Technology Evangelist Keeps Faith in Legal Aid

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01Jun2009

Technology Evangelist Keeps Faith in Legal Aid

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By Maria Kantzavelos, Chicago Lawyer Magazine

Ronald StaudtWhen Ronald W. Staudt was born, the term digital computer could have only meant: One who counts on his fingers.

By the time he was a 10-year-old boy growing up as the big brother to four sisters in Springfield, Ohio — where he skipped the fourth grade because he was good with math — the first of the modern computers were the size of a large room.

Fast-forward five decades — passing through the dawn of the mainframe and minicomputer eras; the emergence of the microcomputer and its transformation into the personal computer; and into the digital age of the Internet — and Staudt, 62, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, has cemented his standing as a pioneer in efforts to apply technology to the teaching and practice of law.

From his early ideas for document assembly systems for practitioners, electronic casebooks for law students, and his role in making Chicago-Kent the nation’s first “wired” law school, to his more recent focus on using Internet-based tools to increase access to justice for pro se litigants and people of limited means, Staudt has kept his finger on the pulse of the intersection of law and technology since he joined the law school in 1978.

He often has a tablet PC in hand when he is in and out of the classroom, teaching such courses as copyright law, intellectual property strategies, and public interest law and policy. But this professor and long-time scholar of legal technology is not the quintessential techie, or computer geek, tinkering with cutting edge gadgets or programs.

“I think of myself not as a general programmer, but more of a technology evangelist,” said Staudt, Chicago-Kent’s associate vice president for law, business, and technology. “Part of that role is to be able to understand what’s possible and to make that a reality to people who don’t do or care about the technology — they just want to get things done.”

The idea that computers would be pervasive, intellectual helping aids in the legal profession was an insight of Staudt’s and a handful of others in the mid-1980s, when only 5 percent of the lawyers in the nation’s largest law firms had a computer on or near their desk.

“We were saying: ‘All of you are going to have this before long.’ And, there was lots of resistance at that time,” Staudt recalled.

Then the founding director of the law school’s Center for Law and Computers, Staudt tracked the growing use of technology by practitioners in large firms starting in 1985, with the center’s first annual survey. By 1995, Staudt said, around 93 percent of lawyers surveyed had a computer on their desk.

“I was trying to make the case for using technology as part of the legal education process and to be able to say, between 1991 and 1992 we went from 57 to 73 percent of the lawyers in the largest law firms in the country have a computer on their desk — you better get there,” Staudt said.

As part of a study with IBM in the early 1980s, Staudt led the effort to build a microcomputer lab dedicated to the study of law and technology at the law school.

“Stuff that we take for granted now, wasn’t available then. And so, people coming in to use technology were ignorant. They didn’t know what a keyboard was. They knew what a typewriter was, but they’d never seen a keyboard for a computer. They didn’t know how they worked,” Staudt said. “We started teaching classes to students, and teaching classes to lawyers. We taught dozens of CLE classes on how to use computers for lawyers, and we built these software tool kits, and we had projects with the ABA.”

Instrumental in the opening of the law school’s new home in 1992, when it was wired with computer network connections and power at all classroom seats, Staudt was also among a few scholars who were right on about their predictions for the impact of the Internet on the legal profession.

computer lab“There were a handful of us who said this is going to change the world. We’re going to be different because of the way we can communicate easily and freely,” Staudt said.

That was in the late 1980s and early ’90s, he said, when the network that evolved into today’s Internet featured a rudimentary kind of connection between mainframes, for non-commercial government and research uses.

When he took a leave from academia for four years in the mid 1990s to work for LexisNexis, he convinced company leaders — “over a pretty serious headwind” — to develop a Web product. That product, Staudt said, was basically the predecessor to Lexis.com, which today represents about 98 percent of the company’s legal research revenue.

“He’s a visionary,” said Harold J. Krent, dean of the law school. “He is always anticipating what’s around the corner 25 years hence, and he’s making sure everybody else is thinking about what’s going to happen in 25 years. As opposed to what most of us do: think about what’s going to happen next week.”

Some of Staudt’s predictions have not yet been fulfilled — like his forecast that paper casebooks in law schools would be replaced by electronic versions, such as the award-winning electronic course kit: Computer Law on Disk he introduced to Chicago-Kent students in the early 1990s.

