society and were fine company once the work was done. Also there was the urbane Gordon Langley QC (later Mr Justice Langley), who was vice-chairman. He never wished to become chairman and was there, I think, largely to keep me in check. The irrepressible Jimmy Mackintosh (chair, 1992-1994) joined us about half way through my term, after he was selected as my successor. It was a great team. 

But we worked hard too and we tried to innovate – for example, with the Heathrow strategy meeting in February 1989, the inauguration of the SCL Award in March 1989, the first annual lecture in March 1991 (delivered by Edward de Bono) at One Great George Street, and the first annual litigation support conference in April 1991. We also hosted the 3rd International Conference on Artificial Intelligence and Law, in Oxford in June 1991. 

Six weeks later, the worldwide web was publicly launched. 

Professor Richard Susskind OBE is an author, speaker, and independent adviser to major professional firms and to national governments, and President of SCL. His latest book, Tomorrow’s Lawyers: An Introduction to Your Future, was published by OUP in January: