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  • November 07, 2018

    6 Big Ideas: 2018 Wisconsin Legal Innovators

    Meet these movers and shakers who infuse the legal profession with a dose of creative thinking.

    Ed Finkel

    2018 Wisconsin Legal Innovators collage

    Some say the legal profession has changed more in the past 15 years than the preceding 50 years, driven by technology, economics, and changing client expectations and demands, says Tom Watson, chair of the Innovation Subcommittee of the State Bar’s Communications Committee. “We hope these innovations can help lead to a future where lawyers thrive in an ever-changing and highly competitive legal marketplace,” he says.

    Wisconsin’s legal innovators are tackling those challenges and others, such as the need to address diversity in both the profession and client population, the desire for more efficient technological solutions to forge professional connections, and the unmet demand for legal services among populations ranging from low-income people, to the LGBT community, to fledgling business startups.

    Five of the six innovators selected for the State Bar of Wisconsin’s fifth annual “That’s a Fine Idea: Legal Innovation Wisconsin” initiative did their work in either pro bono or reduced-cost services, or diversity and inclusion, Watson notes.

    “Maybe it’s a sign of the times, but in a way, it’s not surprising,” he says. “In terms of diversity, there is still that ‘wall,’ if you will, that often limits entry and advancement in our profession. With our increasingly diverse society, social justice means fairness and equality, and our system of justice requires a legal profession that is contemporary with society’s changes. Many people believe we need more ambitious, more robust diversity and inclusion efforts.”

    Similarly, under-funded nonprofit and pro bono work is sometimes overlooked, Watson says. “But this work is so essential to narrowing the justice gap, and many of our Wisconsin lawyers continue to take on this important work, despite those obstacles, by seeking innovative ways to fill that gap through new initiatives, collaborations, and partnerships,” he says. “We have been pleasantly surprised by the creativity and diligence of these Wisconsin lawyers and are excited to showcase their innovation.”

    This year we honor six individual or team innovators, including a lifetime award winner.

    Lifetime Innovator Emery Harlan: Champion of Diversity and Inclusion

    mery Harlan

    Emery Harlan, a partner with MWH Law, Milwaukee, is this year’s Lifetime Innovator for his conscious efforts to increase diversity at his law firm and within the legal profession. Without that consciousness, he says, “There’s a natural pull for people to gravitate toward people who are like them. You have to take some intentional steps to overcome that.” Photo: Kevin Harnak

    Diversity in the legal profession is a challenge that might never be solved outright, but Milwaukee attorney Emery K. Harlan, a partner with MWH Law Group LLP, is clearly one of those helping to bend the arc of history in a more inclusive direction.

    During the past couple years at MWH and for many years before that at his previous firm, Gonzalez, Saggio & Harlan, Harlan worked to hire and promote minority and female attorneys, helping them to develop relationships with key decision-makers at corporate clients, as well as encouraging those decision-makers to consider them as a resource.

    Ed FinkelEd Finkel is an Evanston-based freelance writer.

    “It’s an ongoing challenge we face. Frankly, I don’t think we’ve made as much progress as we need to make,” he says. “In some ways, I don’t feel as though my efforts have been super-successful. I nonetheless am encouraged as I continue to meet people with influence who recognize the problem and are dedicated to using their influence to try to make the legal profession more diverse.”

    The challenge involves ensuring that consciousness of diversity is a top-tier priority despite the myriad other concerns occupying the minds of senior attorneys at both law firms and in-house legal departments, Harlan says. Without that consciousness, he says, “There’s a natural pull for people to gravitate toward people who are like them. You have to take some intentional steps to overcome that.”

    Harlan’s current firm – which was formed by former Gonzalez attorneys and handles general business, litigation, public finance, intellectual property, and technology law – has 16 attorneys, including eight African Americans, one Hispanic, and 10 women. The equity partners are Harlan and Kerrie Murphy. But Harlan says many larger firms have only a handful of people of color, with predominantly white, male executive and compensation committees.

    While many firms have hired heads of diversity or created diversity and inclusion committees, “My fear is that we’re not making real changes,” Harlan says. “With rare exceptions, law firms are not making any meaningful impact in terms of how diverse their organizations are. We’ve also seen some examples of firms that in the past did a very good job of bringing in diverse classes of associates, only to see in 7-10 years, those associates transition to government positions or in-house roles.”