“In 1994 it seemed obvious to me that because of the way computers were working, and the way the Internet was beginning to develop, and technology was available to law students, that law students would just use electronic books,” Staudt said. “Because you could modify them rapidly, law professors could customize the sequence of things they wanted students to read, students could annotate inside the book as the class was going on. They could keep their notes inside the book. I built these things where you just pushed a button and you sort of automatically drew up an outline of all your stuff.”

But the jury is still out on the e-casebook.

“It still remains a mystery to me why that hasn’t taken off,” Staudt said. “It’s been a 20-year vision and it still hasn’t happened.

“Students still have backpacks and carts that they carry around — 175 pounds of books with them as they go through the day. They’re usually carrying a laptop, also.”

studentThe technology evangelist recalled an earlier prophesy — arrived at through his work with document assembly software starting in the late 1970s — that such uses of technology, then avant-garde, would trigger vast improvements in law practice, resulting in a need for far fewer lawyers.

“I thought: My goodness, this is so efficient,” Staudt recalled. “We probably only need half as many lawyers. I think I may have even written that in an article somewhere — that all this document assembly stuff is going to handle a huge amount of work we do now. What’s left will be really great, because we’ll be doing more cerebral work. We’ll be using our judgment, and the stuff we do will be more intellectual. It’ll be harder and more fun, and less routine.

“I thought [in the late ’70s and early ’80s] we’d probably only need about half as many of us as we have now, and there’s probably three times as many of us now as there were then. Those predictions are not working out.”

But Staudt, now the director of Chicago-Kent’s Center for Access to Justice & Technology, has been on the mark with his more recent vision for how Internet-based document assembly technologies could support legal aid lawyers, pro bono volunteers, and pro se litigants.

That vision led to the creation of the Self-Help Web Center on the sixth floor of the Daley Center, where law student volunteers in the last six years have helped more than 10,000 pro se litigants navigate the court system via technology tools developed at the school’s Center for Access to Justice & Technology.

One of those software tools is A2J Author, pioneered by Staudt out of a study by a team that included Chicago-Kent law students, design students from Illinois Institute of Technology, and researchers from the National Center for State Courts.

A2J Author, shorthand for Access to Justice, allows legal aid lawyers or court personnel without computer programming backgrounds to build guided Internet interviews for prospective clients. The end result has pro se litigants consulting with a virtual legal assistant who appears on a computer screen in the form of a 3-D animated avatar, asking questions and compiling their answers while automatically filling out legal forms that are ready to be filed in court.

studentThe software tool has been rapidly growing in popularity among legal aid groups and courts, which have been spreading the technology across the nation — and into other countries — since its initial release in 2005.

“We’re really just at the end of the beginning on those things,” Staudt said, referring to the proliferation of self-help web centers in courthouses around the country, and software tools that target the needs of indigent clients and pro se litigants seeking justice while facing the barriers of complexity and cost. “There are going to be enormous, positive opportunities and benefits that are going to come out of this.”

Staudt’s vision for his own future was not as clear when he was a young undergraduate student in the mid 1960s at St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind., where he majored in mathematics and philosophy.

“I had no idea what I wanted to do in my life,” said Staudt, who attended Notre Dame High School in Niles and was just 20 when he finished college. “I took some aptitude tests, and ‘lawyer’ was one of the things that came out of that process. And I had some people helping me try to figure out my way.

“The analysis was ‘It’s a graduate degree that didn’t narrow you as much as it opened up opportunities’,” Staudt said. “You could find different ways to map a career forward with a law degree. It would enhance your intellectual skills, and open up some more doors.”

Armed with a degree from University of Chicago Law School, Staudt was working as a litigator in a mid-size firm in Chicago in 1972, when one of those doors led him to Arizona, to work as a legal aid lawyer.

“I just felt like something was missing,” Staudt said, referring to his decision to leave the law firm. “Maybe I was hoping to be more of a crusader, or have more of an impact. I felt like the work I did was useful for the individual clients, but it didn’t matter very much to society.”

He took a substantial pay cut, stopped cutting his hair, and made the move to Tucson, where his “most favorite project of all time” had him working on a community development effort to build a new subdivision for a community of minorities whose homes had been wiped out in a flood disaster.

Another door of opportunity opened for Staudt after he returned to University of Chicago Law School, and had been working as a clinical fellow and lecturer at the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic. That door led him to Chicago-Kent at a time when the law school had received a grant from the Ford Foundation to launch its “Law Office of the Future” initiative.

