In the early days of the Law Center, co-founder and staff attorney Janelle Orsi had a vision of bringing together 1 million lawyers in the name of economic democracy. This vision motivated Law Center staff to build a community of cooperative legal workers, which would come to be known as Law for Economic Democracy (L4ED).
The website and community platform Law For Economic Democracy would be a space where mission aligned practitioners and students could come together, ask questions, share resources, and more. After the big launch in May 2019, connections and user activity were buzzing. But Law Center staff were not prepared for what it would take to build an online community.
We try things and they don’t always succeed. Oftentimes when a project fails, our expectations and understanding are forced to shift, which ultimately leads to important growth and insight. We’re sharing how we’ve failed and what we’ve learned in an attempt at practicing radical honesty and transparency, and to hold ourselves accountable to moving differently going forward. We hope by sharing these lessons that others in the community can glean some wisdom.
Mwende Hinojosa, our Director of Communications and Strategic Storytelling, jumped on a zoom call with former Law Center Staff Attorney, Cameron Rhudy, to talk about the experiment that was L4ED. (This interview was edited for consistency and clarity.)
How did the idea for L4ED come about?
Cameron: The project was already in place when I [Cameron] started. Janelle had this idea to grow a network of one million lawyers that could do this work to address the legal gray areas of coops.
When I started we were already in the process of trying to create a website that was based on the open source Drupal platform. While the idea of using open source software fit with our vision, the functionality was not great. This was around 2015-2017. We kept trying to build a site that would have the functionality that we wanted but we were having privacy issues.
All throughout the process we had to shift gears, we had to ask ourselves, “do we want to keep doing this?” It kept feeling like it was important to build a broader network because we were having to turn folks away from the Law Center’s fellowship program, [which has only around 50 participants]. So it still felt valuable.
We got a grant that helped us shift to the Mighty Networks platform and launched that iteration of the site in May 2019. It was intended initially for lawyers, law students, and other legal professionals, and apprentices. Shortly after the launch, we decided to open it up to accountants because of our collaboration with the Cooperative Professionals Guild.
What were its goals?
Cameron: The goal was to create a space where mission aligned practitioners and students could come together, ask questions, share resources, attend relevant events, webinars, and share other things they were working on that the community might be interested in. Providing a place to get a little more interaction when you had questions but didn’t know where to go.
The Law Center’s goal has always been to make info accessible and to make things feel less scary. On the legal profession side, it was always underlying the purpose of this network throughout all its iterations.
Joys: I always believed in the goals and what we were trying to accomplish. I felt like it was useful and it had a lot of potential because I was receiving so many inquiries. I saw it as an extension of the fellowship program’s impact and brought more folks into the fold in a way we couldn’t do with the fellowship program. Because of the way the fellowship was designed and maintained, where you’re always a fellow once you’re in, there was always going to be an issue of the more people we bring in the more it’s going to cost more money and labor to run the program. L4ED was a way to expand and make our work more accessible to legal practitioners because if we were trying to encourage lawyers to help cooperatives work in these legal gray areas…they needed support. It can be kinda lonely. The traditional resources didn't address questions that come up. It was exciting when we launched in 2019 because it wasn’t perfect, but there was an ease to it that we hadn’t felt during the other iterations.
Challenges: From an internal side, it was challenging to get Law Center staff to participate on the site. There continued to be throughout a big part of its life span a lack of clarity of what we were trying to do. Sometimes the purposes seemed to overlap with Co-oplaw.org and other resources. Like, what content should go where? My answer to that was that info can go both places.
There was an overall lack of capacity from staff. For example, one time someone logged on and asked a subject specific question and they really just needed to connect with a particular Law Center staff person. But that staff person hadn’t responded.
Having worked on the project for so long, I got kinda burnt out on it. I don’t love social media and I don’t love being online. Even though I believed in the project, I wasn’t the ideal person to steward the project, to be online, generating the project and building engagement. There was a time Sue was pinging people to post their bios and add their photos. We did contract here and there with some folks to try and help us with engagement. During the initial launch, Janelle did trainings, but we didn’t have the bandwidth to sustain that. Then COVID happened.
Feedback that I got from users is that people didn’t feel comfortable sharing stuff online. Even though the space was made to be safe, it was hard for non-Law Center staff to share things. It wasn’t always clear who was in the room/on the platform. We had a hard time creating that same sense of safety and community because nobody really knew who was there. There was a reluctance to answer questions, to share templates. We had this idea that folks would be sharing templates. But it’s actually a lot of work to de-identify it and redact stuff that identifies your client. That’s what it takes to share with the community. If someone emailed them directly, that’s one thing. But just posting the sample for everyone to use, we couldn’t get people to do that. The resources that kept being shared were ones that were Law Center generated, not from the community, which was an unexpected dynamic. We overestimated how much people would be willing to engage.
Cameron: What comes to mind initially is letting projects go before we’re ready. There were many times along the road where we asked ourselves that question and we kept pushing through. I don’t know if I could look back and say, we should have just stopped right then. But it does raise that question of when do you just stop?
One thing we learned along the way is this thing with 1 million lawyers. We did realize that we were not going to have a big membership. We were really talking about a smaller group of people and that was ok. [It had 384 members in early 2023, but most are inactive.] And so that was something that we learned before shutting it down. And I think that was helpful to reign in our expectations a little bit. I think it speaks to the issue that I experienced while at the Law Center is just having our priorities stretched. It was a red flag that not only did I get burned out by the project and stewarding something mostly on my own towards the end, but the fact that other staff didn’t want to either.
It’s helped with the way I do work now. In my current work, if anyone is like, we can do a Mighty Network site (or any other kind of social media site), that is the last thing I want to jump into. It’s so much harder than you imagine and so many folks burned out from online stuff from the pandemic. Even pre pandemic. All of these different communities popped up. There’s just so much online stuff. I have been a member of other groups that create these communities and the engagement is pretty low on all of them. But also, I don’t want to get 500 emails a week about what’s going on in any platform. That's something so beyond the Law Center. It’s a greater cultural issue. It’s about the way we’re engaging with each other in general.
It takes a lot of resources to maintain a site and then the engagement is low. Unless you have a team of people focusing on it, it is a lot to take on to make it truly successful.
Any final takeaways you want to share?
Cameron: I’m sad that it didn’t work out. I learned things about both the community that we were trying to serve and also about myself. That time is over and gone. The energy and work that’s put into it, I can’t get back. But I can take what I learned from it. Not every project is going to be a raging success. We try a lot of things and continue with what sticks and gains traction.