“How to conference” – Experiencing the Global Meeting on Law & Society in Lisbon as a Graduate Student
For the original German version see here .
Sitting in my acclimatised hostel room, I can’t decide between 20 degrees of dry air and 38 degrees of sweltering heat, so I turn the air conditioner off and on every half hour (I haven’t learned how to use air conditioners properly yet, but this is certainly not the most effective or ecological option). The last day of the Global Meeting on Law & Society in Lisbon is over and I need to cool down. It’s been five days between incredibly hot seminar rooms in the modern, unplastered concrete university buildings in the north of the city, cafés around the campus, the underground and the jerky trams pushing you up the hills, my cold hostel room and sardine dinners in the city centre. I am at the end of my Master’s degree and went to Lisbon on my own to attend my first big conference. Big is perhaps the wrong word: it was a huge conference with over 900 presentations. Between panels on “Emotional Labour of Conducting Research”, “Politics in and of Punishment”, “After Carceral Feminism”, “Ethnography, Law & Society”, “Law in a Digital World”, “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Citizenship and Race”, “Courts as Punishing Institutions” and “Decolonising Public Law”, I learned how important empirical research is in many law schools, how differently Socio-Legal Studies can be situated in different research contexts, how scholars who have a very critical attitude towards the criminal justice system try to reconcile this with their position as criminal law teachers/practitioners and endure complexities, what role the specific local context plays and how insights and concepts can also transcend the local space.
So much knowledge, so many questions
A person sitting next to me in one of the first events told me that while the amount of input you get at conferences like these can be overwhelming, it is often single sentences, single arguments that stay in the back of your mind for years to come. One of those sentences for me was: “We have a criminal processing system not a criminal justice system” on the panel “After Carceral Feminism”. Or the visualisation of global inequalities in the dominance of certain concepts and citation circles in panel discussions and by the inscription “Cite African Scholars” on the T-shirts of members of the “African Law + Society Network”. Or a comment in a panel on digitalization and law stating that the discourse around digitalization may revolve around a false construction of “novelty” and that we should ask ourselves what practices regarding digitality in law fundamentally reveal about legal practice in general.
Conference “on the books” and conference “in action”
Thankfully, it didn’t take long for me to realise that I’m not the only one overwhelmed by navigating this programme and that it’s okay to only selectively take notes on concepts and ideas. But it took me a while to learn that the important thing is the “in-between”, the lunches, the little “mini-conferences” in the cafés around campus, the conversations in the hallway and lift, and that you can’t go to five two-hour panels every day. But it doesn’t say that anywhere. Other people who know the academic conference game had to tell me.
In the last few days and in the preparation of the conference, I have learned how big the difference between the “official script” and the “informal script”, the “conference on the books” and the “conference in action” is. This observation started with the deadlines of the papers to be submitted. While papers were officially supposed to be sent to the chair four to six weeks before the conference, this seemed to be handled rather differently in practice. “I have to go back to the hotel and finish my paper for tomorrow” was a phrase I was surprised to hear very often in the last few days. For me, the deadline a few weeks ago was good and important, but knowing about unofficial practice already four weeks ago would have saved me some stress and guilty conscience about my poorly formatted footnotes. The next point revolves around the question: What does paper mean in this context? If my Master’s thesis supervisor and research project manager hadn’t told me in passing that conference papers are actually always “work in progress”, and that it can be helpful to start with the presentation and write the paper afterwards, I wouldn’t have known what the word paper meant in this context. The next point is about approaching people with higher degrees. If some doctoral students, whom I was lucky enough to meet on the first day, hadn’t told me that I simply had to address people because “they are not here on holiday” and “that’s what it’s all about”, I would probably have run out of every seminar room as soon as the panel was over because I didn’t want to annoy anyone with my questions (and because I needed to get water). Thanks to the encouragement, I often managed to approach scholars after their talks and of course no one made me feel like I was interrupting or asking unnecessary questions.
Learning by doing?
In the last few days in Lisbon, both through the official events and the “in-between”, I have thus not only learned about a wide range of substantive topics, various approaches and localisations of Socio-Legal Studies but also about conference practices. Thanks to these experiences, I will probably move with a little more confidence at upcoming conferences. And of course, this process involves “learning by doing” and is also refreshing to know that not everything happens as it is written in stone. Nevertheless, I argue that there should be a “manual” or workshop on “how to conference”  for graduate students because passing on this tacit and implicit knowledge cannot simply be left to the mechanisms of social capital without creating potential exclusions.
Only thanks to the tips and tricks I received from my studies- and work environment in advance and my acquaintance with doctoral students on the first day of the conference, I was thrown into shallow waters and not the deep end by attending my first Global Meeting on Law & Society. This pleasant experience in shallow waters made me better understand why there are big conferences at all (this is not at all self-explanatory), because even if I can draw few comparisons, I think that especially after two years of the pandemic, conferences like this show that academia does not work alone at one’s desk in one’s own environment, but through conversations, through exchange, through thinking together. And I have learned that, despite or perhaps because of all the networking, it doesn’t hurt to have a cold drink by the harbour after four panels on sexualised violence and law and talk about the difference between swifts and swallows.
About the LSA The Law and Society Association (LSA), founded in 1964 in the United States, is an interdisciplinary network of socio-legal scholars and the largest leading association in the field of law and society worldwide. Among other things, the LSA publishes the Law & Society Review, holds annual conferences and offers workshops for young scholars. Since the Executive Office and the vast majority of members are based in the U.S., the annual conferences are held in the United States. However, every five years, the association hosts international “Global” Meetings in other countries, bringing together a broad range of Socio-Legal associations, institutions and scholars. This year’s Global Meeting in Lisbon was the LSA’s Seventh International Conference on Law & Society (the last three meetings were held in Mexico City in 2017, Honolulu in 2012, and Berlin in 2007), was hybrid and focused on law, and the history and continuation of colonialism, racism, and violence with the overarching theme of “Rage, Reckoning and Remedy”.
Leonie Thies is a student assistant in the President’s Research Group at the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB) in the research project “Access to Justice”. She is currently writing her sociological master’s dissertation on the (de-) construction of credibility in sexualised violence trials at the Institute of Social Sciences at Humboldt University in Berlin. Twitter:@LeonieThies
 In a virtual meeting of the American Law and Society Association in May 2021 a panel on “How to Conference” had been organised by Mark Massoud, which included many of the points raised and gives further information. A video of it is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FuGbnanw6CU
See also a comment by Dee Smythe posted under the German version of this article: https://barblog.hypotheses.org/4395