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Off the Clock

Lessons from the ABA’s e-Lawyering Project

eLawyering is having a moment–at least another moment. Several factors, including the success of Jack Newton’s book The Client-Centered Law Firm, are drawing new attention to the idea of using the Internet to create and service new pools of clients for lawyers. In a recent Twitter thread Caitlin Moon and Dennis Kennedy expressed disappointment with the results of the American Bar Association’s e-Lawyering task force:

Note to Cat Moon: I was a rebel and I was allowed to be on the committee. It didn’t work out too well.

I was a member of the ABA’s e-lawyering Task Force from around 2000 to about 2003. My experience may have some relevance. Sometimes you have to know what happened, good or bad, to steer a better course in the future.

ABA President Bill Paul created the Task Force in order to develop ways of using the Internet to provide better and cheaper legal services. This move was largely inspired by the ideas of Richard Susskind, who developed the idea of “the latent legal market,” i.e., those with some type of problem who could benefit from a lawyer’s help but are who are not presently receiving help from a lawyer.

The eLawyering Task Force mission was widely misunderstood. It was not a charitable, pro bono-type project. The goal was to help lawyers make money by better serving middle class Americans, people who could afford to pay something for legal services.

The two-fer concept of helping the middle class while creating new profit centers for lawyers had great appeal, but I liked it more than most. I believed that if the project were successful, there would eventually be trickle-down benefits to the decidedly non-middle class people I grew up with. I was all in on eLawyering.

Richard Granat, the group’s first chair, thought a few ideas in my first book, The Complete Internet Handbook for Lawyers, might possibly help advance the project’s objectives. At ABA Techshow 1999, before the group was formally operational, he invited me to join the Task Force.

One of my first steps was to create a private email mailing list to facilitate the group’s work. We had conference calls and occasional meetings during ABA events, but I thought we needed better internal communications. We did not have the same sophisticated collaboration tools available today so mailing lists were state of the art.

Since the ABA’s official website had little or no information about the eLawyering project I created a website at my own expense to increase public awareness of the initiative.

From the first I was a consistent but naive advocate for aggressive action. Probably too aggressive.

I was not familiar with the ABA’s culture. Richard spent lots of time patiently explaining why my suggestions were impractical working within the ABA framework. Every explanation made sense but the overall picture was frustrating.

Sometimes rebels can be more trouble than they are worth. Eventually a fellow Task Force member suggested that I should be satisfied even if the group could only make incremental progress working within the ABA. With some regret, I decided to leave the group.

In the end my combination of ambition and naïveté about working within the ABA structure accomplished little. That doesn’t mean nothing was accomplished.

eLawyering Task Force Accomplishments

The more active members of the group promoted its goals though articles and presentations. Some traces of these efforts can be found here and there through searches on Google, Bing, etc. The ABA’s Online Legal Services section provides random links to traces of a few such efforts, but there is no central repository of the group’s activities, for reasons explained below.

The 2003 ABA House of Delegates approved the group’s set of best practice guidelines for legal information web sites.

Dennis Kennedy has suggested the group’s biggest success was creating a place where innovators could get to know each other and share ideas. Some people might take this remark as snarky, damning by faint praise, but from working with him over the years I know Dennis was serious and he has a point. Networking matters, and the residue of this is probably still providing at least some benefits today.

After a few years the ABA sunsetted the eLawyering project. Some of the project’s accomplishments have not survived the sunsetting:

  • The ABA eventually followed up an official website to support the venture and I abandoned the unofficial site I had created to support the project. The official ABA site has vanished. Searches on the URLs of the former official ABA websites (eLawyering.org and eLawyering.com) bring up error messages. An Internet Archive search shows the site’s last recorded update was in 2017.
  • The group initiated a public email mailing list at one point, but if it’s still operational it’s hard to find. After a little time spent at the ABA’s mailing list portal I can find no trace of it.

Why Not More?

With these accomplishments understood, it’s fair to ask whether the eLawyering Task Force could have accomplished even more.

