Accountability. The word is used by parents to scold young children. The word is used by employers to justify punishment (or, occasionally, promotion). And, the word is paramount in the practice of law.
Lawyers are accountable for the justice and injustices brought by their profession. The question remains: is your law firm helping mold the law in a positive way?
As law firm professionals, we get bogged down with the day-to-day dilemmas: who will argue this motion, who will draft this brief, will the judge grant this injunction?
But, at its foundation, the practice of law has more lofty goals. Lawyers are accountable for protecting the constitutional rights and freedoms of American citizens, clients or otherwise. A firm’s bottom line is important, but its pro bono cases frequently have much more at stake than money.
Life or death. For the family of Aaron Swartz’s family, the law was a matter of life or death. Faced with compound charges stemming from violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), Aaron Swartz was finally found dead in his Brooklyn apartment after hanging himself.
Aaron Swartz’s family criticized the aggressive attempts of federal prosecutors to send the innovator to jail for what are, arguably, redundant provisions of the law that subjects an individual to duplicate charges of the same CFAA violation.
At his son’s funeral, Robert Swartz said, “[Aaron] was killed by the government, and MIT betrayed all of its basic principles.”
What are the basic principles shared by professionals at your firm?
It’s important for employees to know and share the same vision. If your firm hasn’t drafted a mission statement, now is the time. It’s not about politics or proclivities; more basic than that, the vision of your law firm should shed a more basic, common, and universal truth on which each lawyer at you firm can agree.
The American Bar Association (ABA) states:
“The vision is the statement of what you are building. It describes the idea of your firm in a way that captures your passion for your business and inspires you.”
And, to create a vision or mission statement, the ABA suggests you ask yourself:
- Why are you practicing law?
- Why will your clients hire you rather than your competition?
- What are your beliefs and values and how will they affect your practice?
Within your firm, answering these questions will help in the hiring process to employee the best, brightest, and most culturally-appropriate candidates. Outside your firm, answering these questions will help attract clients and set your firm apart form the competition.
“If you want to create a direction for the future of your practice, and a way of doing business that inspires you, your entire firm, and your clients, creating vision and mission statements are a good place to start,” writes Allison C. Shieds for the ABA.
Aaron Swartz had a vision. A staunch supporter of Open Access, he wrote an Open Access Guerilla Manifesto, in which he stated:
“The world’s entire scientific … heritage … is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations…. The Open Access Movement has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it.”
Today, we’re one step closer to realizing Swartz’s dream and holding his persecutors accountable for his death with “Aaron’s Law.”
“The Internet is up for grabs,” claims Wired Magazine.
The CFAA is being challenged with new bipartisan legislation called Aaron’s Law, the text of which is available here, along with a detailed summary here. It tackles the vagueness, redundancy, and proportionality problems of the CFAA.
But, “Congress rarely moves with haste. Correcting this complex law — enacted more than a quarter century ago — to work in the Digital Age will take a significant amount of time. To successfully build meaningful CFAA reforms into law will require sustained public engagement and support,” explains Aaron’s Law’s authors.
So, it’s time for your law firm to decide where it stands on a free and open Internet.
“We live in an age where people connect globally by simply touching a device in the palm of their hand, empowered by online advances that have enriched the world scientifically, culturally, and economically,” write Zoe Lofgren and Ron Wyden for Wired Magazine in June 2013.
“But ill-conceived computer crime laws can undermine this progress if they entrap more and more people—simply for creative uses of the technology that increasingly mediates our everyday activities and our interactions with the world. This not only fails us today, it can also become an obstacle to the innovations of tomorrow.”
Law practice isn’t just about profit. More broadly, it’s about promoting justice. Small businesses, entrepreneurs, and the economy at large need legal services to continue to expand and innovate. If your firm were held accountable today, where would its actions stand?
Read more about risk and accountability in law here.