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Saturday September 26, 2009

Prof's system revolutionized legal practice

Witty and hard-working entrepreneur founded world's first online legal data base

Nowadays, when everybody with working thumbs and a handheld device has instant access to storehouses of data, it is hard to remember how numbingly laborious it was to research legal information in the pre-Internet era.

Hugh Lawford, a visionary law professor and an entrepreneur, changed all that. With his colleague, Richard von Briesen, he founded Quicklaw, the world's first online legal database, a system that revolutionized the way lawyers practise their profession

Smart, pragmatic and strategic, Prof. Lawford did not have a background in computer science - it was not a discipline on offer when he was a university student back in the 1950s - but early on he saw what computers could do, applied that vision to the law, and then imagined how his invention could help other lawyers and expand legal studies and research.

Quicklaw had its first public trial before a group of Justice Department officials in 1974. The ante was upped considerably when the computer engineer installing the equipment asked casually: "Wasn't there a case where a cow was struck by a car driving up a hilly, winding road," according to an account in a Queen's University history.

On the spot, Prof. Lawford typed in the question, although even he doubted his nascent database could spout out the answer based on such paltry information. Within 15 seconds, there it was: Fleming v. Atkinson in a case decided by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1959. That set the skeptical Justice department officials back on their heels.

Mr. von Briesen was the systems guy, while Prof. Lawford was the public face, the negotiator and the magician who kept finding ways to keep the company afloat. "He was so sure he was right, he bet the family home on it," Prof. Lawford's younger son, Mark, said in an interview. "He never gave up, he would always find a way out, and a clever solution."

Extremely witty, curious about the world, hard-working and game to try anything, he would always find the money or the equipment or the contacts to help his children pursue their own interests and to make the most of opportunities.

Making money was far less important to him than doing something socially useful, a moral lesson he had learned as a fatherless boy from his grandfather, a pioneering medical missionary in Alberta. That is not to suggest that Prof. Lawford was a male Pollyanna. Tough and demanding, he could be scary to his students as well as his employees.

"I wouldn't have wanted to work for Thomas Edison or Henry Ford either, for they wouldn't have let you sit back and take it easy, but it was exciting," said his long-term colleague Mr. von Briesen.

Although he was known as Hugh Lawford, the man behind QuickLaw was born Hugh John Radomsky in a largely Ukrainian community of Smoky Lake, Alberta in the direst days of the Depression. Prof. Lawford, who later joked that he was the only kid from Smoky Lake who couldn't speak Ukrainian, was the son of John Radomsky, a mathematics teacher and his wife Ruth Lawford.

After Mr. Radomsky died when Hugh was about a year old, his widowed mother moved in with her parents in Edmonton, resumed her maiden name and changed her son's name from Radomsky to Lawford.

Hugh was educated in the Edmonton public school system and at the University of Alberta, working summers as a reporter at The Edmonton Journal and editing The Gateway, the campus newspaper, during the academic year. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1954 and his Bachelor of Laws degree the following year, while serving as the inaugural editor of The Alberta Law Review.

Although only about 5-foot-8 and not particularly athletic, he made sure that he played touch football every day near the path where the Rhodes Scholarship selection committee walked to and from their meetings. "He did the best he could with what he had," said Mark Lawford. "He was very shrewd and he paid attention to details and perceptions."

After being named a Rhodes Scholar in 1955, Mr. Lawford went to Oxford University, earning a civil law degree in 1957. He was admitted to the Alberta bar in August, 1958, the same month he married another U of A graduate, Diane Mason.

After their wedding, the Lawfords headed east to Kingston where he took up a position as an assistant professor, teaching international and administrative law on the faculty of Queen's University's brand new law school.

One of five full time professors, he helped plan the curriculum and the expansion of the faculty and loved carrying on the lecture hall discussion with his students in local hostelries.

In 1962, Prof. Lawford was granted a leave of absence to work as a project officer with the Glassco Commission on government organization. Trying to find a way to manage the heaps of information that government generated, received and processed, was probably the spark that later ignited his interest in computers as a way to compile, digitize and search legal databases.

Working on the Glassco commission was also where he connected with Kingston area politician George McIlraith, then House leader in Prime Minister Lester Pearson's minority government. In 1964, Prof. Lawford took another leave to work as Mr. McIlwraith's special assistant.

This was the rancorous era of the flag debate and Mr. Lawford spent a lot of time sitting in the House of Commons, eyeballing Leader of the Opposition John Diefenbaker, who was adamant about retaining some vestiges of the Union Jack in the new flag.

"I would watch the gallery for the arrival of Diefenbaker's wife Olive," he told Frank Edwards in an interview in Profile Kingston years later. "It was a signal that something outrageous was going to happen."

