This year’s top five Wisconsin Legal Innovators meet at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery on the U.W.-Madison campus. From left: Anne Smith, Mike Gonring, Kelly Twigger, Beth Ann Richlen, and Hon. Karen Christenson. Photo: Andy Manis
It’s a glass-half-full-or-half-empty kind of dilemma. Some look at the rapidly changing legal marketplace and envision a looming crisis. Others see a situation that’s ripe for trying fresh ideas and novel ways of providing legal services.
Those in the latter group are today’s legal innovators.
Earlier this year, the State Bar of Wisconsin embarked on “That’s a Fine Idea! Legal Innovation Wisconsin,” a project that showcases our state’s legal innovators. The State Bar asked the legal community to submit nominations for colleagues or projects that:
- used technology in new ways to improve client services or serve a new market;
- created best practices to promote workplace diversity;
- developed new strategies for marketing and business development;
- provided pro bono or reduced-cost legal services in new ways; or
- created greater internal efficiency through operational changes.
“First, we needed to define what innovation was, what it means to the legal profession,” says Susan Schaubel, a court commissioner in Sheboygan County and chair of the Communications Committee’s Innovations Subcommittee. “Quite simply, innovation means developing new ways of doing something to create value or an advantage. For the legal profession, an innovation improves the experience of consumers of legal services or the lawyers providing those services.”
From the nominations, the State Bar chose five top legal innovators for 2014, profiled below, as well as five other noteworthy examples (see the sidebar, “On Our Radar: Five More Fine Ideas”). The assortment of nominated projects was “broad and impressive,” says Schaubel.
“The innovations took all kinds of approaches, from ways to deliver legal services, to improving law firm culture, to developing brand new products,” Schaubel says. “There are so many wonderful projects out there, and we hope this effort spawns other creative solutions.”
Do you know a legal innovator? Are you one? Think about the Legal Innovators for 2015, and watch for the call for nominations next April.
Kelly Twigger: Yes, There’s an E-discovery App for That!
A decade ago, Kelly Twigger sat in a small room in New York City with a few other attorneys at an American Bar Association seminar on electronic discovery. She came away thinking, “This is going to be huge.” Little did she know where that thought would lead.
She returned to her litigator duties at Quarles & Brady in Milwaukee and soon started the firm’s first records retention and electronic discovery practice. In 2009, she left to launch her own company, ESI Attorneys, based in Boulder, Colo. The company’s goal was to help clients better leverage their electronic discovery practices and procedures. The next big step came in July 2013, when ESI started selling an iPad app called eDiscovery Assistant™.
Kelly Twigger and ESI Attorneys developed an app for the iPad, eDiscovery Assistant™, to help clients keep up with the rapidly changing area of e-discovery. The app curates resources litigators need at their fingertips – rules, case digests, checklists, templates, and more. Photo: Darren Mahuron
“We’d been getting lots of calls from practitioners across the country asking questions about electronic discovery,” Twigger says. “What’s the best source for finding case law on this issue? What’s the rule in that jurisdiction? We’d amassed a lot of resources to use in our own practice. We decided to create an app so that lawyers would have that information at their fingertips whenever they need it.”
The app has six major content areas: e-discovery rules, case digests, templates, checklists, a glossary of terms, and resources to consult to learn more. Content gets updated weekly, which is essential in this rapidly changing area.
“In any substantive area of the law, you usually see one or two cases a year that have an impact on practice,” Twigger says. “In electronic discovery, we’ve been seeing about 200 decisions a year since 2006. There’s a lot to keep up on.”
The eDiscovery Assistant aims to be easy to use. Lawyers, judges, and other legal professionals can search content by judge, jurisdiction, or specific issue tags.
One of the attorneys who beta-tested eDiscovery Assistant was Lisa Jordan, an attorney at Miller Coors, where Twigger was outside counsel while with Quarles & Brady. “Part of the brilliance of what Kelly did,” Jordan says, “was that she made this tool within the context of technology. So there’s a bit of a message that says, ‘Okay people, this is where everything is heading. You’re going to have to pick up your iPad and use it in your practice.’”
