Steven Brill is an attorney, author, journalist, and entrepreneur. In 1979, Steven Brill launched The American Lawyer, a monthly...
THE ORRICK YEARS Ralph served as Chairman & CEO of Orrick for nearly a quarter century, leading the firm...
Over his career, Steven Brill has had a major impact on both the practice of law and the public’s perception of law. His monthly magazine The American Lawyer changed the ways lawyers and law firms approach the business of practicing law through its journalism and features like the Am Law 100. Through Court TV, the cable TV network he founded in the 90’s, Brill helped to provide greater transparency and insight into legal proceedings for the general public. Law Technology Now host Ralph Baxter sits down with Steven Brill to discuss his career, the motivations that brought him to the companies he’s started, and his take on future developments in the law.
Steven Brill is the founder of The American Lawyer and Court TV, an attorney, an author, and a journalist.
Law Technology Now
Steven Brill: Entrepreneur, Attorney, and Best-Selling Author
Ralph Baxter: Welcome to Law Technology Now. I am Ralph Baxter and this is the fourth episode of the show that I have recorded and I am very excited today.
We have with us as our guest the man who literally launched journalism about the business of law, the Founder of The American Lawyer magazine Steve Brill and we’re recording this episode in New York City.
Before we get started, I want to thank our sponsors. Thanks to Logikcull, instant discovery software for modern legal teams. Logikcull offers perfectly predictable pricing at just $250 per matter per month. Create your free account anytime at logikcull.com/ltn. That’s logikcull.com/ltn.
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So Steve Brill is best known as the Founder of The American Lawyer magazine and for good reason. It’s the first publication to report in the business of law and it’s a publication that had a profound impact on the practice of law.
The American Lawyer turned 40 last year and today we’re going to talk about the formation of the American Lawyer magazine and the impact it’s had. But there’s a lot more to Steve Brill in his career than just the American Lawyer important as that is.
Steve is trained as a lawyer but at heart I think Steve is a writer. He’s been writing articles for magazines and newspapers since his college days and has written for magazines and newspapers ever since and he’s written at least seven significant provocative best-selling books, one that examined the education system in the United States called ‘Class Warfare: Inside the fight to Fix America’s Schools’. He wrote one on Medicine in America, ‘Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us’ and most recently he’s written one that examines pretty much everything else, ‘Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall’.
So Steve is a writer, Steve is also an entrepreneur. He of course founded the American Lawyer magazine. He has also founded a number of other really important and challenging businesses including Court TV, Journalism Online, Clear, subsidy or even another company that he founded and his current company where we’re recording this podcast today, NewsGuard which fights the misinformation and disinformation in media news.
Welcome to the podcast Steve.
Steven Brill: Thanks Ralph.
Ralph Baxter: So we’re going to start with a little more background on you, everybody knows something about you but you were born in Queens. Can you share with us something about your growing up experience, your formative years?
Steven Brill: Well I was born into a middle-class family in Queens. My father owned a modest-sized liquor store in Manhattan and when I was 14-years-old and in junior high school, something awful happened to me. I was playing basketball one night and went up for a rebound and came down and landed on my knee and broke my knee.
The New York City Public Schools didn’t allow you at that time to go to school with crutches which I thought was great, so I got to stay home and part of staying home was I read a lot of books and one of them I read a book that was a Biography of John Kennedy who had recently been assassinated.
And in this biography it said, he’d gone to something called a prep school which was Choate and I did a little asking around and figured out that a prep school was something you could go to that was just like college only, you could go to sooner and had great athletic facilities and so long story short, I applied to three prep schools. One of them I applied to because it was near Boston which was Andover and I got to take the first plane ride I’d ever taken when I was 14.
Anyway long story short, Deerfield Academy had started a new financial aid policy and the then headmaster there who was in his 50th year as headmaster. The policy he fashioned was tell us what you can pay and that’s how much you can pay, you could just write the check and my parents thought that was a great idea.
So I went to Deerfield where I really didn’t fit in and from there went on to Yale College which at the time was — and this is in my book Tailspin at the time Yale had embarked on an ambitious program of trying to create more diversity in the student body. In other words, not just white guys from rich families and from rich prep schools.
So I got a scholarship to Yale and then went to Yale Law School and the whole time I was writing and when I went to Yale Law School I was working pretty much full-time in New York Magazine which you can do if you go to Yale Law School. If you go to a hard law school like Harvard you can’t do that.
