October 23, 2012

Ron Staudt

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Tech Experts' Tips for Cutting Back
(and What No Lawyer Should Do Without)

April/May 2006 Issue | Volume 32 Number 3 | Page 23

Who Is . . .

Ron Staudt

By Mark Tamminga

For nearly three decades, Ron Staudt has had a vision of how computers might revolutionize the practice of law—and he has proactively helped push technology’s potential to the fore in the profession. He has written and spoken widely on technology and the law and is on the faculty at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, where he teaches Internet law and intellectual property strategies. In addition, Professor Staudt is the director of Chicago-Kent’s Center for Access to Justice and Technology.

Vital Statistics

Ronald W. Staudt

Professor of Law and Associate VP for Law, Business and Technology

Chicago-Kent College of Law
Chicago, IL

The center uses Internet resources to improve access to justice, with special emphasis on building Web tools to support legal services advocates, pro bono volunteers and pro se litigants. Among the center’s projects are Chicago-Kent’s Public Interest Law Certificate Program and the Self-Help Web Center at the Cook County Courthouse, where law students help self-represented litigants using technology tools developed at the center.

A member of the ABA Law Practice Management Section’s eLawyering Task Force and a fellow of the College of Law Practice Management, here he shares his perspectives on the revolution’s progress.

Let’s go waaay back, to a time before PCs, to a time when you were a young law professor. What was it in your background and what was it about information technology that suggested to you that computers could be engines of real change both in legal education and in legal practice?

RS: In 1978 I moved from the Mandel Clinic at the University of Chicago to the Chicago-Kent College of Law clinical faculty when Chicago-Kent obtained a Ford Foundation grant to build the “Law Office of the Future.” The grant program was very farsighted. The foundation wanted to help clinical education grow in American law schools, and this project was designed to help build a self-supporting fee-generating law school clinic with clients coming from middle-income people who needed wills and divorces and guardianships. The computer was to be used to automate repetitive tasks in the law office and drive the cost of these legal services down to affordable levels for ordinary people.

From 1978 to 1980, clinical professors and students built automated document assembly systems and we used those systems for hundreds of wills and guardianships and a bunch of simple divorces. At that time, Jim Sprowl at the American Bar Foundation was the country’s best-known expert on computers and the law. He built a document assembly engine called the ABF Processor that ran on mainframe computers at Northwestern University. We contacted the mainframe computer with acoustical couplers tied to very slow modems and TTY terminals and spin-writer printers.

This project was eye-opening, exciting and extremely challenging. The technology was in its infancy. As our practice systems developed, the hardware world was undergoing a complete revolution. The PC was emerging. We spent hours debating whether to use CPM or Apple or DOS computers for our first student lab. Terminals linked to mainframes or minicomputers were the dominant technology used in firms and almost all law firm use was in the back office, for accounting, time and billing and word processing centers. It was a wild time, almost as exciting and wild as the explosion of new capabilities and businesses and professional changes driven by the Internet 20 years later.

My imagination was stirred by computing’s power to capture legal analysis and to chart out the clause options that variable client circumstances might trigger. The ABF Processor let us write rules that mimicked legal rules. The computer rules controlled the words that would be inserted into documents based on answers to questions generated by the rules themselves. If the client answered that the testator had children, then the child clause was inserted and appropriate questions about children were posed to the client. If not, the child questions were skipped. Simple, obvious stuff now, but then, it was amazing.

In 1980, I believed that document assembly would sweep the profession and change its dynamics forever. I expected that computers would help automated lawyers deliver better services more quickly and at a much lower cost. I also assumed that we would need fewer lawyers.

If the 1978 Ron Staudt could transport to the present and be given a guided tour of the state of technology and the law by the 2006 Ron Staudt, what would you tell him? What would you show him?

RS: I guess the most amazing thing that has happened since 1978 is the explosive growth of the Internet as an open, collaborative, international, perhaps non-national platform for communication and collaboration and business and education and entertainment. Even if I could have predicted today’s Internet as a goal, I would have never predicted that we could get it so right, so fast. I think that the most fascinating things, the most eye-opening things to my 1978 mind, might be to see iPods and Treos and tiny tablet computers wirelessly connected to the Internet and to overhead projectors in law school classrooms.

I spent lots of energy between 1978 and 1994 trying to convince others that the use of computers would bring fabulous opportunities to improve legal education and law practice. From 1984 to 1994, I tracked the slow but inexorable growth of the use of computers by lawyers on their professional desktops from 5 percent in 1984 to 83 percent in 1994. I introduced personal computers into law school classrooms in the mid-1980s when my colleagues were skeptical of their value and worried about the negative impact on teaching. The students who now come to class with powerful laptop computers to take notes, write papers and take exams then were hostile to technology and resisted learning about computers and word processing and even Lexis automated research.

The potential of computers to drive the communications revolution of the past 10 years was completely unexplored territory in 1978. Networks of PCs were unknown and wide area networks of personal devices almost unthinkable. It would have been wonderful in 1978 to really know, rather than just hope, that today’s ubiquitous computing and universal connectivity and almost complete digitization of information would become a reality.