Mike Gonring: Mobile Legal Clinic Takes Access to the Streets
If you’re a Milwaukee resident struggling to make ends meet by holding down two or three jobs, you have no time to go to a legal clinic downtown or at some other location. Nor can you afford to take time off from work to get to a distant clinic.
A solution to that dilemma is a bus transformed into the Milwaukee Justice Center’s Mobile Legal Clinic, opened in September 2013. The Justice Center is a collaborative endeavor of Marquette University Law School, the Milwaukee County Bar Association, and Milwaukee County.
Mike Gonring, with funds donated to honor his career-long pro bono service, approached Marquette University Law School to start a project. The discussions lead to a mobile legal clinic. Housed in a transformed bus, the clinic travels Milwaukee County, reaching those who can’t afford time away from work to get legal help. Photo: Marquette University Law School
The Mobile Legal Clinic opens one Saturday a month for four hours at various locations around Milwaukee County. It came into existence because attorneys Frank Daily and Julianna Ebert wanted to honor fellow Quarles & Brady partner Michael Gonring for his career-long pro bono service by donating funds to the law school to launch some sort of project.
Gonring then approached Angela Schultz, the law school’s director of pro bono and public service, to brainstorm ideas. After discussion of several possibilities, a mobile legal clinic popped to the top of the list of prospects.
“Other clinics are brick-and-mortar locations,” Schultz says. “You don’t see those driving down the street or showing up at a community event. We knew the bus would have a visual impact. Its very existence raises awareness of the need for access to justice.”
Two or three attorneys and three or four law students typically are on site for each two-hour shift when the clinic is open. In the first year, 30 volunteer lawyers and 27 law students worked with 94 clients on 98 different legal matters.
The Path to Innovation: It Starts with Pain Points
George Hofheimer of the Filene Research Institute explains how to shift from a mindset of resistance to a culture of innovation. Read the sidebar at end of this article.
In the beginning, “we had to find volunteer lawyers who were willing to go out into the community on the weekend to provide assistance,” says Dawn Caldart, Milwaukee Justice Center executive director. “We approached Ed Sarskas at Michael Best, and the firm was on board immediately.”
In addition to the Michael Best attorneys, another volunteer attorney is on hand during each shift to deal with matters in which the firm has a conflict.
Strong outreach has been crucial to the clinic’s success, says Mary Ferwerda, coordinator of the project. “Just driving up to a location with the bus isn’t going to be effective,” she says. “We have done a lot of work to build trust within the community.”
Anne Smith: Where Law Students and Start-up Entrepreneurs Meet
Small businesses in Wisconsin need guidance through a maze of complicated legal issues. Law students at the University of Wisconsin need real-world experience to shape them into practice-ready business lawyers. The Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic at U.W. Law School meets both needs.
The clinic is the result of a collaboration of the law school with the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, and several Wisconsin law firms.
Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic co-founder and co-director Anne Smith fronts supervising attorneys Lindsey Thompson, Rebecca Burke, and Jeff Glazer. The clinic brings together U.W. law students who need real-world experience with small business owners. Who are the students in the background? Visit Facebook.com/StateBarofWI. Photo: Andy Manis
Since the clinic opened in 2009, more than 100 law students have gained hands-on experience in business legal matters. And nearly 600 start-up entrepreneurs, small business owners, and nonprofit organizations around the state have received free legal guidance.
The clinic has helped businesses “ranging from a food cart to a biotech company, and about 15 percent of our clients have been nonprofits,” says Anne Smith, co-founder and co-director of the clinic along with fellow attorney Eric Englund.
From 15 to 20 students, either 2Ls or 3Ls, participate each semester and work one-on-one with supervising attorneys from the U.W. Law School faculty. Students are welcome to enroll for more than one semester.