    At his current and previous firms, Harlan has found at least some in-house lawyers and general counsel receptive to the notion that law firms won’t get their business if they don’t have diverse teams. “That’s the proven method for getting firms to move,” he says. “We need more people who are in positions of influence to drive that message.”

    Neither MWH nor Gonzalez intentionally hired people of a certain profile, Harlan says. “It’s simply a function of us being open to talent and not having any preconceived notions of where talent comes from,” he says. For example, “We are supportive of the different [female and minority] affinity bar associations. I wouldn’t necessarily say we find candidates through them, but we support their mission.”

    In the broader profession, Harlan was a founder of the National Association of Women and Minority Owned Law Firms, created in 2001 to promote diversity by fostering successful relationships between diverse attorneys and both private and public legal clients. “It’s a great organization,” he says. “It has created tremendous opportunities for women- and minority-owned firms. It’s become a great resource for organizations that want to use diverse outside counsel.”

    Warren E. Buliox, a partner at MWH Law Group who previously worked at Gonzalez, says Harlan always had a passion to ensure that minority and female attorneys had opportunities. “He’s accomplished a lot as a litigator, and he’s also been very successful in building business,” Buliox says. “With Emery and the firm in general, it was about identifying and taking a chance on diverse talent.”

    That doesn’t mean making decisions based on diversity alone, he adds, “but if there’s no diverse people or women who run in your circles, then guess what? You’re not going to be able to find them. It’s keeping those lines of communication active … engaging with community organizations, whether it be the NAACP or the Urban League or other organizations. And when you get diverse talent in, guess what? It attracts others.”

    Abby Churchill: Helping Transgender Clients

    alt text

    Abby Churchill (left), founder of Trans Law Help Wisconsin, Madison, and volunteers Lynn Lodahl, Polly Shoemaker, and Vanessa Kuettel. “Transgender people face a multifaceted set of legal challenges based partly on the societal misconceptions about what it means to be transgender as well as the systemic marginalization of the community across many socioeconomic factors,” Churchill says. Photo: Andy Manis

    An internship at the Transgender Law Center in California during her first year of law school gave Abby Churchill a window into the unique legal needs of transgender people. This experience, along with having “many friends and loved ones who identify as transgender,” built a passion that she brought back to Madison in founding Trans Law Help Wisconsin. “I have both personal and professional connections to this work,” she says.

    Transgender people face a multifaceted set of legal challenges based partly on the societal misconceptions about what it means to be transgender as well as the systemic marginalization of the community across many socioeconomic factors, says Churchill. She is a coauthor of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and the Law (State Bar of Wisconsin, 2018).

    “There aren’t many people I’ve met who know much about these unique legal issues, including those in the community who are directly impacted by them,” she says. “I’m not going to be able to make any large-scale positive impact overnight, given the vast number of issues that affect this marginalized community, but it’s one way to use my very expensive law degree to do some good in this world.”

    Churchill had some difficulty gaining interest in the concept at first because existing LGBT organizations in Madison told her “this concept wasn’t quite the right fit for them,” she says. But after the 2016 election, the need for such legal services came into sharper focus, Churchill says, and legal assistance provider Community Justice Inc. agreed to support the budding organization.

    Trans Law Help Wisconsin, a pro bono sidelight both to Churchill’s day job as a member of CUNA Mutual’s compliance team and part-time work as a sole practitioner, has about 10 volunteers and has held six clinics with an average of 10-15 attendees each time.

    Abby Churchill

    Abby Churchill, founder of Trans Law Help Wisconsin, Madison, says the team is developing a statewide attorney-referral network, with an eye toward developing resources outside Madison and Milwaukee, as well as a Wisconsin-specific name and gender change guide. “I’m doing work that’s helping folks in a really tangible way, and that makes me happy,” Churchill says. Photo: Andy Manis

    The first hour consists of general legal information about the name and gender change process, which is more circuitous than most clients think. “There is no one-stop shop,” she says. “Think about how many different places your name and gender marker are listed. For example, pull out your wallet and flip through every single card you have in there. Most folks who go through this process will need to contact all of those places and many more. There are myriad documents we all have that follow us from birth to death, and nearly all of them have our name and gender marker on them. The process is not easy. It can be very expensive, and it can often take someone years to complete, to the extent they wish to do so.”