Throughout your career as an academic, you’ve combined a fascination with technology with a drive to expand access to the legal system for the poor. Is technology finally proving to be the leveler many hoped it would be?

RS: I don’t know if technology is exactly leveling things for the lawyers of low-income people. Legal Aid offices are often poorly equipped and understaffed, especially with technology staff. It is much easier for a director of a legal services office overwhelmed by needy clients to hire another lawyer than to reengineer the office and become highly automated. All large firms and many small and midsize firms are much more powerfully equipped with technology for the courtroom and the law office.

But there is some real hope that technology can make a difference. In so many ways it still feels like 1978 when we were trying to build the Law Office of the Future to make legal services more affordable to people. Yet now, the opportunity for technology to power real change is so palpable. I do think we may be close to a breakthrough moment when technology-driven tools can increase access to justice in a meaningful way.

Years of groundwork driven by the Legal Service Corporation’s Technology Innovation Grant program has produced statewide Web sites in nearly every state that offer great information and forms and guidance for low-income people seeking to resolve disputes or solve legal problems. These sites are fabulous lawyer referral tools pointing people to Legal Aid services, pro bono programs and bar association lawyer referral panels.

A gift of HotDocs Server and 100 document assembly software packages from LexisNexis has stimulated the development of a community of document assembly authors in Legal Aid offices across the country, and each year they are loading hundreds of simple forms onto the National Public Automated Documents Online server running the donated HotDocs Web server product.

At Chicago-Kent, we have been deeply involved in helping to build Illinois Legal Aid Online, our statewide Web site for low-income people. We are also building very soft interfaces to HotDocs using a product we developed jointly with the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI) called A2J Author. With A2J Author, we can load onto a site attractive graphics portraying a road to the courthouse and guide low-income people, a step at a time, with voice assistance to reach the goal of a set of properly formatted court forms or instructions.

Do those who engage in traditional law practice have cause for alarm as the tools to help people help themselves become more available and accessible—something you’ve labeled the “self-help Home Depot movement”?

RS: From 1999 to 2001, we did a three- year study of how self-represented litigants face the courts in five different court systems across the country. We had many partners and significant funding to study these litigants as customers of justice. We found that many people in simple divorce cases and small claims and other less complicated matters decide to “go it alone” without a lawyer because they think they can do it themselves. We studied a court in a university town and many self-represented litigants were college educated and reasonably well-off. They didn’t think paying a lawyer was worth the price. Of course, the most common reason for people to represent themselves is the inability to afford a lawyer, but the Home Depot movement is real.

Lawyers no longer control all access to legal information. When Lexis was first introduced in the 1970s, the profession had a debate about whether there should be public-access terminals allowing non-lawyers to search case law and statutes unaided by a lawyer. That debate was serious at the time, but it seems almost silly today. All types of professional, scientific, medical and financial information that was terribly difficult for laypeople to access 10 years ago is easily available today on the Internet. But lawyers offer more than access to cases and statutes and forms. I don’t think the legal profession is in any danger of shrinking like travel agents or losing fees like the stockbrokers, who once charged hundreds of dollars for simple stock trades.

Last week my students were required to do site visits to learn how the court system works for self-represented litigants. One student came back to the class with a story of a lawyer in a simple eviction case trying to get the judge to impose “reasonable fees” of over $1,000 for a court proceeding that took less than five minutes. If lawyers expect to be able to charge very high prices for very simple matters that people can figure out on their own on the Internet, then they have cause for alarm. If lawyers make the case for the value of well-informed legal advice from a knowledgeable professional, skilled in the law, equipped with the special capability to enforce confidentiality against the courts themselves, and ready to take on the world to help their clients achieve justice, they will have no cause for alarm.

The Internet has been absorbed into popular culture, software tools largely hide the underlying complexity of information technology, and genuinely new ways of doing legal work are emerging. Are we now on the cusp of the real computer revolution in the law? Or will we look back in 10 years and think, heck, my practice (or my classroom) just isn’t that different?

RS: As fascinated with technology as I have been over the past 28 years, I have always believed that the center of teaching and the core of lawyering is a personal connection between teacher and student or lawyer and client. That personal connection for both teacher and lawyer is based on the trust and confidence offered by the student and client.

The characteristics we ascribe to the best teachers and lawyers—nurturing, challenging, wise, insightful, creative, courageous and tenacious—these characteristics are difficult to build into software. In that core of the profession, we will look back in 10 years and hope that our practices and classrooms are not too different.

But at the margins where teachers are delivering lots of factual detail in a class or lawyers are churning out boilerplate documents in their practices, I hope things are very different. I hope that technology will help automated lawyers deliver better services more quickly and at a much lower cost. I also assume that we will see some routine law tasks slip out of the core of the profession. When I started practicing law in 1970, many lawyers did lots of tax returns. April 14 was a tough day in most small law offices. TurboTax and H&R Block changed the landscape of that part of the practice. In 10 years the emerging developments in sophisticated computing and communications will change other parts of the personal plight practice as well. But in 10 years we will not see a computer with wisdom or courage or creativity.