“In fact, we like them to stay around,” Smith says. “We spend a lot of time training them and getting them up to speed. They become more effective the longer they’re with us.”
Whenever the student and the supervising attorney feel they need outside assistance from an expert who works regularly in a certain area of the law, they can reach out to any of the 16 Wisconsin law firms that serve on the clinic’s advisory committee.
While several business incubators exist around the state, the legal clinic is a valuable complement, Smith says. “The incubators look at the business side of things,” she explains. “The law clinic comes in to provide the necessary legal support.”
Clinic clients also become accustomed to thinking of a lawyer as a key source of support to make their business or organization successful.
“The students think about their clients holistically,” Smith says. “They provide legal help and also lead clients to other useful resources. So it’s easy for clients to view lawyers as playing a larger role. They see lawyers as trusted advisors.”
Karen Christenson: Family Drug Treatment Court Puts Broken Families Together
Parents with substance abuse problems who appear before the Milwaukee County Family Drug Treatment Court face an experience far different from the usual proceedings in CHIPS (children in need of protection and services) cases.
Every Friday afternoon, the parent meets with a team of legal professionals, drug treatment counselors, service coordinators, and child welfare professionals who all work with the parent toward a common goal: returning the child to the parent if possible.
Hon. Karen Christenson, led the planning for and was the first presiding judge in Milwaukee County’s Family Drug Treatment Court. Since her retirement, Hon. Mary Triggiano (front, right) now leads the team of professionals who work with drug treatment counselors, service coordinators, and child welfare professionals to help return children to their parents if possible. Photo: Corey Hengen
You might think being outnumbered in these sessions by so many diverse professionals would intimidate a parent. “But you’d be surprised; I was surprised,” says Karen Christenson, the Milwaukee County circuit court judge, now retired, who led the planning and was the first presiding judge in the Family Drug Treatment Court, which began working with parents in April 2011.
During the sessions, the various professionals confront parents with their problems. “And parents also hear praise for the things they’re doing well,” Christenson says. “People on the team will jump in and say, ‘Way to go’ or ‘You know you’re not being honest.’”
The result is a dynamic problem-solving session that engages everyone, including the parent, who volunteers to participate in the program. “The philosophy is that it only works if the parent wants to make it work,” Christenson says.
Five attorneys were chosen to represent parents. One of them, Milwaukee attorney Ed Zlotocha, says, “This is the way we should do all CHIPS cases. But there aren’t enough resources and public backing to do something like this to put broken families back together.”
Zlotocha and the other four attorneys representing parents “get involved more than just as lawyers,” he says. “There are so many things going on in our clients’ lives. They’ve had obstacles throughout their lives that most people never confront.”
The Family Drug Treatment Court aims to help parents not only get clean but also to change long-standing behaviors that led to substance abuse and could lead to a relapse.
“They know they’re always welcome to come back, whether they’re graduates or dropouts,” Christenson says. “The team members are always there on Friday afternoons. And parents know where to find them.”
Beth Ann Richlen: Online Legal Clinic Reaches 33 Counties
For consumers, the Wisconsin Judicare online legal clinic provides ready access to legal help, while for volunteer attorneys, it’s a way to “do pro bono in their pajamas,” says Beth Ann Richlen, staff attorney and development director.
The online clinic, called the Northern Wisconsin Legal Advice Project, opened in July 2013 with the help of a startup grant from the State Bar’s Pro Bono Initiative. Originally serving 13 counties in the 10th judicial district, the clinic extended its coverage to all 33 counties in the Wisconsin Judicare service area as of Jan. 1, 2014.
Beth Ann Richlen of Wisconsin Judicare, Wausau, says its online legal clinic, the Northern Wisconsin Legal Advice Project, helps consumers in all 33 counties in its service area and is a way for volunteer attorneys to “do pro bono in their pajamas.” Photo: Andy Manis
The clinic answers an average of three legal questions a week from clients who must fulfill Judicare’s eligibility requirements. Many of the inquiries come from people who have transportation or other issues making it difficult to access legal services. But the online clinic draws a “cross-section of clients similar to the general population we see here at Judicare,” Richlen says. “Many of them don’t have courthouse clinics in their county.”