    During the second part of the clinic, volunteers assist those who need help filling out forms, for example, to change their gender marker on their birth certificate, “which can be a pretty complicated process,” she says. Churchill also has done face-to-face representation for “a handful of folks” and spoken more informally with a “vast number of people” to provide general legal information. “I am available by email basically 24-7 for folks who have other questions.”

    The Trans Law Help team also is developing a statewide attorney-referral network, with an eye toward developing resources outside Madison and Milwaukee, as well as a Wisconsin-specific name and gender change guide. The issue of inaccurate documents such as birth certificates, driver’s licenses, and passports can affect transgender people in any number of realms, from obtaining employment, to securing a loan, to providing proof of identity to law enforcement. “I’m doing work that’s helping folks in a really tangible way, and that makes me happy,” Churchill says.

    Heidi Wegleitner, Rebeka Pritchett, Raphael Ramos, Don Tolbert, Maggie Niebler-Brown, and Sofia Ascorbe: Eviction Defense for Low-income Tenants

    Members of Legal Action of Wisconsin’s Eviction Defense Project

    Members of Legal Action of Wisconsin’s Eviction Defense Project, from left, Don Tolbert, Sofia Ascorbe, Raphael Ramos, Heidi Wegleitner, Maggie Niebler-Brown, and Rebeka Pritchett at the Milwaukee County Courthouse. Lawyers provide legal help to low-income tenants facing eviction at a court-based, walk-in clinic, dramatically improving the results for such clients. Photo: Kevin Harnack

    Tenants facing eviction, most of whom typically self-represent and lose their cases, now have a better chance of gaining legal help in the Milwaukee and Madison areas. There, the respective local offices of Legal Action of Wisconsin have launched twin Eviction Defense Projects during the past couple of years.

    The Milwaukee County effort, staffed by project director Raphael Ramos, staff attorney Sofia Ascorbe, and paralegal Don Tolbert, has served 966 clients since early 2017 with help from 73 volunteer attorneys and 25 Marquette University Law School students. The Dane County project, begun in early 2018 and run by attorney Heidi Wegleitner and paralegal Rebeka Pritchett, has served 210 clients with 361 hours from 16 active pro bono attorneys and more than 100 hours of student help. Attorney Maggie Niebler-Brown coordinates the organization’s overall Volunteer Lawyers Project, while Deedee Peterson supervises their development.

    Ramos says that in 2016, less than 1 percent of the 13,457 tenants targeted with eviction was represented by counsel. In the past 18 months, since the project began, nearly 1,000 such tenants have gained representation, about 70 percent of whom have avoided a judgment of eviction and 15 percent of whom were able to have their records sealed.

    Without representation, he says, “You’re asking people under incredible stress to go to court. It’s an impossible ask. People often go to court and just sign whatever is put in front of them in order to make the eviction go away.” Having a well-trained and emotionally removed attorney at a court-based, walk-in clinic changes the equation dramatically, Ramos says. “Landlords are represented at least 50 percent of the time,” he says. “They generally have the opportunity to choose whether they want to have counsel or not. The people being evicted don’t have that choice.”

    Ramos notes that the Milwaukee clinic is grateful for the support of Legal Services Corporation, Milwaukee County, the Milwaukee County Circuit Court, the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee and its dedicated roster of volunteer attorneys and students, as well as key supporters such as Dawn Caldart, pro bono coordinator at Quarles & Brady LLP; Mary Ferwerda, executive director of the Milwaukee Justice Center; Angela Schultz, dean of Marquette Law School; Mike Gonring, former executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee; and Amy Wochos, formerly with the Milwaukee County Clerk of Courts.

    The representation provided is first-come, first-served, and attorneys are assigned the same day to handle brief service for what usually amounts to a single day, Ramos says. When proceedings extend beyond the first day, volunteers can continue with that client or pass them along to whoever is signed up when the trial or next hearing arises, he says.

