New International Legal Biography

The latest issue of Legal Information Management focuses on legal biography – sources thereof and methods of compiling. The wonderful articles raised some intriguing questions for me. How do you locate biographical information about non-prominent persons? What can we do to facilitate more biographies about legal scholars and lawyers whose ideas fall outside conventional legal thinking? Who was the first lesbian lawyer in the UK? You can write a legal biography of a book or building!

You can write biographies of judges, lawyers, law professors, law students, law librarians, publishers, courts, international organizations, associations. Sources for compiling and locating them abound such as autobiographies, personal papers, institutional and library archives, interviews, news stories, obituaries, and Festschriften. But I was struck by some of the newer sources of legal biographies mentioned in the Legal Information Management issue such as Lesley Dingle’s Eminent Scholars Archive at the University of Cambridge.

Recorded interviews are not new, but well-organized digital archives are, and the ESA is one such collection. The ESA comprises oral histories (audio files), written transcripts thereof, summary biographies, bibliographies of published works, lists of significant cases, photos (and obituaries if deceased) for about 20 scholars, including two former Presidents of the International Court of Justice, Judge Stephen M. Schwebel and Dame Rosalyn Higgins. Other noteworthy international law scholars included are Sir Elihu Lauterpacht, Sir Derek Bowett, and Professor Martti Koskenniemi. ESA’s audio records are archived in the University of Cambridge’s D-Space digital repository, and are also available via iTunes.

The idea for the ESA began when Ms. Dingle conducted an interview with Professor Kurt Lipstein in 2005. She describes the awe of listening to Professor Lipstein’s reminiscences “recounted in his own voice” and how she noted, upon his death, the “rapidly reducing numbers of Cambridge scholars with memories of World War II or its immediate effects.” Ms. Dingle set forth to capture their recollections and thus founded the Eminent Scholars Archive.

Another noteworthy new web-based legal biography project is “An Oral History of Law Librarianship.” This resource is part of Spinelli’s Law Library Reference Shelf, a HeinOnline database module. It includes video interviews of various lengths of time of leading law librarians, publishers, and other legal information professionals such as Tom Reynolds (former co-compiler of the Foreign Law Guide), Ellen Schaffer (who established the grant which facilitates non-U.S. foreign law librarian attendance at the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) annual meeting), Jean Wenger (a great foreign and international law librarian and past President of AALL), David Mao (Law Librarian of Congress), Bob Berring (a Slaw columnist and legal research guru), Jerry Dupont (behind the LLMC Digital database which includes foreign law content, especially for common law jurisdictions), and my former bosses and law library directors extraordinaires, Kathie Price and Judith Wright. There are about 50 videos and new ones are added regularly.

The ESA and Spinelli online oral history projects make legal biography more accessible and more “real” as we can hear the interviewees tell their stories in their own voices. Lesley Dingle and Hein’s legal biographies are good models for other projects. The Law Society of Upper Canada’s archives house audio files of oral history interviews as part of its “Diversifying the Bar: Lawyers Make History” project. The audio files could be digitized. The Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History established its ongoing oral history programme in 1979. The Society has conducted over 600 interviews. Imagine listening to the voices of new interviewees via the web going forward? Or on your favorite mobile device?

The BBC “Legal Lives” project comprises about 20 tape cassettes along with typescript summaries of the oral histories. The British Library catalog record describes this resource as follows: “A growing collection of life story interviews with lawyers, solicitors, barristers and other members of the legal profession in Britain.” How wonderful would it be if the tapes were converted and reformatted so we could listen to them online?

And these are just a few of the new possibilities for legal biographies. The Legal Information Management issue made me realize that we could use so many other formats and resources for compiling information for legal biographies. None of the authors mentioned Wikipedia, but it’s a prominent new source of international biographical information. And law folks blog, tweet, post YouTube videos, give Vimeo interviews, present webinars, hangout on Google+, chat, exchange photos on Facebook, and join LinkedIn. Judges have bobblehead dolls. And some of them do book tours in Second Life! (see e.g. Judge Richard A. Posner)

Researchers can also use less direct sources of international legal biography, such as videos about substantive law topics. The videos inform us about the speaker’s life and thoughts. The eminent international law scholars and practitioners who contribute to the United Nations Audiovisual Library for International Law (AVL) are performing legal biography acts. Filmed sessions of Adolf Eichmann on trial in Israel are primary sources for compiling legal biographies of all the participants. Recordings at AALL conferences, taped panels and interventions at the American Society of International Law (ASIL) annual meeting, are evidence of what law librarians, law teachers, lawyers, and other international legal professionals did and do.

As part of the Peace Palace Library Lecture Series in March 2012, Judge Gabriel Bach talked about the Eichmann war crimes trial in Israel. Judge Bach was part of a three-person prosecution team, but he alone spent months interviewing Eichmann in preparation for the trial. His office was in the same prison in which Eichmann was incarcerated. He was Eichmann’s only contact with the outside world “until the lawyers came.” Judge Bach talked about what kind of man Eichmann was. An Auschwitz commander wrote in his autobiography written before he was to be executed that he felt bad for killing Jewish children, but felt better after consulting with his superior, Adolf Eichmann, who explained that “it is especially the children that have to be killed first” so that they do not take revenge later for the killing of their parents. Attempts to save particular persons or a family were sent to Eichmann, and his reply to these petitions were, without exception, “always fatal.” Through this video, we learn about Judge Bach’s life as well as Eichmann’s. And his voice telling his own story and Eichmann’s conveys more than a secondhand narrative would achieve. The video is legal biography.

Scholars are mobile and so biographers of their legal lives need to look to see if they’ve giving presentations in other countries and via various new media and technologies in other languages. Mp3s, YouTube and Vimeo videos, podcasts, documentaries, and other audio-visual sources add an especially “authentic”, “real” element and may make it easier to compile biographies of law folks of different races, genders, ethnicities. AV serves to add to, fill in the gaps, and update the corpus of international legal biography, and make more visible some of the less usual subjects of traditional legal biography. The editors of Legal Information Management are to be commended for noting the renaissance of legal biography and producing such thought-provoking and possibly innovation-inspiring articles!


  1. Lyonette Louis-Jacques

    For more detailed information on the Eminent Scholars Archive, check out Lesley Dingle’s paper re:

    Legal Biography, Oral History and the Cambridge Eminent Scholars Archive

    Legal Information Management 14 (2014) 58, University of Cambridge Faculty of Law Research Paper No. 35/2014