SXSW panels take hard look at U.S. justice system

Two SXSW Interactive panels on Monday focused on the inner workings and effects of the U.S. justice system. Panelists of “Ex-Prisoners Speak: We Deserve a Second Chance” spoke on the flaws of the country’s prison system, which they said does nothing to help incarcerated men and women reenter society. Later, a couple of blocks away at the Austin Convention Center, the mother of Ross Ulbricht, who was convicted of being the kingpin of the Silk Road online marketplace, explained why she sees her son’s trial as unfair and unjust.

Shaka Senghor, who served 19 years for killing a man during a drug-related argument, described the prison system in America as one that “incarcerates more people than anywhere else in the world.” “What we don’t realize,” he said, “is that at some point these men and women will return to our community.” Senghor said he made the choice while in solitary confinement to educate and empower himself. But he recognized that while he and some of his co-panelists loved reading and having deep conversations about literature in prison, spaces that foster such transformation are rare. Prisons, he said, do not honor the humanity of the individuals who are incarcerated, which would enable them to return to society as healthy human beings. And, beginning even earlier, schools in inner-city and minority neighborhoods are sometimes in worse conditions than prisons. Senghor is now a successful writer, mentor, and motivational speaker.

Yusef Shakur, who was in prison for nine years for a crime he didn’t commit, spoke about the prison system having nothing in place to help transform inmates’ behavior because, he said, the focus is on oppressing rather than healing. His moment of transformation came when he met his father for the first time while in prison, which he said affected how he viewed himself. That paired with a love for reading and education gave him liberty and impacted how he saw the world. Shakur led the way, being the first of the panelists to be released from prison, and is an author, educator, entrepreneur, and social activist.

Trabian Shorters, CEO of BMe—a community organization that invests in and supports black men—noted that most of us see ex-prisoners for the very worst thing they’ve ever done in their lives, while we look at others and see whole persons instead of immediately judging them based on their poorest decisions. Everybody, he said, should try to see ex-prisoners for their contributions to society, and businesses and companies should not automatically disregard them as potential employees if they are currently good people.

Chris Wilson, who was 17 years old when he was sentenced to life, spoke of being in prison and having an unexplainable feeling that his life could change. “They told me to just get comfortable but I said, ‘There has to be more to life than this.’” Wilson made a master plan to turn his life around, one that included using no profanity and educating himself while incarcerated. When he was let out, the hardest aspects of life were finding housing, navigating transportation, and catching up with technology. He is now a business owner and leads the Community Workforce Development at Greater Homewood Community Corp.

All men on the panel spoke passionately about how difficult it can be to find employment and voiced support for the Ban the Box campaign, which would remove the requirement to divulge former convictions on job applications. Senghor said that all members of a community can work to address local, state, and federal policies where they go wrong. Wilson suggested that former prisoners consider starting their own companies if they’re having trouble getting hired, noting that business creation by the black community has been growing for a decade. Another point of agreement among the panelists was that education and positive male role models play an imperative role in preventing and reducing incarceration.


At the SXSW Interactive panel “The Silk Road Case: Impacting Our Digital Future,” Lyn Ulbricht spoke passionately about the recent trial that resulted in her son’s conviction for operating the online marketplace Silk Road.

Lyn, who had been at the trial, shared her observations on the prosecution’s actions, the defense’s strategy, and the judge’s decisions. Most outrageous to her was the moment when her son’s defense attorney was "banned" from asking a Department of Homeland Security witness questions that suggested the agent had suspected another individual to be the mastermind of the Silk Road. Lyn recalled how the prosecution objected to this and the judge ruled against the defense, which had cited Brady rules. The court, she said, introduced an “exceptionally restrictive” set of rules for the defense team, while the prosecution objected constantly.

Lyn went on to say that the prosecution failed to grasp the way the Bitcoin system of currency works, and judge didn’t allow the defense to bring expert witnesses to explain this to the jury. The prosecution, meanwhile, did not bring any witnesses who testified to how the Silk Road had harmed them.

