Fifteen Years of Practicing Law with an Outstretched Hand

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October 1, 2011 marks the fifteenth anniversary of the Law Office of Lainey Feingold. I had practiced law for fifteen years when I decided to strike out on my own in 1996. That year my daughters turned 10 and 7. I was afraid that continuing on the path my legal career had taken would extract too steep a toll on the kind of parent I wanted to be.

As with most new adventures, I was unsure about what having my own law firm would be like. I certainly could not have predicted that I would find a collaborative way to practice law that helped to remove access barriers while developing lasting relationships with incredible people. [More on that below.] Or that I would be able to practice law without becoming mired in the procedural battles and adversarial posturing that is all too common in my chosen field.

My decision to open my own practice led me to help develop an advocacy and alternative dispute resolution method, now known as Structured Negotiations, that has allowed me to practice law with an outstretched hand. Filing a lawsuit, while at times necessary, can be the opposite – a closed fist, a punch in the stomach. For fifteen years Structured Negotiations have given me the opportunity to firmly, and with intention, shake hands. My gratitude for the people who have made that possible is the subject of this post.

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Structured Negotiations and Relationships

Structured Negotiations began with a simple question posed by a blind lawyer who has become a friend: Why can’t I get $20.00 out of an ATM machine when my sighted friends can? This question led Linda Dardarian and me to write letters on behalf of the California Council of the Blind and blind banking customers to three California banks asking them to install what are now known as Talking ATMs.

After several years of meetings with ATM manufacturers, bank staff and lawyers, after detailed hardware and software testing in labs across the country, and after reviewing countless Talking ATM scripts, we reached agreements with Bank of America, Citibank and Wells Fargo, all of which had grown substantially since our first letters. When we started, there were no Talking ATMs in the U.S. Today, there are tens and tens of thousands.

We reached those first agreements without filing a lawsuit. Agreements with other banks, again without litigation, quickly (or not so quickly) followed. The agreements addressed not only Talking ATMs, but accessible on-line banking and Braille, Large Print and audio information. We started calling the process Structured Negotiations to emphasize that it was not simply “pre-litigation” talks, but an alternative system – with a structure – to resolve disputes.

At the time, I wondered if there was something unique about the Talking ATM effort that allowed us to achieve results outside of the adversarial legal system. But now, after using Structured Negotiations in a variety of contexts, I don’t think so. Over the past fifteen years Structured Negotiations have resulted not just in Talking ATM installations, but in tactile point of sale devices, accessible pedestrian signals, accessible web pages, Braille, Large Print, electronic and audio documents, and increased hospital access. It couldn’t be just luck, it had to be something else.

A big part of that “something else” are the relationships that are made possible by a structure that is more flexible than the adversarial legal system, encourages open communication, that allows for relationships to grow and flourish. In Structured Negotiations, blind people can talk to business teams at a round table, and not just across a deposition table. Experts can meet technology developers in the bustle of their labs, and not just in a foreboding court house. Lawyers can take off the armor and try to find common ground.

Structured Negotiations depend on the relationships that develop in these settings, and so do I. Relationships have been the glue that has built and strengthened my law practice for the past fifteen years. While it is impossible to name everyone who has contributed to the Law Office of Lainey Feingold, here, with deep gratitude, is my attempt to recognize those individuals and organizations without whom I would not be celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of anything. Thank you to each of you. While I can’t name names, you know who you are. [Back to Jump Links at top of post]

Members of the Blind Community

During the past fifteen years I have been privileged to know people who are blind and visually impaired as friends, clients, experts, and colleagues. As leaders of national, state and local organizations and as individual volunteers in advocacy efforts large and small. As musicians, athletes, scientists, educators, lawyers; as corporate, academic and government employees; and as non-profit staff. Each has contributed to my understanding of what it means to be visually impaired in the 21st century. They, and their organizations, have deepened my understanding of how the lack of independent access to information and technology denies civil rights and results in exclusion. Without this knowledge I could not operate my law practice the way I do.

As a blind person I know who falls into many of these categories once told me, “you don’t have to have sight to have vision.” The vision of an inclusive and accessible society developed by the blind community in the U.S. and beyond, and the individuals and organizations who comprise it, have fueled my law practice for the past fifteen years. That vision has been instrumental to my firm. [Back to Jump Links at top of post]

Disability Rights Lawyers

My law practice would not exist without my close friend and colleague Linda Dardarian, with whom I have partnered on most of my work. Linda is a partner in the Oakland, California civil rights firm Goldstein, Demchak, Baller, Borgen & Dardarian and a brilliant legal strategist. She and the members and staff of her firm have been great and generous allies whom I deeply appreciate. Read more about Linda.