    Many landlords and their attorneys gave the project a “cold welcome” at first, Ramos says. “We had to acclimate them to the fact that a group that was previously unrepresented was going to have representation,” he says. “That’s going to slow things down a bit, which is a byproduct of a just system with people asserting their rights.” Over time the process has become more efficient, in part due to increased familiarity with landlords, which Ramos notes has been beneficial to both sides.

    Heidi Wegleitner and Raphael Ramos

    Heidi Wegleitner and Raphael Ramos are project directors of Legal Action of Wisconsin’s Eviction Defense Projects, Wegleitner in Dane County and Ramos in Milwaukee County. Eviction defendants having lawyers has resulted in the courts thinking more about tenants’ rights and in clients being more confident in making well-informed decisions for their families. Photo: Kevin Harnack

    When tenants have defenses, project attorneys are trained to identify and raise those arguments in order to secure a trial date and potentially a dismissal. Sometimes, tenants don’t end up having much of a case – but even then, Ramos adds, “that attorney can, at the very least, explain the situation so the person knows what to expect and have a measure of control over what’s going to happen in the future. They can also try to work things out with the [landlord’s] attorney to try to get reasonable terms, and they can identify defenses and rights that the tenants wouldn’t have known they had.”

    The Madison project, which operates separately aside from some joint training sessions to teach volunteers the substance of landlord-tenant law, was modeled off the Milwaukee effort but has some differences – funding comes through the city of Madison and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, which has meant different reporting requirements.

    Legal Action in Madison works closely with a nonprofit called the Tenant Resource Center, which handles housing counseling and homeless prevention but not legal work, often referring clients back and forth, Wegleitner says. Volunteer attorneys staff the courthouse clinic every Tuesday when eviction hearings are held. “We’re really on our toes. There’s not a lot of time,” she says. “We always ask clients to show up at least an hour ahead of time so they can meet their volunteer lawyer, sign the forms they need, and go over the facts of their case.”

    The clinic serves between three and 10 households per week in initial hearings and hopes to be able to represent them at trial by the end of the year, although that ability hasn’t been phased in yet. Instead, they try to refer clients onward or give them the best advice on how to prepare their cases pro se, Wegleitner says. Similar to Milwaukee County, in Dane County about 1 percent of eviction defendants had attorneys, and now it’s between 10 and 20 percent, she says.

    “It’s resulted in the courts thinking more about tenants’ rights,” she says. “These issues are now being raised because there are lawyers looking at the court papers and raising defenses and requiring judges to take a look. When there isn’t representation on the defense side, [potential avenues] go unnoticed and unchallenged.”

    Tenant clients feel as though a huge burden has been lifted just to get representation, Wegleitner says. “They have someone on their side and confidence in making a well-informed decision with the support of legal counsel,” she says. “Having someone there to help you make the right decision for your family is something people really value.”

    Anne Smith, Collin Schaefer, Eric Englund, and Louis Condon: Seeding Success for Startups

    Collin Schaefer and Anne Smith

    Collin Schaefer and Anne Smith (seated) of Madison Seed Accelerator Inc. (a/k/a Madworks) help entrepreneurs such as (from left) Clay Burdelik, Joe Pater, Brandon Humboldt, and Chris Betagole tackle their governance challenges, like board management, financials, and legal and risk management. Not pictured: Eric Englund and Louis Condon. Photo: Andy Manis

    Entrepreneurs starting companies often focus on their product or service ideas and the funding they need to birth those ideas. But they’re sometimes less aware of careful planning around corporate governance, such as the formation of necessary advisory and governance boards and the completion of proper legal forms.

    Madison-area attorneys Anne Smith, Eric Englund, and Louis Condon and angel investor and entrepreneur Terry Sivesind founded an organization called Madison Seed Accelerator Inc. (a/k/a Madworks) in 2014, which has since evolved from a traditional seed accelerator to tackle this set of governance challenges, prompted by the need they saw and encouragement from the entrepreneurial community. Madworks has worked with several dozen start-up companies to ensure they build a solid foundation.

    Program manager Collin Schaefer, who is also an attorney, says the goal of the pro bono program is to build companies that last. To date, Madworks has seeded 85 companies, which by the end of 2017 had a total of 43 full-time and 53 part-time employees who were paid an aggregate salary of $1.35 million.