And when I was in my last year there, I was standing outside the recruiting office where law firms came to make appointments with kids to recruit them, not that I wanted a job because I had a job at New York Magazine but that’s where the soda machines were and I looked up at the bulletin board and it had all these recruiting letters from law firms like yours with on parchment stationery saying, we have an unusually diverse practice and it’s unusually interesting and we seek students with unusual amounts of intelligence, and integrity, and drive to come to our law firm.
And they all said the same thing and I figured to myself they all can’t exactly be the same. Since I’m working at New York Magazine maybe I should do write an article about law firms.
Ralph Baxter: Okay let me just interrupt here for a second because I want to — you’re getting to a very important part of what I’m really going to ask you about which is how you got into writing about law but just if we just can hold that for a second. So when you went to law school, did you have any intention of becoming a lawyer?
Steven Brill: No my stuff was in New Haven. So it was easy to roll over and go and I’d always be interested in either politics or journalism.
Ralph Baxter: Okay. So now before we turn to the American Lawyer and how you got into writing about lawyers, so you have three children, right. Two of whom are lawyers. So did you encourage them to be lawyers?
Steven Brill: Not really, no. One of them was naturally interested, one of them got interested after he had graduated from college and was teaching a couple of years at a Charter School in Brooklyn and decided that having a credential like a law degree would help them in the public service kind of stuff that he wants to do.
Ralph Baxter: And the other?
Steven Brill: The other, she wanted to be a lawyer the whole time and did very well at law school, then clerked on the Supreme Court and is now working in Washington.
Ralph Baxter: Okay and the third, what does she do?
Steven Brill: She’s a journalist and she has just started a fabulous website which is a subscription website about the care and health of dogs, The Canine Review and it’s really the first of its kind, some independent site. It doesn’t take advertising and it rates the quality of care given by shelters, given by animal hospitals, the quality of dog food and it’s the only thing of its kind.
Ralph Baxter: So she’s an entrepreneur and writer too.
Steven Brill: Right.
Ralph Baxter: Right, all right. Okay now let’s go back to where you were in describing the story of Steve Brill. So you notice that the advertisements on the board as it was then.
Steven Brill: They’re all the same, they were just the same.
Ralph Baxter: Right. All the same and they were on a bulletin board.
Steven Brill: Right and I’m thinking to myself oh these are big powerful institutions, some of them must be better at this stuff than others, some of them must offer more opportunity to women or minorities than others. Some of them must have great litigation departments versus corporate departments.
My Yale Law School education was deep enough so that I knew there was a difference between litigation and corporate law. I had grasped that. So I decided I am going to write something about law firms and I started asking around and found out that there were these two guys in New York, one of whom would graduate at the top of his class from NYU, the other at the top of his class from Harvard but they were both Jewish and neither of them were offered jobs at any of the white-shoe firms.
One because he was just sort of short and kind of heavyset, the other because he was — he wore thick glasses and just didn’t fit what was then the mode of the Wall Street law firm. And when I found out was that quietly these two guys had started and were now running what I decided was going, were going to be the two most successful law firms in the United States because they had gotten into a specialty that the Wall Street firms didn’t want to do which was corporate takeover fights.
So I did this article in New York Magazine about Joe Flom and Martin Lipton and Skadden Arps and Wachtell Lipton and said that in 10 or 15 years, these guys are going to be at the top of the heap in terms of the success, business success of their firms and that obviously stirred a lot of interest.
And the interest was such that I decided that there could be a magazine not about law, not about tax law, trust in the states or litigation or Delaware Law, but a magazine about the business of law firms, which no one was doing. There was just nothing about it.
And so I started it as a column in Esquire Magazine and it grew into what became The American Lawyer.
Ralph Baxter: So how did you — what was it about Marty Lipton and Joe Flom and what they were doing that caused you with no experience in practicing law or in the world of law to think they were going to be top of the heap?
Steven Brill: Well in part it was because by definition they were engaged in bet your company fights, and they had developed a real specialty in it. They’re both brilliant. Joe has since passed away. They’re totally brilliant. They recruited brilliant people and they had this specialty in something that the investment banks and target corporations were rating corporations had to have, and they — before the Wall Street firms managed to look up and notice, they basically had a near duopoly on that practice.
Ralph Baxter: Right. So there was a story here, a story of general interest, you didn’t need to go to any law school to understand that story.