Lawyers who are part of the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) in state offices around the country, and national NDRN staff, are always willing to share their deep expertise, and several have co-counseled cases with my law office. Private disability rights lawyers around the country have been generous with their time and considerable skills. I have benefited greatly from lawyers who use different legal strategies in representing the disability community. All of us are lucky to have the Disability Rights Bar Association as a forum for learning, sharing ideas, and creating community. [Back to Jump Links at top of post]

Accessibility Consultants

My law practice would not have thrived over the past fifteen years without the generosity, dedication, skills and brilliance of accessibility experts and consultants around the country. These specialists (some who have disabilities, some who do not) have patiently exposed me to ideas, theories and concepts key to accessibility and fundamental to true inclusion. They are my colleagues and teachers, and many are my friends.

During the early years of my law practice before I focused almost exclusively on information and technology access, I worked on architectural barrier cases. Experts around the country helped me understand how one seemingly small inch could make the difference between exclusion and inclusion. How a ramp slope only “slightly off” could be a barrier to thousands.

Technology experts, both blind and sighted, along with the blind community, have taught me the meaning of true accessibility. Late night conversations spent figuring out detailed Talking ATM specifications helped launched my private law practice and grounded my understanding of technology access in a way that still reverberates today.

And what can I say that will do even partial justice to how much I have learned from people who are dedicating their lives to making sure the web-based information and technologies are accessible to people with disabilities? People inside and outside corporations, working in home offices or consultant firms, in academia or the public or non-profit sector. People who are part of the “accessibility tribe,” who tweet with the hashtag #a11y, who go to CSUN, AccessU and conferences around the world to learn from each other, share their wisdom, and push the envelope. Anyone who uses the internet owes this community a debt of gratitude. I know I do. [Back to Jump Links at top of post]

Corporate, Non-Profit and Government Supporters

I often say about Structured Negotiations that “it takes two to tango”. I believe wholeheartedly in the method as a way to resolve accessibility claims, but it only works if the entity with the access problem agrees to participate. I am grateful that over the past fifteen years almost all of those given the opportunity to engage in Structured Negotiations have done so.

Traditional legal language reinforces differences and contributes to an “us” and “them” mentality that is not helpful to resolving problems. An entity that is sued is called a “defendant” – an unquestioned assumption that when alerted to a legal violation, the violation will be “defended”. The lawyers representing that entity are called “opposing counsel” – a not-so-subtle reminder that lawyers are supposed to oppose each other, not work creatively to resolve problems.

We try to avoid this language in Structured Negotiations, and my law firm would not exist today if the large commercial entities, government entities and non-profits who have participated in Structured Negotiations insisted on “defending” inaccessible practices. If lawyers for those entities knew only how to oppose. Structured Negotiations has succeeded because of individuals inside some of the largest corporations in the world decided that it made more sense to work toward solution than to fight on principle. [Back to Jump Links at top of post]

Larger Disability Community

Before I opened my law practice I worked at the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) in Berkeley, California. It was there that I first learned about the disability community. I still remember wondering how, until that point, I could have been unaware of this vibrant, diverse, civil rights movement. Many people I met during my time at DREDF were the advocates and activists who built the movement and continue to grow it today. My appreciation for them and their work continues and still informs my legal work. [Back to Jump Links at top of post]

Resources

On this site you can find additional background on many of the issues mentioned in this post.

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Thanks to each of you reading this post. Launching the LFLegal website in 2008, and opening the Twitter account in 2010, gave me the tools to connect with others working for a more accessible world. You too are part of the community that sustains my law practice. I’d love to hear from you. Contact the Law Office of Lainey Feingold or Follow Lainey Feingold on Twitter.

Simplified Summary

This is a post about the fifteenth (15th) anniversary of Lainey Feingold’s law firm. The firm has helped develop Structured Negotiations as a way to remove access barriers. Lainey thanks many people for helping her in the past 15 years. These include members of the blind and larger disability community. Linda Dardarian has been crucial to Lainey’s law practice. Other lawyers have helped too. Accessibility experts have helped the law firm in many ways. Corporate supporters have made it possible for Lainey to practice Structured Negotiations.