Her most important message for the audience was that her son’s conviction could affect all Americans because, if a pending appeal fails, the case will become legal precedent. It brings up important 4th Amendment questions concerning the extent of search warrants for computers, and also the government’s right to access the Silk Road’s servers in Iceland without having a warrant to do so. When the trial was done, Lyn said she had concluded that “justice is just a beautifully crafted hunk of bronze,” referring to a statue standing outside the New York courthouse.

Despite mentioning reasons why she thought an appeal should be successful, Lyn appeared to avoid having naïve hopefulness. When asked how Ross was doing in prison, she told the audience that he’s learning Spanish so that he can talk with some of his fellow prisoners, but that the situation is very hard for him. The conviction, she said, has been devastating for the entire Ulbricht family.

SXSW panel asks if tech is law's friend or foe?

“The world is becoming automated, and law is no exception.” This is an unavoidable reality, according to panelists of the South by Southwest Interactive session “Your Next Lawyer Could be a Machine,” who said that it is a “scary time” for lawyers who don’t embrace the possibilities of a technologically driven future but “an incredible time” for entrepreneurship-minded lawyers who do.

Nicole Bradick, owner and chief strategy officer of CuroLegal, began the session with a primer on the historical law firm model, which she described as being a pyramid that is based on recruiting the best law student graduates and having them “work their tails off” to make a profit. This is a problem, she said, because inefficiencies are tolerated, and even encouraged, due to their resulting increases of billable hours and because some clients are unwilling to pay for the “hyper-productive” pyramid base.

Bradick, whose company consults law firms, noted that the traditional firm model is slowly changing as many corporate clients are starting to control how firms work a case (such as by directing the firm to outsource contract review to a foreign county), and average consumers are using self-service technology (such as because so many of them can’t afford lawyers. More big firms are taking on structures similar to corporations and companies, with a select few people managing the firm, and the rest of the lawyers are encouraged to do lawyers’ work. While the United States leads Europe in terms of producing new legal technologies, Bradick said that Europe is way ahead of us in terms of innovative firm business models.

The attraction of welcoming and adopting new technologies into a firm’s inner workings are many, Bradick said, predicting that while only 10 to 15 percent of the legal market currently charges flat fees (with the remainder billing hourly)—this will be increasing, and in a decade, most firms will likely be billing in this way. Even for solo practitioners and lawyers practicing in small firms or in small towns (most of whom still operate on an hourly basis), charging flat fees sets you apart from competitors in the eyes of potential clients.

So improving efficiencies and saving time is key, and this is where technology steps in. Lawyers must accept the “industrialization of law,” Bradick said, and that some aspects of their important work do not require a genius. “Lawyers are super special. What we do is very complex. But the recognition now is that when you break a huge matter down into all of its parts, not every part is complex. A lot of that stuff can be automated.”

Co-panelist Noah Waisberg, CEO of automated contract analysis company Kira Inc., introduced various technologies that are being used to solve legal problems. Straight-to-consumer products include services like LegalZoom (form-completion technology) for fairly simple documents like wills, marketplaces like Avvo that provide lawyer ratings and help connect clients with appropriate representation, and legal knowledge sites that allow people to attain a firmer grasp on difficult concepts in the law.

Technology that benefits lawyers can include document assembly that “generates a better quality draft,” Waisberg said, as well as case and practice management services and high-tech products like analytics that predict who will win cases, research services, and high-quality document analysis (extracting data for e-discovery and contract review). Waisberg said studies have shown that his company’s technology can analyze e-discovery documents “better, faster, and cheaper” for clients with up to 150,000 documents or as few as 50. This saves the time of junior lawyers, who are typically assigned to do such work (and who, Waisberg said, usually hate the work and don’t do a great job at it). And it also saves clients money.

“This technological change is great for consumers,” Waisberg said, especially for the segment of the population that can now afford to have legal help when beforehand it was out of the question. Bradick echoed this sentiment, noting her favorite legal quote: “The law doesn’t exist to employ lawyers; the focus must be on the consumer.”

44 kids find new families on Austin Adoption Day

There are more than 6,500 youth in Texas waiting to be adopted. On Nov. 6, 2014, 44 children—with ages ranging from one to 17 years—were welcomed into “forever families” during Austin Adoption Day at the Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center.

To celebrate the occasion, attendees were treated to a day of games, giveaways, and performances by entertainers. In addition to books, toys, and commemorative pieces, including ID jewelry engraved with the child’s new name and the date of the adoption, each family received a complimentary wills package from the Law Office of Fred A. Helms in Austin.