Prof. Lawford caught the prime minister's notice when he suggested that the minority government could avoid the inevitable fallout from invoking closure on the flag debate if Mr. Pearson were to magnanimously offer his own last five minutes of speaking time to the leader of the Opposition, a gesture which an out-foxed Mr. Diefenbaker huffily declined, according to Mark Lawford. That ruse netted Prof. Lawford an invitation to spend a second year in Ottawa as a special assistant to Mr. Pearson.

When he returned to Queen's in 1966, he embarked on an ambitious project to compile a comprehensive list of the some 27,000 treaties that Canada had signed in its history. Keeping track of them in a largely precomputer era was a daunting prospect until Prof. Lawford had a fortuitous meeting in 1968 with Mr. von Briesen, a freshly graduated lawyer from Wisconsin who was manning a booth at a legislative convention in Miami for a company that had developed a search system for state statutes.

Prof. Lawford, who was part of a joint delegation from Queen's and the House of Commons, was fascinated, mainly because he had just convinced Queen's that his treaty project needed the assistance of computer technology. Queen's, coincidentally, was in fundraising discussions with IBM, which agreed to provide expansions to the university's mainframe computer along with the software for an experimental search engine. And that is how Prof. Lawford's treaty project mushroomed into the Queen's University Investigation of Computers and Law or QUIC/Law.

A month after meeting Mr. von Briesen in Miami, Prof. Lawford offered him a job as a visiting associate professor at Queen's, with half his salary paid by the university and the other half by the House of Commons. By the time Mr. von Briesen arrived in Kingston in June, 1969, a group of students, under Prof. Lawford's direction, were typing Supreme Court of Canada decisions onto the computers - this was before scanners.

By 1972, despite several demonstration projects that showed scoffers the promise of Prof. Lawford's vision, the funding landscape and Queen's connection with IBM had deteriorated.

When the two men couldn't find an appropriate corporate sponsor, Prof. Lawford proposed that he and Mr. von Briesen take the project over. With what money, was the unspoken question.

The two men incorporated QL Systems the following year, after acquiring the project (which they renamed Quicklaw) from Queen's in return for a promissory note for $100,000, dated ten years hence, provided the company was still in business.

"There were many times over the years when the thing looked doomed," said Mr. von Briesen, "and Prof. Lawford would always come through with a new idea that would turn [a disaster] into an advantage. It was incredible that he was able to keep pulling rabbits out of hats."

In the early days when people complained that the database wasn't complete enough, Prof. Lawford convinced all of the law publishers in Canada to provide their content in exchange for a percentage of the revenue from database users. He also made an arrangement with universities to give law students free access to Quicklaw, thus nurturing a burgeoning base of future customers when they graduated. When Canada Law Book pulled out of Quicklaw in the 1980s, Prof. Lawford negotiated a deal directly with the courts to acquire their decisions in return for free access to the system.

In the late 1980s, his marriage fell apart after 30 years and three children. He subsequently married Lillian Simkins, a divorcee whom he had hired as his secretary in 1975. By the time they married in 2001, she was a senior employee at QuickLaw.

By then, Prof. Lawford and Mr. von Briesen were seriously looking for a buyer for the company. There were more serious issues than simple fatigue: free public databases, although still in their infancy, were beginning to threaten the hegemony of Quicklaw; more important still, Prof. Lawford, who had been diagnosed in the early 1990s with Parkinson's disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system, was becoming clearly debilitated.

They eventually sold Quicklaw to LexisNexis Butterworths in July 2002, extracting conditions that the buyer would not dismantle the company, would keep the head office in Kingston and keep the staff in place for at least five years. Prof. Lawford stayed on as CEO for another two years, as did Mr. von Briesen, to ease the transition.

"Through force of will he pushed that disease aside, and he did what he had to do," his daughter Michele Lawford said. "He didn't want to sell the company when he did, and he may or may not have wanted to sell it to whom he sold it too, but he held on long enough that he was able to make a reasonable conclusion." The "saddest thing," was that the treatment for Parkinson's had such horrible side effects that "bit by bit we lost the actual person."

Prof. Lawford went into hospital in late July and never came out. In his final week, able to communicate only through hand squeezes and a twitching of his eyebrows, he became so ill that the doctors began reducing the Parkinson's drugs. And that is when he became lucid again. When Ms. Lawford enticed her father to eat so that "he wouldn't starve to death," he responded, "Would that it were so," giving his grown children a final heartbreaking measure of the man he had been before he became trapped "inside the disease and the treatment."


Hugh John Lawford was born near Edmonton, Alberta on Sept. 8, 1933. He died of complications from Parkinson's Disease in Kingston Ont., on Aug. 17, 2009. Prof. Lawford, who was 75, is survived by his wife Lillian, three children, eight grandchildren, two half-brothers and his extended family.

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