Steven Brill: Right.
Ralph Baxter: And these are two interesting characters that you happen to manifest.
Steven Brill: It just helped to have a Yale Law School credential, because when you interview lawyers, they’re all snobs and if you can figure out a way to say, yeah, you know I went to Yale Law School too, they are more likely to talk to you.
Ralph Baxter: So, you see a story in the business of law, an interesting story.
Steven Brill: Yeah.
Ralph Baxter: Somebody might read that, and somebody did. Okay, so then what?
Steven Brill: Well, then it turns out, there are all these interesting stories. When I started doing this, I remember when I was doing the column for Esquire, I called Lloyd Cutler which of then Wilmer Cutler & Pickering, I guess it’s now WilmerHale or something, and had gotten a tip that they had just lost a major airline as a client in Washington.
And I called him and he said, well why is that interesting. I said well, let me decide that. He said, well we can’t talk about that, that violates something. We’re not supposed to promote ourselves. Lawyers at the time basically took the admonition against self-promotion.
Remember, this was at the time, it was just after the Bates case and lawyers were allowed to advertise. I think that was 1975. This was 1978, and obviously corporate firms didn’t advertise, they didn’t do anything like what they do now. But they basically took the good principle that lawyers should not be associated with clients so that they could take on unpopular causes and unpopular clients and translated that into lawyers just shouldn’t be accountable for anything they do, or who they are or the businesses they run.
So, if you think about it, you had people my age coming out of law school or recently out of law school being recruited by law firms and they had no idea what these firms were about. If you ask people that day would you rather work at Skadden Arps or Finley, Kumble, they would have no idea what you were talking. They have no way to tell the difference.
Ralph Baxter: So this, you are not exaggerating. I was making decisions about what I was going to do with my career at that very time and you’re not exaggerating how little information people had, the law students, everybody else, the clients, the public about how the big firms operated, how they made decisions, all the things that you’re suggesting. And it’s an important piece of this story that that we lived in such a time, both the stories you’ve told so far, we lived in such a time and so it occurred to you that there was something you might do about it?
Steven Brill: Yeah, I mean just writ large, these are big businesses. The decisions they make whether it’s hiring, whether which clients to take on, how should they represent those clients in court, how good are they at it, how bad are they at, I mean we once did a survey where we among the Wall Street firms we just asked them to tell us in the last 12 months how many cases you had actually tried, not how many depositions you had, not how many interrogatories you drafted, but how many cases had you tried.
And I remember, I think it was just Sullivan & Cromwell, they were nuts, because they were a deposition firm, they weren’t a litigation firm. And that’s the cut I mean that’s market information.
You would want to — if you were getting a heart surgery you kind of want to ask the surgeon, have you ever done this before, so that’s what this was about.
And it was just seen as unusual to use a euphemism that any reporters were asking, but I was able to gather what became a stellar group of reporters who just love doing this for the challenge.
Ralph Baxter: So when did you make the decision that you were going to create a magazine?
Steven Brill: 1978, and we started in ‘79.
Ralph Baxter: And so how did you raise money to start this venture?
Steven Brill: Well, I was working at Esquire and my editor and mentor at Esquire introduced me to the British journalism and publishing company that had invested in Esquire and it took me 45 minutes to raise the money, which was a terrible thing, because in all the other businesses I’ve started I was totally spoiled if it took more than 45 minutes. And guess what, it often takes a lot more than 45 minutes.
Ralph Baxter: You know now why they were so ready to invest in this magazine that you were about to start?
Steven Brill: I think because it — once you sort of spelled it out, it seemed like kind of obvious idea and it wasn’t for them at least a lot of money to invest.
Ralph Baxter: Okay. So off you go. You create The American Lawyer magazine, what were some of the challenges you faced at the beginning?
Steven Brill: Well, to start there is no one would talk to us, and it took a long time for people to get used to the idea that we were there and we weren’t going away, and they should talk to us or now we never took it out on people who didn’t talk to us, it’s a core principle I think of journalism is you don’t have subpoena power, you don’t have a right to have Ralph Baxter talk to you, but if you’re doing credible stuff and you show that you’re going to be fair and you’re going to try to get it right, you ultimately can get people to talk to us.
But I mean I remember when we started doing the Am Law 100, which started as the Am Law 50 where we’re trying to get the revenues of profit and profits of what by definition are private enterprises, right?