Richlen and currently six volunteer attorneys answer clients’ questions, which typically require about an hour’s worth of research. Volunteer lawyers can log in from anywhere at any time to view the questions online and pick those they’d like to answer. Enough information is shown to enable the attorney to do a conflict check before proceeding.
A new partnership just getting under way will bring in additional volunteers from the Marquette University Law School’s Volunteer Legal Clinic. During slow times at that clinic, “their volunteers will answer our online questions,” Richlen says.
Richlen also pitches in to answer questions and to help new volunteers get used to the clinic’s online format. By answering questions herself, she’s able to spot cases that warrant full representation by Judicare staff attorneys. Thus, the clinic serves “almost as a screening tool,” Richlen says. “We find clients who were falling through the cracks.”
The clinic aims to provide timely responses that answer the client’s question, give advice on next steps, and oftentimes lead clients to resources they didn’t know existed. “Sometimes we can tell them that after they fill out their paperwork,” Richlen says, “there’s a clinic they can go to in their area to have an attorney check the document. Sometimes we can connect those dots.”
On Our Radar: Five More Fine Ideas
Innovation – big or small – means that the profession is proactively adapting to today’s competitive environment. Here are five additional noteworthy stories about Wisconsin lawyers who set about to make change to create value or an advantage in today’s marketplace.
Bobby Peterson: Consumers and Health Care Providers Find the Right Coverage
For 20 years, ABC for Health, a Madison public interest law firm, has helped low-income people run the maze of finding health care insurance coverage. “It’s dizzying for people to figure it out,” says Bobby Peterson, executive director. “The result is that they – both health care providers and consumers – don’t figure it out correctly. And they end up in a financial hole.”
Now Peterson and his team have developed a new technology to make it easier for both providers and consumers to find coverage. Called My Coverage Plan, it’s a software tool using decision-support and electronic health record technology. ABC for Health received a patent for it in 2012.
Finding the right coverage can mean huge savings to both consumers and health care providers. Peterson notes, for instance, that Wisconsin hospitals face a billion-dollar-plus shortfall for care provided but left unpaid.
“We’re not saying the software will fix it all,” Peterson says. “But even if it helps address 10 percent to 30 percent of that amount, it’s a significant amount of money.”
Maureen Atwell: Prosecuting Deadbeat Parents With Social Media Evidence
As the person in the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office who prosecutes child support cases, Maureen Atwell says, “One of the hardest decisions I make is whether to charge someone with a crime for failing to pay child support.”
Atwell struck on the idea of using search warrants for social media evidence, as well as noncriminal court records, to help her distinguish the “deadbeat” from the truly “dead broke” parents. As a result, her office collected $125,000 in owed support in 2013, compared to an average of $5,000 in years past.
Now Atwell and her staff are catching more of the con artists. For instance, a parent shows up in court claiming to be disabled, dragging a leg, and then is pictured playing tennis on his or her Facebook page.
“I think there’s been an attitude for a long time that people can get away without paying child support because nobody cares, except the custodial parent and the child,” Atwell says. “So why pay? Now we’re out there, looking at people and finding the truth.”
Photo: Corey Hengen
Syovata Edari: Sentencing Videos Creatively Tell Client Stories
Sentencing hearings are “a time when we can make the client shine,” says Syovata Edari, a Madison criminal defense attorney. “We don’t do that enough. We’re used to going into these hearings figuring something bad will happen and that we can do nothing about it.”
Rather, Edari uses video and multimedia tools to tell her client’s story. She first did this when she was a federal public defender in Kansas. For instance, one client’s federal sentencing guidelines were “off the charts,” Edari says. The woman seemed sure to go to prison.
