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The prospects for survival looked grim when Michael B. Shapiro launched a list server for criminal defense lawyers. “The list was a joke three-and-a-half years ago,” says Shapiro, executive director of the Georgia Indigent Defense Council. “We were sending jokes out just to break the cobwebs in the electronic mailboxes.” They’re not sending out jokes anymore. Shapiro’s list server for the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, known as GACDL, now has more than 350 members. It has spawned two similar list servers for other legal disciplines: one for Georgia personal injury attorneys, known as GAPI, and one for Workers’ Compensation lawyers. Another active local list server caters to lawyer-members of Georgia Defense of Drinking Drivers, or DODD. These list servers transmit as many as 50 to 75 messages a day on legal theory, courts, cases, judges, experts and evidence. LIKE SPOKES IN A WHEEL For those who haven’t used a list server, think of it as just another form of e-mail. A list server allows users to communicate with a group of people by sending out just one e-mail message that is then automatically distributed to all group members. Visualize an old wagon wheel, Shapiro says. You’re out on one of the spokes, and you send a message to the hub. The hub then distributes your message to all the other spokes. Like regular e-mail, list servers are private — sort of. You have to apply for membership to the group, which usually restricts access to other professionals with similar interests. Even when his list was limping along with half a dozen users, Shapiro saw its potential for helping lawyers of the same stripe share information. The list servers are a stealth weapon for lawyers whose practice areas — criminal defense, drunk driving defense, personal injury — mean they often butt heads with government, public opinion and big business. List servers also allow sole practitioners, small firm lawyers and lawyers miles from a big city to tap their collective consciousness. As Shapiro puts it, “It’s us against the world.” These days, there are a lot of “us.” The GAPI and GACDL list servers have more than 300 members each. GARLAND STARTED FIRST The seeds of what has become a lively electronic discussion began about a dozen years ago when defense attorney Edward T.M. Garland of Garland, Samuel & Loeb envisioned a way for defense lawyers to share information, according to Shapiro. That vision became an early on-line bulletin board and eventually a list server. Now, says Shapiro, “Ed Garland is a lurker.” That’s Net-speak for a person who reads messages but doesn’t post them. All three list servers have their share of lurkers, but active members can generate as many as 50 to 75 messages a day. Managing problems with all that data falls to James S. Altman, a domestic relations and commercial litigation attorney in Atlanta and self-described “wire head.” He handles the technical aspects of the GACDL and GAPI list servers from his office. The three list servers are free, though members may have to pay a fee to join the group that hosts them. DISCUSSIONS CONFIDENTIAL These list servers consider the online discussions confidential. The theory is that the content is attorney work-product, and as such, not vulnerable to discovery or a subpoena. To preserve confidentiality, they carefully check members and applicants to make sure, for example, that no defense attorneys are lurking on the plaintiffs’ personal injury list. Lawyers who make the membership cut say they love the online camaraderie, quick responses and access to a pool of legal knowledge. Of course, there are those who don’t like list servers and at least one lawyer who started a server has encountered resistance. William “Bubba” Head of Head, Thomas, Webb & Willis, started a list server for DUI lawyers who belong to the Georgia Defense of Drinking Drivers group. “One judge has described it as ‘Bubba’s Star Chamber,’ ” he says. But the help the list server provides is invaluable, he says. For example, Head says that last week, in preparation for a Monday hearing, he asked list server members for information about a particular police officer who’d committed perjury. The responses came rolling in, he says, including transcripts of the officer lying under oath. The group also refers cases to one another, and shares current motions, briefs and court orders by attaching them to e-mails. QUICK RESPONSES Personal injury lawyers value the quick responses on their list server, says its founder, Fayetteville sole practitioner Richard D. Hobbs. Hobbs says he modeled the GAPI list server after the one Shapiro created for defense lawyers. “It’s eight o’clock at night and someone e-mails and says, ‘I’m in court tomorrow and I’ve really screwed up. What should I do?’ And people are responding as late as midnight,” Hobbs says. T. Jess Bowers III belongs to both the GAPI and GACDL lists. He’s a 1999 graduate of Georgia State University’s law school and started a solo practice, something he refers to as “quite a daunting task.” But list servers helped make it a little less daunting. Bowers was familiar with list servers because several GSU professors use them. So he began lurking on the GACDL and GAPI list servers to see what people talked about and what questions were acceptable. He asked his first question recently, about a pending criminal case. Other messages, that don’t apply to current cases, he stores in a searchable folder for use later — and as a cheap alternative to Lexis and Westlaw. STAYING INFORMED List servers also help lawyers miles outside the metro Atlanta area to stay informed of news and legal developments. Chattanooga lawyer Morgan G. Adams says about 20 percent of his practice is in Georgia. “I can’t keep up with the Georgia cases as well as the Tennessee cases and the cutting-edge decisions are broadcast immediately on this list server,” says the Georgia State law graduate. Adams says he also has used the list server when he gets into a dispute about a case valuation. He’ll e-mail the list describing his case’s facts and jurisdiction and then lawyers who’ve had similar cases there will tell him if he’s asking for too much or too little. “I can’t tell you, from somebody who’s spending 16 hours a day at the office, how beneficial that is,” he says. AIDS SMALL-TOWN LAWYERS The list server is particularly helpful to small-town lawyers who don’t have someone local to talk to about a certain type of case, says GAPI member Zack Dozier of the three-lawyer firm Dozier & Sikes in Macon, Dozier, who handles mostly motor vehicle collision cases, has been practicing since 1963 and says he tries to help other members with advice, often responding to questions about uninsured motorists procedure and trial tactics. But he’s also received help from the list on issues he’s not familiar with, such as premises liability. Some lawyers try to use the list servers to promote change and right what they see as wrongs. For Bernard M. Gerber, a general civil litigator with his own firm, Gerber & Gerber, the list server was a way to give others ammunition against what he saw as an insurance company’s injustice. Gerber represented the plaintiff in a personal injury case arising out of a four-car collision. The insurance companies for two defendants couldn’t decide which driver was at fault, and agreed to split liability. One insurer promptly settled for about $3,500. Despite the liability agreement, the other insurer, State Farm Fire and Casualty Co., requested numerous documents, refused to believe that Gerber’s client had been injured and offered $500 to settle, Gerber says. So Gerber sued State Farm under a novel theory he developed. Normally, an injured person can’t sue the insurance company, and has to sue the driver instead. But Gerber argued that since Georgia requires drivers to be insured, State Farm wrote an insurance policy that was legislatively mandated. Under existing law, he argued, the public is viewed as a third-party beneficiary of legislatively mandated policies. A judge agreed, and granted standing to sue for bad faith failure to settle. The case was Little v. Whitley, No. 99-VS-152395-H (Fult. State). State Farm eventually settled for $14,000. SPREADING THE WORD The catch: Since the case was settled, it wouldn’t be reported officially. Other lawyers with similar cases would miss a potentially winning argument. So Gerber told the GAPI list server what he’d done. Now, he says, 20 to 30 complaints have been filed based on the theory he developed. Gerber says his motive is to discourage insurance companies from offering small settlements on legitimate claims. “That’s what I want to do. Change things,” he says. These three list servers also are changing things by letting sole practitioners and small firm lawyers — who make up the bulk of their membership — know they’re not alone in encountering certain legal problems or difficult opponents. Shapiro calls GACDL “The King & Spalding of criminal defense attorneys.” Hobbs jokes that GAPI is the largest law firm in Georgia. Says Adams, the Chattanooga lawyer with a Georgia practice: “I feel through the list servers I go from a law firm of two to a law firm of six hundred.”

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