Ralph Baxter: Right.
Steven Brill: So I remember we divvied up the list and Jill Abramson who went on to be the editor of the New York Times and Ellen Pollock, who’s now the Business Editor of the New York Times was the Editor of Businessweek. The two of them teamed up and they came into my office one day as we were in the middle of trying to do the Am Law 100 and said, there are 94 partners at Kirkland & Ellis and we’ve called 70 of them and all 70 have hung up on us, and I looked up and said, sounds like you’ve got another 26 calls. And then they got it.
And at the end of the day as you understand the dynamics of law firms and law firm partnerships probably as well as anyone, at the end of the day there’s some disgruntled partner who wants to tell you the inner workings of the partnership draws at each place and the revenues or there’s some really proud partner who thinks the firm’s not getting the credited deserves even though the people running the firm don’t want that kind of credit, but at the end of the day I mean a basic rule of journalism is that five or six or ten people know something, if you keep at it you can know it too.
Ralph Baxter: Right. And you didn’t need to know really anything about law firms, that’s in human nature.
Steven Brill: Yeah.
Ralph Baxter: The idea that somewhere in some large organization there is somebody who might share some inside information with you.
Steven Brill: Now it wasn’t without its downsides. I think I’m pretty candid about this idea, you can celebrate the fact that we sort of cracked open the business of law but in cracking open the business of law, there are a lot of negative effects which were illustrated for me by — when we first published the Am Law 100, which again was the Am Law 50 at the time.
There were two firms that were seeing basically by everyone in the world is relatively interchangeable in Los Angeles, two major firms, and I had had a law school classmate and friend who were each corporate partners at one of those two firms.
And after we published the Am Law 50 I get a call from one of them who is screaming how could you do this and the reason he was so unhappy was that I think we said that their firm had average profits per partner of $400,000 it’s just a ton of money in 1985 when we started this. And the firm across the street had average profits per partner of $500,000 or something like that. But he was clearly working at the firm where he was making less money than his classmate who worked across the street.
And he said my wife is just out of her mind and angry about this. Until today, I thought we were doing really well, now I think we suck. And it’s actually kind of funny if you think about it, but what it generated writ large is a lot of lawyers who were sort of happy with what they were doing, becoming much more and much too bottom-line oriented and maybe the way to go from 400,000 to 500,000 was to throw over the pro bono program or throw over the managing partner who didn’t want to fire other partners or that who knows what.
But I’m just saying that the emphasis on that one marker which we never said, this is the only thing you should worry about, but it is tempting to worry about that. I mean we countered it later on by doing rankings of pro bono programs and all this stuff, but the fact is for a certain number of people, if you put a number there and it’s lower than the other person’s number, they’re just going to do everything they can to get to that higher number and I think history shows since we started the Am Law 100 that a lot of lawyers and a lot of firms have done that, and that’s not a good thing.
Ralph Baxter: No, there’s no question. One of the impacts that the magazine had and it’s now in Western Europe as well as here, certainly the UK and here, is this focus on how much do the partners get paid, which is what that number is. So and I want to talk a little bit more about that in a second.
But part of what you’re describing and we’ll get to the impacts in a moment, but just while we’re on this, is human nature, if these people, these two friends of yours, instead of being partners in law firms were significant high achieving engineers or something else –
Steven Brill: Or second baseman for two different baseball teams.
Ralph Baxter: For example, right, and as you say making $400,000 in the 70s and doing something you were trained to do, you love to do, you’re good that sounds pretty good until you find out that your exact identical person is making 25% more and now you’re not happy.
But that’s in the people, right. It’s your sharing the information and then they’re responding to it.
Steven Brill: Right. My rationalization is that at the end of the day what journalists believe at their core is that, information is better than no information. Now, if people misuse the information, that’s not so good. It depends on people being leaders and being responsible so that they lead their partners at that firm to use the information the right way.
But I mean — since I sold the magazine in 98, I’ve mostly been a client, in fact I was a client even before that because Court TV was a pretty big operation and we had a lot of lawyers that we used and I just keep seeing multiple examples of law firms thinking not about their clients but about their internal operations, their management, their bottom line in a way that gets clients pretty upset.
I’ll give you two examples. I know of a firm — a major firm and they’re probably lots of these who their associates bonuses are based on them hitting, I think it’s 2000 or 2100 billable hours, and if they hit the 2100, let’s say that’s what it is, they get like a 75,000 or 175,000 on bonus.