But while she was out on bail for a few months, the client “made a 180-degree change,” Edari says, by kicking her meth habit, going to college, and counseling other addicts. Thanks to a video showing interviews with several people who could attest to the woman’s transformation, Edari succeeded in convincing the prosecutor and his supervisor to ask for probation, rather than prison. Ultimately, the judge agreed.
Edari, now a solo practitioner, has since used videos, sometimes simply shot on her iPad, in more sentencing hearings. “I don’t do them often,” she says. “You have to pick the right cases.”
Photo: Marra Teniente
Michael Ostermeyer: Program Introduces Partners to Business Concepts and Skills
Corporate clients expect more than legal advice from their outside counsel, especially since the 2008 economic downturn. “They’re looking for professionals who have a keener understanding of the matters that are important to the clients’ businesses, as opposed to what is historically important to lawyers,” says Michael Ostermeyer, an attorney with Quarles & Brady in Milwaukee.
That realization deepened when Ostermeyer attended business school at the University of Notre Dame. He began to discuss ideas with faculty there and with others at his firm, and from that arose the Partnership Development Program.
The program is unique in that it is an academic, MBA-style curriculum developed specifically for practicing attorneys. As of April 2013, 24 Quarles & Brady partners have completed the 10-month program, with another cohort to begin in August 2015.
“I’m unaware of any firm that has made a commitment to its younger partners in a sustained way like this,” Ostermeyer says, “and in a way that’s culture building and introduces the partners to business concepts and skills.”
Tanya O’Neill: Law Firm Coaches Help Bridge Parenting and Work Expectations
An attorney who contemplates going on parental leave or a reduced schedule has many questions: How do I ramp down my work before I leave? How do I ramp back up when I return? What are the firm’s expectations while I’m on leave? Where do I get all the various forms to start the process? And so on.
The Working Parent Coach Program, the brainchild of the Foley & Lardner diversity committee, aims to ease the process. “We wanted to have one contact who could provide the forms and answer questions, and we wanted that contact to be an attorney,” explains Tanya O’Neill, chair of the program.
Attorneys going on leave each get an assigned coach with personal experience with parental leave or a reduced schedule. The coaches share their first-hand experiences, insights, and advice.
Besides coordinating the program, O’Neill serves as a coach herself. “I enjoy it,” she says. “I adore my children, and I have a great career. I’m happy to do both. As a coach, I try to help other people make that work.”
The Path to Innovation: It Starts with Pain Points
by Dianne Molvig
George Hofheimer of the Filene Research Institute explains how to shift from a mindset of resistance to a culture of innovation. Where do you start with innovative thinking? Hofheimer advises paying attention to the factors that are causing you the most pain now.
As someone who holds the job title of “chief knowledge officer” for the Filene Research Institute in Madison, George Hofheimer is well attuned to the quandaries and contradictions surrounding the concept of innovation.
“Working in a think tank,” he says, “we always have the temptation to remake stuff and to try new things. It’s important to tamp down that temptation sometimes. We call it ‘hiding our inner squirrel’ – to not be lured by shiny objects.”
On the other hand, openness to innovation is increasingly vital in today’s changing world and shifting marketplace. Here Hofheimer and his colleagues at the Filene Research Institute take a cue from their organization’s namesake, Edward Filene, who once said: “Progress is the constant replacing of the best there is with something that is better still.”
Filene was a Boston merchant and philanthropist who was instrumental in bringing financial cooperatives, or credit unions, to the United States in the 1930s. Today Hofheimer’s organization aims to help credit unions succeed and grow into the future.
But whatever one’s field of endeavor, successful innovation relies on striking the right balance between the two opposing forces Hofheimer described above. That is, you must avoid chasing after change just for change’s sake, but at the same time be willing to try new ideas in order to thrive.
Innovation Not a Natural Fit in Law
Hofheimer sees similarities in the financial services industry and the legal profession as each strives to innovate. “Both are heavily regulated from a variety of angles,” he says, “and they’re risk averse. Neither is naturally aligned with the concept of innovation.”
