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#NewLaw Profile: Lainey Feingold, Digital Accessibility Law

On MyShingle, we celebrate the solo and small firm practitioner, and those at the forefront of innovation in the legal field. Our newest project, 41Legal Practice Areas That Didn’t Exist 15 Years Ago highlights solo and small firm practitioners who have embraced unconventional and upcoming niche practices from Animal Law to Cannabis Law.

This profile focuses on Lainey Feingold, who focuses on Digital Accessibility.

In a world where word travels instantly via the internet, accessibility is a prime concern for people with disabilities. With standards of public accessibility dictated by the ADA(Americans with Disabilities Act), lawyers who practice Digital Accessibility Law hold public and private organizations accessible for the extent to which their products can be accessed. These accommodations take a wide variety of forms–from websites offering audio options for their content, or videos providing closed captions. One of Feingold’s most utilized techniques in this domain is structured negotiation. She pioneered the process through her work on the first web accessibility agreement in the country with Bank of America, and continues to harness it in her practice.  

Feingold’s work, particularly focusing on advancing digital accessibility for the blind community, is detailed in her book.

Q: What is your name, your law firm’s name and location and website?

A: Lainey Feingold | Law Office of Lainey Feingold | http://LFLegal.com | Berkeley, CA. Active on  Twitter 

Q: At what point in your career did you begin to focus on Digital Accessibility Law, and what was the motivation for choosing Digital Accessibility Law?

A: Digital Accessibility is about making technology and information, including websites, mobile applications, and kiosks, usable by and accessible to people with disabilities. I began working in this space in1994. I was the litigation director at a disability rights non-profit and was approached by blind people who needed independent access to Automated Teller Machines (ATM). Four years after the Americans with Disabilities Act passed, it was a strong case – there was not a single accessible (Talking) ATM in the whole country a blind person could use. We decided to try negotiating instead of suing, and 4 years later we had some of the first accessible (talking) ATMs in the world.  As part of this initiative, in 1999, our very tech-savvy blind clients told us about a new thing called online banking.  That led us to negotiate the first web accessibility agreement in the country. It was with Bank of America and signaled the real beginning of Structured Negotiation, an alternative dispute resolution process that became the way in which I practiced law.

Q: Tell us a little about your work in Digital Accessibility Law. What types of clients do you represent and what are some of the legal issues you encounter?

A: I only represent blind people and organizations of blind people, though on rare occasion I have represented people with other disabilities.  Almost all of my work has been done with Structured Negotiation – a collaborative process that focuses on problem-solving and relationship building, cuts costs, and avoids expert battles pointless legal skirmishes.  Using this method, I’ve worked on accessible websites and mobile applications, Talking ATMs, talking prescription labels, accessible pedestrian signals, accessible medical services, and braille information.  I’ve worked on digital accessibility in the financial, healthcare, transportation, governmental, and retail sectors. Stories of my cases and more about the strategy can be found in my book, Structured Negotiation, A Winning Alternative to Lawsuits, published by the American Bar Association in 2016.

Q: What do you enjoy most about Digital Accessibility Law?

A: The people I have the opportunity to work with. Clients seek me out because they prefer to work on legal issues in collaboration over conflict.  Digital accessibility is a civil right, and I’m lucky to work on making the digital world more available to people with disabilities.  I am also very involved in the global accessibility community, which has given me the chance to meet and work with people committed to accessibility in other countries.

Q: What kind of background is necessary for Digital Accessibility Law?

A: I graduated law school in 1981 and worked as a union-side labor lawyer and a traditional civil rights lawyer before becoming a disability rights lawyer.  Perhaps the most important thing about the digital accessibility legal space is that the law is but one aspect of the international push for accessible technology.  Lawyers wanting to enter the space need to be respectful of that and recognize possible negative repercussions to the field beyond losing an individual case.  Soft skills are of great value in practicing digital accessibility law.  No matter what side of the table you are on, you don’t need to be a shark. 

Q: How did you market your practice and gain a reputation in Digital Accessibility Law?

I have gained a reputation in two ways.  First, by doing the work (now for close to 25 years) in a way that advances accessibility, values the expertise of disabled people and respects all the different roles that contribute to accessibility. Second, I share resources with both the legal and non-legal community.  I’m very active on Twitter(@LFLegal) and see myself as a translator of what happens in the legal space for people who are involved in accessibility and are not lawyers. I do significant amounts of public speaking, both in the United States and internationally. My clients come to me directly through word of mouth, and through referrals by others (lawyer and non-lawyers) in the digital accessibility space.

Q: As you know, this practice area really did not exist 15 years ago. How do you address or advise clients on novel or emerging issues for which there is no precedent?

A: I began working in digital accessibility in 1994 and negotiated (with colleagues and clients) the first web accessibility case in the United States in 2000.  It’s longer than 15 years ago, but I agree digital accessibility was never considered a “practice area” at that time.  Because I practice Structured Negotiation which avoids lawsuits, I am not involved in establishing legal precedent. But I stay very up on both legal and non-legal trends in this space and know that “industry precedent” serves a vital role. Structured Negotiation has helped establish that. I also believe in very direct client communication in plain language. If pursuing a case is risky, we talk about those risks. In my book, I have a checklist for talking with clients about the pros and cons of trying to start out with a collaborative process like Structured Negotiation.

Q: Tell us about one of your most interesting or challenging cases.

A: One case that gets a lot of attention is a Structured Negotiation in which I represented blind baseball fans from all over the country, but primarily Red Sox fans in Massachusetts.  The Major League Baseball website did not work well for blind fans who use screen reader technology on their devices.  When we were able to introduce those fans to MLB decision makers, the result was magical (though not to say there were not bumps along the way).  Our agreement eventually improved access to the website and the sites of all 30 MLB teams.  An extension of that agreement ensured that MLB’s award-winning mobile application was also accessible.  It was one of the first agreements in the country to require accessibility of mobile applications.

Q: What advice do you have for other attorneys interested in Digital Accessibility Law?

A: Please understand that the law is just one piece of digital accessibility. There are entire conferences, MeetUps and other gatherings around the globe focused on making the web and other digital information and technology accessible to people with disabilities. Digital accessibility is a civil right of disabled people far more than a “practice area.” Please don’t enter the space looking for a quick buck. Tap into the expertise that is out there, especially the expertise of people with disabilities. There is a generous community of disability rights plaintiffs’ lawyers wanting to share experience and a significant number of free resources, webinars and more that can help you get up to speed.  

And if you are on the defense side, learn from leaders in the law on that side of the table. Don’t reinvent the wheel and don’t be unnecessarily aggressive. Whenever possible, convince your clients to spend money on access instead of fighting in a courtroom, as the defense lawyers I respect have been doing for a long time.