A Couple Of Navigators Scout The Infobahn For You

An understanding of technology’s newest issues can net students valuable information.

By Erik J. Heels and Rick Klau

First published 9/1/1994; Student Lawyer magazine, “Online” column; publisher: American Bar Association.

A fascination with the world of law and technology, especially the technology of the Internet, the international network of computer networks, led Rick Klau and Erik Heels to form student groups at their respective law schools. The Maine Law and Technology Association (MLTA) was formed in the fall of 1992, and the Richmond Law and Technology Association (RLTA) was formed last spring. That the names are similar is no coincidence, because Klau and Heels know each other. But they have never met, except on the Internet. In the coming months, their column will explore electronic communication in law school and in practice, as well as legal issues relating to new communication technologies.

Erik’s story, the MLTA

My interest in law and technology began a decade ago when I was an electrical engineering student at MIT. Nobel Prize physicist Richard P. Feynman’s book “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” inspired me. In the book, Feynman describes his role in the investigation of the space shuttle Challenger explosion and he emphasizes the importance of engineers and decision-makers working together. To paraphrase Feynman, you can’t fool physics. I decided to make law and technology my career.

“‘What Do You Care What Other People Think?’: Further Adventures of a Curious Character” by Richard P. Feynman.

After MIT, I served in the Air Force and returned to my home state of Maine. Before entering law school, I researched the law-related resources that were available on the Internet and turned my research into a book entitled The Legal List, Law-Related Resources on the Internet and Elsewhere. The Legal List has been distributed worldwide via the Internet and is now in its fourth version. (For more information, send e-mail to legal-list@justice.eliot.me.us.)

During my first year of law school, I formed the MLTA, a student organization concerned with the law of technology and the technology of law. I started up the group to teach other students how to use the Internet, to advocate the proper use of technology (and to try to define what “proper” means in this context), and to discuss issues of technology and law with the legal community in Maine.

As part of the third goal, the MLTA invited Shari Steele, director of legal services and outreach for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), to give a presentation at the law school last January. The EFF (eff@eff.org) is a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit organization established in 1990 to develop and implement public policies that maximize freedom, competitiveness, and civil liberty in the electronic social environments being created by new computer and communications technologies. The EFF was formed by members of the computer networking community, based on a shared conviction that an organization combining technical, legal, and public policy expertise was needed to address the democratic potential of new computer and communications technologies.

I had “met” Shari on the Internet when I was researching The Legal List, and, with the exception of one phone call, we planned the entire event at the law school via Internet e-mail. Her presentation was fascinating, focusing on the First and Fourth (search and seizure) Amendment issues that technology (and especially the Internet) raises.

In the fall of 1993, while we were planning the EFF/MLTA event, Shari told me that she had given my name to a law student in Virginia who was trying to form a student organization similar to the MLTA. Rick and I have been in constant communication ever since. And, with the exception of one phone call, we have communicated solely via Internet e-mail.

When I was choosing a name for The Legal List, Law-Related Resources on the Internet and Elsewhere I initially had chosen ‘beyond’ instead of ‘elsewhere.’ However, I decided to go with ‘elsewhere’ because in terms of electronic resources, nothing is beyond the Internet. As big as value-added services (such as CompuServe, America OnLine and GEnie) may get, they will always be a subset of the Internet. The ‘elsewhere’ sections deal primarily with resources which are not on the Internet, but which may be someday.

I firmly believe that lawyers (and law students) need to learn about the Internet in order to communicate with their clients and with each other. Formerly used exclusively by government, military, and research users, the Internet is now being used by people in all lines of work. As the Internet expands, there will be more legal issues (intellectual property, privacy, and First Amendment issues to name a few) to tackle. The Internet is here to stay, and for law students, lawyers and others who are concerned about its future, now is the time to get on.

Rick’s story – the RLTA

Surprisingly, Erik and I come at this field from entirely different ends of the spectrum. Strangely enough, we have landed in very similar arenas, and have found each other to be extremely compatible when working on the LTAs.

Beyond the occasional game on my family’s old Apple, my exposure to computers was fairly limited until I arrived at Lafayette College. Lafayette had wired all dorm rooms to the Internet, and I had access from my sophomore year. I was at Lafayette to study international affairs and French. I completed degrees in both disciplines and, at the same time, developed an intense interest in the power of the Internet. However, my interest remained decidedly nontechnical; I know what computers can do, but I could not begin to tell you why they do what they do.

Erik talked about the inspiration he received from Richard Feynman and from his book. Like Erik, I can point to one book that crystallized my interest in science and technology. James Gleick’s phenomenal book on the chaos theory (appropriately titled “Chaos”) gave a nonscientist a wonderful overview of the impact of scientific theory beyond traditional scientific realms. (Interestingly enough, James Gleick’s next book was a biography of Richard Feynman.) I was intrigued, and committed myself to exploring areas where technology would affect my areas of interest.

“Chaos: Making a New Science” by James Gleick.

As a Clinton/Gore volunteer in fall, 1992, I learned just how powerful the Internet could be and how useful it would prove. I subscribed to a discussion list for Clinton volunteers (CLlNTON@MARIST) which became a wonderful resource for information and advice from other volunteers. I also subscribed to a more general political discussion list (VAL-L@MARIST) that was concentrated on major political developments (starting with the Gulf War, progressing to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and now concentrating on the tragedy in Bosnia). In my senior year at Lafayette, I was writing an honors thesis on the European Community, and the European Community discussion list (EC@INDYCMS) proved invaluable for finding reference materials. The Internet was developing from a novelty into a powerful resource that was helping me become more productive.

But for us as law students, the ramifications of communication technology go beyond the ability to get smart people to answer questions for you. The Internet and related communications media present a new way of approaching the world around you: it is the feeling that there is little that is beyond your reach.

Once I started law school at the University of Richmond, I was very enthusiastic about the network that was available in our study carrels, but also disappointed that so few students knew how to use the network. I was interested in pursuing issues relating to computers and their role in the legal community, but I assumed that I would be a lonely voice without some other people with similar interests.

I started the RLTA with goals strikingly similar to Erik’s. The growth of the Internet will force members of the legal community to recognize it as a force to be reckoned with. It will present lawyers with unprecedented situations involving constitutional questions that will demand answers. As a law student, I wanted to explore some of these topics by having members of the field speak on campus. One of the RLTA’s vice-presidents, Leonard Presberg, was interested in showing other students the possibilities that the Internet presented. The EFF put me in touch with Erik, and we went forward from there.

Erik and I feel strongly about the necessity of understanding the power of computers. The enthusiasm that has greeted our group at Richmond simply reinforces that belief: our administration is behind us, and more students sign on as each day goes by. The Internet has exploded onto the scene; our hope is that we can simply point as many people as possible in the right direction so we can collectively harness the power it represents and make it work for us.

As law students, we are no more than a few years away from entering the professional world. The world is getting smaller, thanks in no small part to the exponential growth of the Internet. Those attorneys who understand the Internet’s power and make it work to their advantage will present two qualities that employers will find irresistible: they will understand how (and where) to look for information and they will be well-versed in a field of law that is just now being developed. In addition, one of the natural byproducts of the growth of the Internet has been an increased ability of individuals to contact others who share their interests. Networking by the Internet is here to stay, and those who take advantage of it will be one leg up on their competition.

We would both enjoy hearing from you. If your campus has an organization similar to ours, please have them get in touch with us. If you are interested in starting one up, we would be more than willing to help you get started; feel free to contact us at our e-mail addresses.

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