Adoption Day, now in its 13th year, is spearheaded by the Austin Bar Association and the Austin Bar Foundation in partnership with the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, CASA of Travis County, Partnerships for Children, Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center, the Travis County Office of Child Representation, and the Travis County Children’s Protective Services Board. Community partners, including Jim Kruger and Cook Walden Funeral Home, also contributed to the event.


SXSW CLE Wrap-up

Part I: Cool Things v. Consumer Privacy, Filming Unsuspecting Subjects, and Streaming Pay Scales

By the end of South by Southwest 2014—held in Austin from March 7 to March 16—attorneys were referring to the festival’s official legal program as “Camp CLE.” Like the much larger SXSW spectacle, the CLE room was full of lawyers from around the country, as well as a mix of artists, publishers, and other entertainment industry professionals. Put on by the Midwest-based Lommen Abdo Law Firm, a total of 12 sessions were held, led by 30 law experts. The Texas Bar Journal reports on several of these events below. Stay tuned to the State Bar Blog for additional SXSW CLE articles.


The Sentient Economy: Law and Policy for the IoT. Session leader Gerard Stegmaier—of counsel to the technology-focused firm of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati in Washington, D.C.—explained that the Internet of Things “is like looking into the crystal ball,” which consists of objects that people use in their everyday lives that have the ability to connect to the online network. Smart phones, personal activity trackers, even refrigerators with interactive computers make up the IoT. These devices often ask for the user to provide a varying amount of personal information so that the user’s experience can be individually customized—oftentimes to motivate the user to achieve a specific goal.

Stegmaier quipped that this “machine-to-machine” connection is dangerous because it is a billion-dollar industry that involves controversial consumer privacy matters. “And when there’s that much money at stake,” he said, “lawyers come running.” Privacy law issues, Stegmaier believes, will either inhibit or prohibit the growth of the IoT. Because most consumers value being notified—or being asked for permission—any time their personal data is captured, Stegmaier recommended that tech companies consider taking such “privacy by design” approaches.

Businesses that supply objects within the IoT can get into trouble for violating deceptive-trade laws, either by being outright deceptive (when the writing used is determined to be misleading) or by being unfair (when substantial consumer injury outweighs any potential benefits). While the IoT “makes cool things possible,” he said, lawyers need to make sure consumers and companies aren’t at risk.


All About Hidden Camera and Investigative Reporting. A handful of attorneys mixed with dozens of filmmakers and media professionals at this CLE session, led by entertainment attorney Michael Donaldson of Donaldson & Callif in Beverly Hills. The discussion focused on the recommended practices for documentary films and news programs that film non-actors—or “unsuspecting subjects”—and wish to publicly distribute the recordings.

Donaldson noted that it is always a good idea to start by researching the relevant states’ laws on recording conversation and to try and obtain releases from any unsuspecting subjects who are filmed. The movie Borat, for example, employed a release (although not for all filmed subjects) that courts found to be “rock solid” because it was absolutely clear, in plain language, and short.

When no releases are obtained—as is commonly the case for undercover and investigative reporting pieces—the most important factor that courts have considered is the filmed individual’s expectation of privacy. A TV news show that secretly filmed a physician inappropriately prescribing painkillers lost in court based on the doctor’s reasonable expectation of privacy in his own office. On the other hand, a suit brought on by a performer who was filmed backstage beating apes that were used in his circus show was unsuccessful because the court found that he had little reasonable expectation of privacy backstage, where stage hands and other performers were frequently present.


Screaming About Streaming. Said to be the hot topic of this year’s SXSW CLE, this three-person panel focused on online streaming and the copyright and royalty issues related to the increasingly popular way of consuming music. Panelists included Ken Steinthal of King & Spalding in San Francisco; Colin Rushing, senior vice president and general counsel to SoundExchange; and John Simson, of counsel to Lommen Abdo Law Firm. They explained that music streaming involves two separate copyright issues: one for the composition’s publishing and another for the master recording. And, streaming itself is divided into two categories: interactive streaming (i.g., Spotify) and non-interactive (i.g., Sirius XM and—controversially—Pandora).