If they hit 2,099 hours, they get zero, it’s just one line. Now think about that. Do you want to be the client when that associate is working on his or her 2090th hour and the temptation is, I mean I’ll do anything to get over the mark here or even if I have to add a couple of hours that there can’t be any rationale from the standpoint of we want to incent our associates to work for our clients that can explain that.
Ralph Baxter: That justifies it.
Steven Brill: Yeah. Another example, this is just recently with NewsGuard, we have an Advisory Board and we give in small amounts, really small amounts, modest amounts of stock options to members of the Advisory Board. One of them is a citizen of a country in Europe and we were advised by our law firm that we that we should consult counsel in that country to write us an opinion on how and whether we could give those options and how we had to register those options with the foreign country.
If that counsel had had consulted us for five hours, it would have been two and a half or three times the value of the options we want to give up. Whoever told us that is not thinking like their client is not a way to solve that problem.
Ralph Baxter: Right, right. So, we’re going to take a break now to hear from our sponsors then we’ll be right back.
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Ralph Baxter: All right we’re back. I’m here with Steve Brill and we’ve been talking about the origins of The American Lawyer magazine. I wanted just to get your take on the impact in addition to what you already have said of The American Lawyer magazine on the business and profession of law in the United States.
Steven Brill: Well, on the one hand it’s good because if you’re operating in the marketplace, the more information there is about you and your competitors, the more efficient the marketplace is going to be; both in terms of your customers, your clients, the people you’re hiring all of that good stuff.
On the other hand, there is no doubt that law has become a much more pressurized and arguably less satisfying profession and I also think part of that is just this is not a new phenomenon that was happening in the 80s, but the increased need for lawyers to specialize really takes away some of the old kick of the wise general counselor of my client and I provide advice across many disciplines.
I think that’s — again there’s some good in that and there’s some bad in that, but as a general matter I think lawyers have had a lot of trouble balancing the professional standards and the sense that the profession ought to be satisfying with the economic pressures that, that are brought to bear.
Some of those economic pressures are really good. When I see bills that have a first-year associate billing at $700 an hour, I go out of my mind and as soon as I complain about it, that goes away. There’s no way an associate who started two weeks ago is worth $700 an hour or at least it’s unlikely.
I’d much rather a system where I find the partner who knows exactly how to deal with my problem and in 15 minutes can deal with it and charge me a ton of money for it, but it’s over and done with. Having said that, I will tell you that when I started writing about healthcare, I’d go to these seminars and read these articles where they would say the thing we have to get rid of and we’re going to get rid of it is the whole concept of fee-for-service, that is the healthcare industries, the synonym for billable hour.
And what that means is every time the doctor sees you is a charge, every test you get there is a charge, if the nurse comes in to take your blood pressure there is a charge, that’s fee for service. And I’d always say you know you’re never going to get rid of it and they said no, no we have to.
I said yeah but lawyers have been saying that since the billable hour was created and it pretty much has not gone away, because at the end of the day they’re very few lawyers and law firms that have figured out other than contingency fees have figured out a way to balance their costs with the value of their efforts other than through the billable hour which everybody hates but everybody just loves to hate it.
Ralph Baxter: Well I’ve heard you say that before. I feel a little bit differently about that. I think that market forces are at work in law now.
We’ll talk about some of them in a moment that are going to have the effect of changing the way the lawyers do what they do. And that will undermine the ability of the firms only to think about this. That’s a matter of —
Steven Brill: Yeah, technology especially —
Ralph Baxter: Right. So the billable hour is a part of the leverage model, so the senior people making money, they have the hours of the associates in a way that’s all transparent, people understand what’s going on, it’s nothing hidden about it, but that’s why that model works the way it does in part. And the market tolerates it for a number of reasons.
Some of the reasons the market tolerates is the barriers to entry may be about to be reduced, I’m going to ask you about that, but once the technology is doing a fair amount of the work then the value of the service can’t as neatly be measured by how many hours you put into it if it ever cuts for it.
Let me ask you about two more things. There’s a proposal now being considered seriously near approval in Arizona or some proposals, proposals in Utah to change the rules concerning who can practice law, who can participate in delivering legal service, who can invest in law firms, are you familiar with those developments?
Steven Brill: Yeah, and I’m slightly familiar with the whole litigation finance business that is growing.
Ralph Baxter: All right. What are your thoughts about those?
