Isaac Lidsky has come close to achieving a paperless law office — but not because he is a high-tech whiz trying to save trees.
It’s because Lidsky, an associate in the New York office of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, is blind, and paper is not of much use to him. Almost all the documents he deals with are reformatted, not for printing, but for screen reading. That is, he uses software that reads the document out loud to him in a digitized voice.
Lidsky usually speeds up the voice so that, to colleagues, it sounds like an auctioneer on fast-forward. But it enables Lidsky to listen to a document more quickly than a lawyer who sees could read it. Without hesitation, Lidsky says, “I can work more efficiently than my sighted colleagues.”
But the 30-year-old Lidsky is quick to add that he has help. When he arrived at the New York office from a stint in London in May, an impromptu team of staff including paralegals, librarians and other associates assembled to assist him in various small ways — primarily in putting documents in the right format for him to process. “There’s a sort of 24/7, 365-day group that helps with things,” he said.
“I’m really impressed with the system he has created,” said Jacqueline Yecies, an Akin Gump associate who has worked with Lidsky on several client matters. “He’s an extremely impressive character, and very self-sufficient.”
Lidsky has been winning admirers since he was a child, when he played “Weasel” on the TV show Saved By the Bell: The New Class in 1993. Inspired by his father, a Miami attorney, he always wanted to be a lawyer, not an actor. So when he was diagnosed — like two of his sisters — with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease, he pursued the law, attending Harvard University and then Harvard Law School. It was at law school that his ailment turned from “nuisance to disability,” but that did not stop him.
He clerked for a U.S. circuit court judge, argued cases for the Civil Division of the Justice Department, created a charitable organization to fund eye research and, in 2008, fulfilled a lifelong dream when he clerked at the Supreme Court — the first blind person to hold that position. He was assigned to retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor but worked for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on current Supreme Court cases like any other clerk. Legal Times profiled Lidsky when he was about to begin his clerkship.
At the Court, too, staffers rallied to optimize Lidsky’s year by helping him with the enormous number of cases, articles, treatises and books that clerks need quick access to in preparing briefs and memos for their justices. Lidsky estimated that clerks deal with 10 times the volume of documents that an average law firm associate has to handle.
“His unique needs presented the library’s staff with both opportunities and challenges,” wrote Linda Corbelli and Melissa Williams, two Court research librarians in a recent article in Law Library Lights, a publication of the Washington chapter of the American Association of Law Libraries. In Lidsky’s first days at the Court, for example, the staff realized that the PowerPoint presentation usually given to incoming clerks would not work for him.
Librarians and tech services personnel worked together to find ways to convert PDF documents and database searches like Westlaw into Word documents that could be read by the JAWS (Job Access With Speech) screen-reading software. Data systems staff developed a macro that helped separate multiple documents in a database search and stripped extraneous text so Lidsky could get right to the material he needed. Graphs and tables posed special problems, they found, and sometimes it was quicker to have a sighted person discuss those with Lidsky directly. Another unexpected hurdle arose when Lidsky needed treatises or books in digital form so they could be read by his software. Some publishers balked, fearing their works would be reproduced widely if they gave the Court digitized versions. Lidsky found that “incredible and bizarre,” the librarians quoted him as saying.
Overall, it was a learning experience for everyone at the Court, and staff rallied to the challenges. “Isaac Lidsky is one of the most upbeat and positive individuals you will ever meet,” Corbelli and Williams wrote. Lidsky said of the Court staff, “They really went out of their way to help me enjoy my year.”
After his Supreme Court clerkship, Lidsky signed on with Akin Gump’s London office so his wife, Dorothy, could pursue a graduate program she had postponed while he was at the Court. They planned to return to the states afterward, but their departure from London was hastened when he and his wife learned she was giving birth to triplets. Lily, Phineas and Thaddeus were born in September.
Lidsky has done a full range of client work, including oral arguments, since returning to the states. Associate Yecies said that, when she accompanied Lidsky to an argument before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2d Circuit, the only accommodation made was that the light that goes on when his argument time was running out was turned into an audio signal.
Most of the time, she said, clients and colleagues would have no reason to even know he is blind — though he mentions it on his Web site. “When I first met him, I was told beforehand that he was blind, but to be honest I’m not sure I would have known otherwise,” she said. “And we’ve worked with co-counsel who did not know he was blind until he sent them a document” whose formatting needed to be explained.
Lidsky agrees that, most of the time, his work routines are no different from those of sighted colleagues. With lead time, it’s easy for him to process all the documents he needs. “It only gets challenging when there are short-fuse projects,” Lidsky said. “It can also get tricky when you are working with larger teams — five lawyers in one office and five in another, and you are tracking changes, or people are faxing things with handwritten notes.” But with the help of his colleagues he can overcome those bumps quickly.
Perhaps the most helpful accommodation the firm made when he came to New York was thinking ahead of time about where his office should be. “I deeply appreciate the fact that my office is near the elevator banks, the conference room and the restroom,” said Lidsky. “When my secretary helps me get food, I can basically not have to move much all day.”
Tony Mauro can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.