To illustrate this complex legal situation, panelist Steinthal focused on the recent court case involving Pandora and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, in which Pandora sought to pay the same rate that traditional radio pays (1.7 percent of revenue) for ASCAP-registered material. (Pandora insists that it is guaranteed protection to have such low rates, while publishers and ASCAP argue that it is unfair and results in an industry where millions of hits on a single song generate less than $600 in compensation.)

Panelist Rushing of SoundExchange gave the audience some historical background, noting that traditionally, radio stations had to buy the rights only to a song. But after 1995, all sound recordings broadcast via digital public performance also required publishing rights. While technically the publishing copyrights are compulsory and masters copyrights are voluntary when dealing with interactive streaming services (and vice-versa for non-interactive streaming), Steinthal and Rushing explained that it is probably best to acknowledge both copyrights.

ABLA holds first pro bono clinic based on SBOT's Care Kit









On Nov. 9, the Austin Black Lawyers Association hosted its first free legal clinic based on the State Bar of Texas’s Care Kit that encourages lawyers to engage in pro bono work.

Rudolph Metayer, president of ABLA, said he hoped the clinic would achieve one simple goal: to help the community. “It is my personal opinion that [lawyers] want to do what is right,” said Metayer. “The problem is that, I think just because we’re so busy, we don’t always have the ability to do so. The [Care Kit] played a vital role.”

Volunteer lawyers with ABLA and the Texas RioGrande Legal Aid nonprofit met with about 38 community members in just four hours to discuss matters concerning family law, bankruptcy, wills and estate, and landlord/tenant law. Although impossible to solve a legal matter during a short 30-minute consultation, clients left the ABLA clinic with more knowledge and direction for moving forward.

“I have called some attorneys, and they quoted me $2,000 to $5,000 to deal with a case like mine,” said Jacqueline Fisher of Round Rock, who sat down with Metayer at the clinic to discuss a child custody case. “So for him to give me a [phone] number for Legal Aid actually helps me out a lot. I know now what I need to do to take care of my case.”

No joke about it -- Austin attorney is funny

Last time the State Bar caught up with Austin attorney John Ramsey, he was fresh out of law school and had just started practicing with Nunis & Associates. He was also just named Funniest Person in Austin. That was back in 2005. Since then, he’s performed throughout the country, most notably in Aspen for HBO’s USA Comedy Arts Festival and in New York City for Comedy Central’s Live at Gotham series.

Seems Ramsey is taking his brush with fame in stride. “The best thing about having comedy as a hobby has been the free trips with my wife,” Ramsey says. He’s still performing in Austin, but manages to do a couple of shows out of state when his job allows.

Ramsey has no plans to leave his position at Nunis & Associates for his hobby, saying “it is far more likely that I will leave the comedy world to become a full-time lawyer.” Considering how supportive his firm is of his comedy career, it's no wonder Ramsey would choose law first. Boss Bob Nunis allows Ramsey to shift his schedule if need be, and Nunis and the other attorneys at the firm have even gone out to see a few shows.

Catch the funnyman this weekend, when he performs Friday and Saturday at Austin’s comedy club, The Velveeta Room.

Live at Gotham  
John Ramsey – Russian Poop Joke
Joke of the Day Stand-Up Comedy Free Online Games


Austin lawyer an elite Yelper

Michelle Cheng is one of Austin's most prolific Yelpers. describes its free service as "real reviews by real people." Michelle has written 501 reviews of restaurants and other businesses, leading her cohorts on Yelp to call her "legendary" and earning her an elusive "Yelp Elite" status for three years running.

" gives me an easy, no-pressure outlet to do some writing on one of my favorite topics – food," says Cheng. "I’ve discovered many great restaurants and other businesses through Yelp, and have met lots of terrific people, too (there are frequent social gatherings for Yelpers)."

There's no telling where she finds the time, considering she's a busy plaintiff's lawyer (recently promoted to name partner in Whitehurst, Harkness, Brees, Cheng & Imhoff, PC) and serves on the State Bar Board of Directors and Texas Bar Journal Board of Editors, among other community activities.

And it's not all fun and games. "I’ve even had some potential clients who discovered me through my Yelp activity," Cheng related.