Steven Brill: I don’t really know enough about it. I mean I was thinking to myself gee, I wish I could read an article about that, so I could learn more about it. But it seems to me not to be a terrible idea in the sense that if you’re getting outside investors in some big-time plaintiffs litigation, the outside investors I think have done, could have done the due diligence to say, well, this isn’t a frivolous harassment suit, because if it is, we’re not going to get our best impact.
But I don’t know, for all I know there is a good investment in frivolous harassment suits and if that’s true, then the availability of third-party money to finance them is not a good thing.
Ralph Baxter: So, there’s two separate issues here. So one is litigation funding which is what you’re talking about. There’s another issue that’s being considered that would permit outside investors who are not partners, not lawyers —
Steven Brill: To own the law firm?
Ralph Baxter: Well, to invest and so to make an investment, right now they can’t have any investment, to have some investment under circumstances to be determined with the thought that it would enable law firms that focus on small stakes matters. This is sort of the driving consideration, the small stakes matters, the landlord dispute, the immigration and so on to create a viable business because they could scale it differently with some outside capital.
Steven Brill: That sounds right, that sounds like it makes sense. I guess the argument against it is, well, why is that a good investment, why isn’t it a better investment to invest in a law firm that’s just going to sue Monsanto forever for whatever that — the fertilizer is and encourage more litigation.
So I’m not sure why making the owners have to have law licenses prevents that, but I just don’t know enough about it.
Ralph Baxter: Right and if the rules get changed then we’ll find out who does invest. So just before we close I want to ask you about NewsGuard. So tell us basically what does it do? How are you going to get some traction and how much difference can you make?
Steven Brill: Well, we’ve got traction really, Microsoft has licensed us. The whole idea of NewsGuard is actually pretty simple, which is, if you walk into a library today books and magazines and periodicals are organized by topic, you can pick up the book or the magazine, you can see who the publisher is, you can look at the book jacket and see who the author is and you know what you’re getting. Best of all there’s a librarian there who can tell you what you’re getting and guide you to this versus that or tell you well, that’s the National Review there, they have a conservative viewpoint about the minimum wage, if you want to see the opposing viewpoint read The Nation magazine about the minimum wage.
Now imagine if instead when you walked into a library there were just two billion pieces of paper flying around in the air and you grabbed one out of the air and you start reading it you have no idea who wrote it, you have no idea who’s financing it, you’ve no idea what their backgrounds are, what their agenda is, you don’t know anything, that’s the Internet, that’s your Facebook newsfeed, your Twitter feed, your Google search, you just see a headline and you don’t know who’s behind it.
So what NewsGuard does with several dozen journalists we have now reviewed and provided reliability ratings for the 4000 news and information sites responsible for 95% of the content in the U.S., France, Germany, Italy and the UK.
And everything about it is totally transparent. It’s the opposite of an algorithm. Right now there are four entities that rate the trustworthiness of new sites on the Internet. There’s Facebook, there’s Google, and there’s Twitter, they all rate sites that’s how they decide what to show you or what to suppress. They do it with an algorithm, they don’t tell you if you were the editor of the New York Times they would — they wouldn’t even tell you your rating.
So if the Chronicle wants to have know what its rating is, they can’t find out, is it higher rated or lower rated than the LA Times, nobody knows. You wouldn’t know whom to call to find out and if you got someone on the phone they wouldn’t tell you and they certainly wouldn’t tell you how they did it.
The 4th entity is NewsGuard. Our rating is right there. It’s based on 9 journalistic criteria whether you adhere to them. We have a 4000 word nutrition label that explains exactly why we did what we did, if you want to post a complaint about it you put it right there, if you want to talk to the five or six people including me responsible for the rating, you can talk to us. You can see our backgrounds right there. We’ve listed who’s responsible.
So the notion is to restore some sense of order to the two billion pieces of paper flying around and our business model is that we think the social media platforms should license it so that it’s incorporated into what they present but in the meantime we have a browser extension plug-in that you can download at newsguardtech.com. Next week we’re coming out with a mobile app, the same thing and whenever you see something in a Facebook feed, if you have this plug-in or a Twitter feed or a Google search or Bing search you’ll see our red or green icon depending on how many points you got and when you hover over it, you’ll start to read the nutrition label.
And we’re now talking to Internet service providers and mobile providers all over the world about licensing it for their customers just the way they license parental controls to help families deal with pornography or hate speech, this would help families deal with internet hoaxes and propaganda.