Thus, the path to innovation in law organizations has to begin by “acknowledging that this is a tough discussion to have,” Hofheimer says. “Innovation is not a logical outgrowth of the legal profession, which perhaps hasn’t thought about innovation as being a necessary competency. But external factors are forcing lawyers to think about it.”
Lawyers encounter evidence of those external factors every day. New technologies change what they do and how they do it. New online legal service providers pose more competition. Consumers have more information at their fingertips and are less reliant on traditional legal services. Clients’ expectations in terms of cost and response time for legal services also keep changing.
All this adds up to create an environment in which, more and more, lawyers must view the delivery of legal services through the client’s eyes rather than from the lawyer’s vantage point.
It’s incumbent on legal professionals to recognize the challenges such changes generate, Hofheimer points out, and to find ways to alter law firms’ and legal organizations’ operating models to meet those challenges.
“You’re not innovating just to be creative and have fun,” he says. “You’re doing this for survival and continued success.”
To build a culture of innovation, the first step is to get clear on what innovation is, Hofheimer says, noting that it has become a pervasive buzzword in recent times. Even so, much confusion lingers about what innovation truly means.
“People think innovation is only for creative advertising agencies or start-up firms in Silicon Valley,” Hofheimer says. “But at Filene, we define the concept broadly: Innovation is meeting new, unarticulated, or old needs in new and novel ways.”
Second, gearing up for innovation requires having a champion within the organization. In a legal setting, that might be a business practice leader, a firm’s administrator, a chief financial officer, a managing partner, a legal agency’s executive director … anyone who “gets” innovation and is willing to lead the way to keep it on colleagues’ radar. That person also has to have the stamina and courage to stand up to the internal naysayers and critics who try to derail innovation because they oppose change.
The third ingredient is that any innovation being considered must link back to the organization’s existing goals. “People can be reluctant to try something new,” Hofheimer says. “But if they see that an innovation will help to meet their organization’s goals, they’re more likely to get behind innovation.”
Shifting the Mindset
Resistance to change is a natural human condition. And lawyers, whose professional training revolves around following past precedent and traditions, may be extra susceptible to that resistance.
“When you start talking about some sort of innovation initiative,” Hofheimer points out, “you’ll often see people rolling their eyes and saying things like, ‘How is this going to help me bill more hours?’”
Senior partners planning to leave practice soon may balk at a change that will affect them now but perhaps bring no benefit in the near term. “It takes a special person,” Hofheimer notes, “to say, ‘Yes, I only have two more years here. But let’s work on this project that will pay off in five years.’”
Lawyers in small offices or solo practices don’t have to try to persuade a large group of people to pursue innovative ideas. They have only themselves to convince, and they can act more quickly. But they have a different challenge: finding the time to research and implement an innovation, while also handling numerous daily tasks required to keep their firms or organizations afloat.
These various hurdles to innovation are significant and never easy to overcome, Hofheimer acknowledges. The key, he advises, is to start with small, manageable projects. Explore the possibilities in low-risk, low-impact, and internally focused initiatives. That way you gain proof that this approach works.
“Then you can consolidate those successes into bigger projects that may be more focused on the external world and the business side of things,” he says. “Over a multi-year timeframe, innovation becomes part of the value system” of the law firm or organization.
In this way, the inclination toward innovative thinking takes root over time. Awareness builds, among everyone involved, that innovation is crucial and deserves commitment.
Again, Hofheimer emphasizes that all through this process, the focus must remain on existing goals. People then will see that an innovation makes sense and is leading their organization to where they want it to go.
Still, where do you start with innovative thinking? Hofheimer advises paying attention to the factors that are causing you the most pain now.
“For example, maybe some aspect of your business is suffering,” he says, “or your billings are down in a certain area, or you’re struggling to meet changing client needs and preferences. Those pain points are usually the ripest opportunities for innovation.”