I don’t believe the group’s leadership was to blame:

  • Bill Paul was a real leader in my book. Sure, he cribbed the basic idea from a British academic, but isn’t finding the best ideas and promoting them exactly what we would hope a leader would do?
  • I can’t think of anyone better qualified to lead the Task Force than Richard Granat. He had worked in related areas for years and had a record of creativity, determination and accomplishment.
  • The late Jim Keane, one of the country’s top legal tech experts (and the inspiration for the ABA’s James I Keane Award for Excellence in eLawyering) was a co-chair of the group.
  • The eminently well qualified Marc Lauritsen became co-chair about the time I left the group.

If the people were not the problem, then why didn’t the Task Force accomplish even more?

The ABA’s culture and organization were a handicap. The ABA is fundamentally a trade association. While it sometimes undertakes activities intended to create public benefits (like supporting pro bono projects and vetting judicial nominees) its primary reason for existence is advancing the interests of its members. Given this context, the fact that some perceived eLawyering as a sort of do-gooder program was probably a drawback.

Rocking the boat is seldom popular, especially when some perceive the project’s purpose as being something other than making life better for lawyers.

The fact that ABA presidents are limited to a single one year term was another handicap. I understand the desire to bring in new blood and fresh ideas but the lack of continuity makes long range initiatives difficult. When a president leaves his pet projects slide off the priority list.

Bottom Line

Did the eLawyering Task Force achieve what I and others hoped it would achieve? No.

Did the project achieve everything it could achieve working within the ABA structure? Probably.

I think the eLawyering project’s biggest benefit was just putting the ideas of eLawyering into play. Seeds were planted. The ground was too dry for them to fully blossom then, but attitudes and receptiveness evolve over time. Would Jack Duncan’s book be provoking so much discussion if not for the Task Force’s groundbreaking work?

While the ABA eLawyering project’s contributions should not be underestimated, I agree with Cat Moon and Dennis Kennedy that it’s time to consider alternatives to the institutional approach.

The objectives of the eLawyering project still matter. I’m just as much a rebel today as I was 20 years ago. The only difference is that today I have a better idea of how real innovation is possible.

I will be sharing my thoughts here and at a new website I am developing: eLawyeringinnovation.org.

Jerry Lawson

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Off the Clock

Why I Loved the eLawyering Project

I was proud to be a member of the ABA’s eLawyering Task Force from around 1999 until 2003. The project’s goal was using the Internet to help provide middle class Americans with better access to legal services. That was a worthwhile goal, but I had a different reason for supporting it so strongly:

I believed that if it was successful, there would be spillover benefits to people like those I grew up with.

I grew up in McDowell County, West Virginia. At the time it was probably the poorest county in the poorest state. The poverty in McDowell County is so deep and so persistent that in 2014 the New York Times used the county in an article portraying it as the poster child of poverty in America.

To me eLawyering was not just another pro bono project. It was personal.

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Off the Clock

Trump’s Attacks on Inspectors General

Donald Trump’s efforts to undermine the independent Offices of Inspector General (IGs) have provoked significant public controversy.

Since I was a lawyer for IGs in three different agencies between 1993 and my retirement in 2018 I feel qualified to comment on this issue. In these jobs I assisted teams of criminal investigators and auditors in their efforts to reduce waste, fraud and abuse of government funds. Since I am retired, I am freer to express my view of this matter.

In the course of my IG jobs I frequently worked with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle and their staffs. Everyone in Congress that I worked with, including the most liberal Democrats and the most conservative Republicans, liked the IGs because they provided reliable, objective information about government problems.

Trump’s efforts to undermine IGs deserve more national attention. The relative lack of attention is probably a result of the national health crisis. While thousands of people are dying it’s tempting to downplay what may appear to many citizens as an insignificant reshuffling of organization charts.