Ralph Baxter: This is a great idea and it works great. I’ve used the icon and it works just as you described and it’s — this can make a real difference if you —
Steven Brill: I will tell you that where you come from your neck of the woods in Tech Community they think it’s the most horrifyingly inefficient thing they’ve ever heard of, because it is the opposite of artificial intelligence. It uses human beings. The way we achieve scale is by rating the overall reliability of a site, not the billions of individual articles out there.
And we’re the opposite of an algorithm. If we’re going to give anyone even a negative rating on just one of the nine criteria, we call them for comment, algorithms don’t call for comment. We want people to gain the system, we want people to look at the nine criteria and say gee, if I had a corrections policy I’d get a higher score, that’s why we started the company.
So, we’re making a lot of progress but the platforms when we first described it to them they were sort of horrified by how seemingly inefficient it is, but now we’re making a lot of progress with it.
Ralph Baxter: So, I’ve come to believe the user interface is a really, really the most important part of the technology. It works great.
Steven Brill: Well thanks.
Ralph Baxter: So one last question. So you’ve done all these things. You’ve written books medicine, education, law and all of the United States.
Steven Brill: Yeah.
Ralph Baxter: You founded all these companies different from each other, you’re just in the midst of an early stage of one now.
Steven Brill: Right.
Ralph Baxter: So what motivates you Steve Brill? Why are you doing this? What are you trying to achieve?
Steven Brill: Well here it’s to sort of restore journalism and what I mean by that is, the biggest problem that legitimate journalists have is that their stuff isn’t distinguished in a feed from the illegitimate stuff. And a lot of advertisers just say just keep me off of all news because I don’t want my programmatic ads on something that is crazy and since artificial intelligence can’t distinguish in programmatic advertising, between a healthcare hoax site and the Mayo Clinic, they just stay off of everything. So that’s part of it.
Now part of it is I think it’s potentially a very good business. It solves an important problem and what I’ve tried to do with the stuff I’ve done is to do something that actually contributes to the world. There is also a good business that can employ a lot of people and have them have good jobs and satisfying jobs.
Ralph Baxter: So in a way NewsGuard is the most recent example of you doing that in a lot of other settings.
I look at your career and it seems to me the time after time what you have done is study a situation and then help the people understand it, how it works, how education works, healthcare works.
Steven Brill: It sounds a lot — that sounds a lot more rational than it probably is at the time. It sometimes just springs from an idea but, for example, Court TV was — I’d written a lot of articles and at the time people weren’t writing these articles about how juries decided what they decided.
The John DeLorean drug case, a bunch of cases like that, well-known cases and what I found was in interviewing jurors, they all would say, god the trial was so fascinating I just couldn’t — even the dull points were dramatic if you’re sitting there, because you never know what’s going to happen.
I’m thinking to myself these people have actually watched a whole trial and they thought it was really interesting, maybe there’s something there and that’s how I got the idea for Court TV.
Ralph Baxter: Right. But when you look at the whole body of work here, Mr. Brill, time after time you are illuminating an important dimension maybe with exception to Clear would that get you through the airport faster but you are illuminating.
Steven Brill: Includes the same thing, Clear is I wrote a book about the aftermath of 911 called After and in the course of writing the book, I just got really obsessed with the notion that why are you going to put a Secret Service agent who comes off duty protecting the president and he’s going up to New York to visit his aunt. Why are you going to put him through the same screening that you’re going to put someone who you don’t know.
So I mean it’s just that all the logic in the world and the mantra at that time was well everybody we have to be Democratic about this. We really have to be Democratic about security. If this guy was standing next to the president with an Uzi two hours ago, it seems to me you don’t really want to treat him the same way you’re treating a perfect stranger.
And that’s really what Clear is, it’s just you get some pre-screening and you’re a little safer than the other person. It’s not foolproof but it’s logical.
Ralph Baxter: Right. Well thank you very much for taking the time.
Steven Brill: Sure enough. Happy to do it.
Ralph Baxter: I want to thank Steve Brill for joining us today and sharing with us the history of The American Lawyer magazine and his thoughts about so many other subjects. I also want to thank all of you for listening in today. If you liked what you heard, please rate us on Spotify or Apple or wherever you access your podcasts.
And until next time, this is Ralph Baxter for Law Technology Now.
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