The Innovators: Ronald Staudt
The long and slow fight to integrate technology into the legal industry, starting with law schools.
Birthplace: Lorain, Ohio
Home Base: Chicago
Education: St. Joseph’s College, B.S Mathematics, B.A. Philosophy, 1967; University of Chicago Law School, J.D., 1970
Work: Ronald "Ron" Staudt is one of the nation’s earliest evangelists for technology-focused legal instruction and an advocate for tech-powered legal access. As professor of law, and director of the Center for Access to Justice and Technology, at the Illinois Institute of Technology Chicago-Kent College of Law, Staudt created microcomputer labs at the school. During a leave (1994-1998) to work at LexisNexis, he headed the team that built LexisNexis Exchange, the company's first commercial online service that delivered legal research on the Internet. He started as director, law school markets, and in 1995 became vice president, technology development; then vice president, knowledge management in 1998. Straudt returned to teaching in 1998.
Staudt’s latest projects at CAJT include the Access to Justice Author Project, aka A2J Author, which creates internet tools to support pro se litigants, legal services advocates and pro bono volunteers.
Slow road: Staudt moved from a teaching post at the University of Chicago’s Mandel Legal Clinic in 1978 to take a tenure track position as associate director of the "Law Offices at Chicago-Kent." His job was partially funded by the Council on Legal Education for Professional Responsibility to stimulate broader implementation of clinical education in law. The Chicago-Kent grant was called “Law Office of the Future,” and Staudt said, “We used an experimental mainframe software system written by [James] Sprowl from the American Bar Foundation to build document assembly kits that wrote simple wills and divorce complaints. Our clinical faculty and students built used these systems one year to do 500 wills for senior citizens in the Mayor’s Office for Senior Citizens and the Handicapped. It was fascinating and I thought the work would change the face of law practice as these document assembly tools were perfected and adopted widely by law firms.” (The agency no longer exists as those responsiblities have been split into several other city offices, he notes.)
It’s taken three decades to gain traction. “It’s really been only the last five to six years that you’ve seen more than a very small contingent who have been aggressive and optimistic in pushing the tech envelope,” said Staudt. “Some have been skeptical, others have been hostile. When I started to do this, people thought I was crazy.”
Considerable work must be done on the student side of the law to sell a career path that’s more accepting of technology in both use and innovation, he asserts. Most of the obstacles are cultural, Staudt acknowledges. “Law students tend not to be interested or have great aptitude in science and math—you still have a lot of poly sci, English and philosophy majors in this field,” Staudt observes. But he is starting to train powerful disciples—Andrew Baker, a University of Illinois finance and IT undergrad and 2007 Chicago-Kent grad is now director of Chicago-based Seyfarth Shaw’s legal technology innovations office.
Pushing a nationwide legal technology curriculum: Staudt’s latest course, called "Justice & Technology Practicum" introduces law students to document assembly software, the A2J Author tool “and other e-lawyering essentials.” Students build A2J guided interviews for legal aid organizations around the country to help lower-income people access the law. With The Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction, a nonprofit consortium of law schools, "we are supporting six other law schools that are using A2J Author to teach core competencies and simultaneously reduce barriers to justice,” said Staudt. “I am and have always been a technology optimist. I just have an unshakable belief that technology has enormous to improve the quality of lawyering and the efficiency of lawyers and the quality of justice.”
Staudt notes that law students also need to build a diversified skill set rooted in technology because the conventional associates’ apprenticeship rooted in human discovery is evaporating quickly. He points to the landmark 1960s antitrust case U.S. v. IBM as the moment human discovery became a major cost center in law firms as new lawyers were paid handsomely to do it. With the advent of e-discovery, “the bottom has dropped out” of that historic economic and training model, and students haven’t begun to adjust in a meaningful way. “Even today, the majority (of law students) aren’t thinking about practice management or business structures that can support great legal minds and technology,” he says.
Family: Staudt’s wife Tina O’Connor is a dentist. They have three daughters, 25, 37 and 39.
Personal tech: “The smartphone is the ubiquitous technology platform now and for the immediate future,” says Staudt. “I use my Android phone 50 times a day and once in a while a make a phone call.”
Hobbies: “About 10 years ago I discovered golf and whenever I can I will walk 18 to enjoy the nature, the company and the challenge.”
Hope for the future: “I would like to see every law school offer a course that teaches law students how to use and employ new web-based software to deliver personal legal services to low and middle income people facing daunting barriers to access to justice,” Staudt says.
Lisa Holton is a Chicago-based business writer. Email: Lisa@TheLisaCompany.com.