    “We bill ourselves as a governance accelerator,” Schaefer says, which breaks down into three parts: board management, solid financials such as bookkeeping, and legal and risk management, the last of which is bolstered through a relationship with the Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic at UW-Madison.

    The first two issues include questions such as, “As a start-up company, how do I leverage my board to not only be accountable to my investors but also find the right people who are going to help catapult me to the next step in my development?” he says. “What do my strategic financials look like – how should I raise money, how much runway do I have left, and how can I be accountable to investors?”

    Collin Schaefer and Anne Smith

    Madison Seed Accelerator Inc. program manager Collin Schaefer and co-founder Anne Smith say the goal of the pro bono program is to build companies that last. Smith also was recognized in 2014 for her innovative work with the Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic at the U.W. Law School. Photo: Andy Manis

    The concept began to take seed after the U.W. law clinic realized its clients had challenges that went far beyond the legal realm, Englund says. “We thought we would see if there were a way to provide a broader base of assistance to those early-stage entrepreneurs so they could find resources and next steps,” he says.

    The program accepts a cohort of companies three times per year for 10 weeks, at the end of which participants receive seed funding from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. “We take great pride in being part of the larger ecosystem of resources available to early-stage entrepreneurs,” Englund says, which includes relationships with a variety of other entrepreneurial incubators and consultants.

    Among the challenges has been the part-time nature of those who staff Madworks, Smith says. “We are always on the run to get it done,” she says. “Our challenges are not that different from the companies we’re helping out. They’re short on resources, they’re short on time, and so are we.”

    Englund encourages Wisconsin lawyers and firms to refer clients who they think might be good candidates for Madworks. “You can have someone come in the door, provide them with a service, and see around the corner that they’re going to run into these structural issues,” he says. “We’re always looking for the next cohort of companies we can help. This isn’t an intellectual exercise. It’s an exercise to help these companies toward success.”

    Sheila Sullivan and Team: Standing Up for Crime Victims

    Sheila Sullivan and Legal Action of Wisconsin

    Legal Action of Wisconsin, in cooperation with Judicare, has established a victim rights project aimed at helping those who have survived crimes, particularly domestic violence and sexual assault. Team members include Sheila Sullivan (project supervisor), Ann Rufo, Becca Donaldson, Kori Ashley, Susan Lund, William Baynard, Rachel Sattler, and Amanda Rabe. Not pictured: Beth Ann Richlen. Photo: Kevin Harnak

    The twin Eviction Defense Projects are not Legal Action of Wisconsin’s only award-winning innovation for 2018. In cooperation with Judicare, the state’s other Legal Services Corporation-funded civil legal aid provider, Legal Action has also established a victim rights project aimed at helping those who have survived crimes, particularly domestic violence and sexual assault. Such cases, where crime victims already face particularly personal invasions, often involve requests to divulge extremely private information.

    While the Wisconsin Constitution and statutes promise robust rights for victims, those rights generally have not been enforced in the middle of criminal proceedings. To do so requires a third attorney because prosecutors cannot advise the victim and, in fact, sometimes have contrary interests to the victim.

    “Crime victims who become involved in the criminal justice system may face a point where the defense or the state may want them to produce records that are otherwise confidential,” says Sheila Sullivan, employment priority coordinator at Legal Action of Wisconsin and supervisor of the victim rights project. “Mental health and treatment records, pre- and post-victimization, are most common. They’re recognized under law as being particularly important for treatment purposes.”

    The pilot project began in fall 2017 with funding and support from the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Office of Crime Victim Services, and thanks to a partnership with Wisconsin Judicare the services are available statewide. In addition to Sullivan, the eight-person team includes Legal Action project attorneys Ann Rufo, Becca Donaldson, Kori Ashley, Susan Lund, and Rachel Sattler, as well as attorneys William Baynard and Amanda Rabe and supervising attorney Beth Ann Richlen of Judicare. More than 200 people from nearly half of Wisconsin’s 72 counties have received information, advice, or full legal representation since last December, and 91 cases were open as of mid-September, Sullivan says.

    “The project provides the opportunity to look at statutory rights and constitutional rights that had been enacted but were sitting inert in law books,” she says. “What it means to assert a victim’s rights, nobody really knew. That has been the exhilarating and extraordinary part of this, to figure out how to do that – to attempt to think of privacy and security in larger terms, not just serving individual clients but developing the law.”