This relative lack of attention is a large mistake. Trump’s actions are a significant attack on an institution that is one of the most effective independent oversight bodies. It’s part of a pattern that threatens our democracy. A bipartisan response is needed. There are some signs that this is beginning to coalesce, but given the tremendous level of political polarization, success in these efforts should not be taken for granted. The bizarre reaction of Attorney General Bill Barr reduces optimism that this scandal will be appropriately addressed.

Glenn Fine

One more point: I know Glenn Fine, one of the IGs Trump has undermined. He was and is absolutely one of the most respected IGs. That’s why a panel of his peers selected him to lead the oversight of the trillions of dollars Congress is giving Trump to spend. Fine was not fired, merely demoted, but the demotion removes him from any real decision making oversight role.

I have no personal acquaintance with Michael Atkinson, the Intelligence Community Inspector General who Trump recently fired. He assumed office only a few months before I retired, but as a result of my work in the IG community I do know that this job is considered one of the most sensitive and difficult IG positions. Only the most capable people are considered for the DNI IG position.

Finally, a personal note:

Once I became an IG lawyer, I never wanted to do any other type of work. I loved it because we were independent. We went after Democrats or Republicans with equal fervor. We really didn’t give a damn.

This is the Inspector General ethos. This is why Trump fears IGs. It is why, when so many Americans are dying, sick or distracted in the midst of a great national public emergency, Trump is taking advantage of this to undermine their efforts to reduce waste, fraud and abuse.

Jerry Lawson

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KM Off the Clock

Draft KM Book Preface: Freida Riley

Miss Freida Riley

I dedicated my first book, The Complete Internet Handbook for Lawyers, to the best teachers I had in high school, college, law school and two mentors I encountered later who influenced me greatly. Of these, the most important was probably my high school teacher, Freida Riley.

The preface to a new book I am writing about knowledge management for law firms uses things Freida Riley taught me to make a point about efficiency and lawyers:

PREFACE

I first learned about the joy of efficiency from my high school Geometry teacher, Miss Frieda Riley. On submitting a proof for her approval, her usual reaction would be: “It’s OK. Can you do better?” What she meant was make it simpler, more streamlined, more efficient. 

If better insights came to me, I would hear words every student yearns to hear: “That’s good, Jerry. That’s what we are looking for.” Miss Riley prized efficiency, what mathematicians call “elegance.” She showed me what poet Edna St. Vincent had in mind when she wrote: “Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.” 

Freida Riley

Valedictorian of her high school and college classes, Frieda Riley could have been a star teacher at virtually any school in the country. She chose to return to her home in the southern West Virginia coal fields. She blessed the students of Big Creek High School with new insights, better ways of thinking and approaching problems.

Fried Riley died of Hodgkin’s Disease at age 31. Today she is honored in the National Museum of Education, but her most important legacy is the countless students she inspired–and equipped–to meet challenges.

October Sky Movie

Homer Hickam was one of these students. He escaped the coal fields to become a NASA engineer. Miss Riley played a prominent role in his memoir, “Rocket Boys.” It was later made into the 1999 movie named “October Sky.” Laura Dern played the Miss Riley role. Dern did a great job, but the real Miss Riley was oh so much better.

My Miss Riley-inspired yearning for efficiency accompanied me to many places, including a private law firm and later several federal agencies. I observed many attempts at knowledge management, good and bad. Efficiency was a rare commodity in most knowledge management efforts, effectiveness even more so. The main feature most had in common was a failure to meet expectations. Many were complete failures.

By this point the more impatient reader will be asking, “What does one man’s idiosyncratic fetish for efficient knowledge management have to do with me and my law firm?” The answer is simple:

Improved, more efficient knowledge management is probably the most promising way for most law firms to become more effective, to improve their bottom line.

The grail of knowledge management is elusive. There are more potential pitfalls than easy shortcuts. In this book I have done my best to provide tools that can help you find the best approaches, the ones most adaptable to you and your law firm.

We hope you enjoy the adventure and find it rewarding. Our challenge to you is:

 “Can you do better?”

Jerry Lawson