The project was a chance for Staudt to embark on a tenure-track position, while exploring how emerging computer technologies could benefit the practice of law.

“I got fascinated by that, and was captured by that. Basically, it changed my whole career to have that opportunity. I jumped on it,” Staudt said.

He rolled up his sleeves with a first mission: To explore, in a law school clinic, the use of technology — document assembly software — to reduce the cost of repetitive services and provide an efficient way to deliver legal services to low- and moderate-income individuals in Chicago.

“We sent students out to these senior citizen sites in the city and they took interviews and came back with these interview sheets, ran them into this machine at a mainframe at Northwestern with our programming, and produced 500 or 600 wills that year,” Staudt recalled. “It was pretty interesting.”

For Staudt, then a technology “amateur” who had some exposure to computer programming in college, there was much to learn.

“This was before the personal computer — it was [the] mainframe era,” Staudt said. “The way you contacted these big mainframe computers was with acoustical couplers and teletype machines. You had to learn all that stuff. I had to buy all this equipment and figure out how to make this thing work, and it was fun — it was a kick.”

John Mayer, the information technology director for the law school in the late ’80s and into the mid-’90s, is among the programming experts Staudt has teamed-up with over the years.

“He was completely different than any other law professor I knew because he’d be willing to play around with new tools and new software that was becoming available at the time,” said Mayer, now the executive director of the non-profit Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction.

“We used to try all sorts of things, and a lot of them would fail. One of his most famous sayings was: ‘We never retreat; we only charge in a new direction,”’ Mayer recalled. “He was very aggressive in implementing new ideas. He was very challenging.”

Longtime colleague Richard Warner, a professor and the faculty director of the law school’s Center for Law and Computers, said the easygoing and congenial Staudt has a flair for the art of persuasion.

“I always find Ron to be very clear, very commonsensical, but he does it with a compellingness to it that is the mark of a salesperson, a preacher, a converter of people,” Warner said. “It’s a compellingness that, especially as a lawyer, one has to admire.

“You walk into any law school now, you’ll see that the law school has a network and has wired or wireless in the classrooms. Why? Ron Staudt. He single-handedly convinced every dean in the country that they had to have a network.”

When asked recently for his predictions for the law office of the future, his vision for how technology will change the practice of law in the next 10, 20 years, Staudt pauses.

“Almost every time I’ve tried to make that assessment I’ve been wrong,” he said. “Although, none of the predictions were wrong like they’re never going to happen. But they were wrong like they haven’t happened yet — or the timing was off.”

In law and technology, Staudt now sees communication, rather than computation — the ability of the computer to analyze and come up with alternatives and decisions — to continue to dominate the legal profession.

“What you see technology doing for lawyers is handling communications, and helping them exchange information rapidly,” he said. “You don’t see computers replacing lawyers very much and I think maybe, that’s what people thought would happen when they thought: ‘Law office of the future.”’

What is happening for Staudt is an intersection of another sort — one where his early work as a legal aid lawyer is coming full circle, with his focus on the automation of legal aid services.

“These emerging law and technology tools in the access to justice arena — that’s very exciting because it’s all good. There isn’t any downside there,” Staudt said. “It’s all just about helping people know what their rights are and being able to get access to the tools that make it possible for them to get those rights played out in the legal system.

“That’s just like that idealistic, 1972 moment of my life — wrapped around 20 years of law and technology. It’s all upside. The last 10 years have been a delicious combination of all these things.”

Staudt, now a grandfather of two young boys, lives with his wife, Tina O’Connor, in Lake Bluff. He is the father of three daughters whose own career paths are taking different idealistic directions.

One of his daughters is a scientist, a global warming expert for the National Wildlife Federation. Another of his daughters is still in college, while another, Abigail, is following in her father’s early footsteps.

She is a legal aid lawyer in Cleveland, Ohio, representing tenants of subsidized housing.

“I think it’s really exciting that he’s helping to take technology into the legal aid world, and trying to use it to reach underserved populations,” Staudt’s daughter said. “What it says to me is, the work he did in legal aid years ago stayed with him.

“I just think that’s really cool. His career could’ve taken so many directions. To come full circle, but continue to be innovative — it’s inspiring. I would be so happy if I could have a similar career that continues to work towards using the law and my education, my interests, to help people.”

Copyright © 2009 Law Bulletin Publishing Company

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