    The project has begun to solve the problem of unequal resource distribution in rural areas, but it’s been beneficial to crime victims across the state, Sullivan says. “Going through the criminal justice system is tremendously traumatizing,” she says. “It enrages and distresses people. They drop out. There’s a sense of personal violation and loss.”

    Crime victims are often referred by district attorneys, victim witness advocates, or nonprofits that work with crime victims. “And increasingly, we’re getting a number of self-referrals,” she says. “If they are a crime victim, and the crime occurred in Wisconsin – those are our baseline requirements. Victims tend to like having an attorney. They feel it’s important for them.”

    Among the challenges has been figuring out how to maneuver in the traditionally two-sided system and overcoming misunderstandings in the role the victim attorney plays, Sullivan says. “You don’t work for the prosecution,” she says. “We’re arguing that crime victims have standing to speak their own voice and make their own arguments. Courts are interested. These are not arguments they’ve heard.”

    While many in the legal community have been supportive, others ask, “What are you doing here? Why are you in our courts?” Sullivan says. But there’s no confusion about the project’s success to date. “We have prevailed on all of our standing motions to some degree or another,” she says. “We have helped clients defend their private records, make their voices heard at sentencing, secure safe housing, and address other legal problems that grow out of or compound the trauma of experiencing a crime.”

    Karen Renee: Creating a One-stop Shop for Finding Court Reporters

    Karen Renee

    Karen Renee created to provide a platform where attorneys and paralegals can, with the click of a few buttons, choose court reporters and videographers based on their qualifications, certifications, years of experience, pricing, availability, and customer ratings. The database now has nearly 7,000 entries in almost all 50 states. Photo: Kevin Harnak

    Karen Renee often lamented the difficulties in finding certified, qualified court reporters to cover depositions. She has been a court reporter in the Milwaukee area for about a decade and has owned Milwaukee Court Reporters for the past five years. After learning to hail rides using the popular Uber app, she wistfully thought it would be nice to be able to find court reporters as easily.

    That wistfulness quickly turned to a “lightbulb moment,” Renee says. “Why can’t we find court reporters that easily?” she asked, then hired a web developer to build, which launched in July 2017. The site provides a platform where attorneys and paralegals can choose court reporters and videographers based on their qualifications, certifications, years of experience, pricing, availability, and a Yelp-like five-star rating system from past customers.

    “What used to be call, text, email, and wait for a response is now, literally, the click of a few buttons,” Renee says. “Within less than a minute, I can have a job booked, which used to take days. If I have a client traveling to California for a deposition, the attorney calls me and says, ‘book this job,’ and I start the process of, ‘who do I trust in California?’ Within minutes, I can come up with who’s available. And then you can select by, do you want somebody who’s well-reviewed or do I want the cheaper one?”

    Court reporting agencies got wind of what Renee had set up and “wanted in,” which she has accommodated but at a price; the service remains free to attorneys and paralegals. “A lot of attorneys and paralegals don’t want a third party or an agency to be in the middle,” Renee says. “This allows that attorney or paralegal to book directly. They can see upfront pricing.”

    The database for eCourtReporters now has nearly 7,000 entries, including court reporters, videographers, attorneys, paralegals, and agencies, in nearly all 50 states, with California, New York, Florida, and Texas the most common. “We have a good presence right here in Wisconsin,” Renee says. “Being in all 50 states, there are a lot of moving parts. Just about every state has different rules and different laws. As a court reporter, they know their own state rules.”

    The project has posed a personal challenge for Renee that seems common to many of Wisconsin’s legal innovators. “I still run Milwaukee Court Reporters,” she says. “I’m double full-time. I still go out and do court reporting because I enjoy the job.” Her joys are also typical of innovators: “From a business standpoint, it’s exciting to see this grow as much as it has,” she says. “It’s been an incredible journey in the past year.”

    The search for 2019’s innovation award winners will run from April through June next year. Consider submitting your nominations, whether for yourself or someone else. To learn more, visit

    5 Years of Innovation: Where Are They Now?

    Past legal innovators

    What have past innovators been up to since being recognized as movers and shakers? We asked some of them to tell us what they’re trying to fix or improve now.

    Read more


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