Bit by Byte, Law Brings Freedom

By D. A. Barsotti
with Susan Overath Woolley

April Major ’93 set out to become a dancer, and she still looks like one: tall, slim, and graceful. But nowadays she is qualified to practice at the bar rather than the barre. Her career seems, in hindsight, to be the result of an inevitable and fortunate confluence of forces: a path of destiny as straight as the Villanova hallway she strides so purposefully. It is hard to realize the circuitous route her career actually has taken—from the dance studio to the physics lab to the computer lab to the Internet to the law library to the war-ravaged landscape of Bosnia to cyberspace as part of a global effort to foster democracy through technology.

“My mother told me to reach for the stars,” said Major. Her mother, of course, meant it metaphorically. But doing that, literally, set her feet on her fated path.

“I went to Ithaca College for my first semester, because they had a very good dance department,” she said. “But I had started an interest in the Lehigh Valley Amateur Astronomical Society on South Mountain before I graduated from high school. I took astronomy and physics at Ithaca and did very well, and my professors encouraged me to consider the field seriously. So I came back to Bethlehem and transferred to Moravian because Moravian had a very strong physics department.”

She thought about going on in astrophysics but came up against hard economic reality. “The Cold War was over, and there weren’t a lot of opportunities for physicists at that time, especially not astrophysicists. And I couldn’t see myself working in a lonely lab without social interaction.” She began thinking about a career in patent law as a junior at Moravian. With its focus on gadgetry of every kind, patent law was a natural area for a physics major. “It was Professor Joseph Powlette who clued me in on the possibilities,” she said. “In order to be a patent attorney, you have to have a technical degree. It has to be in engineering, physics, one of the hard sciences.”

When she entered Villanova University School of Law, though, she found a whole new area just opening up for exploration, and Villanova was the right place to explore it. In the 1980s, lawyers had been discovering how computers could be used in the practice of law. “There was a professor here named Henry H. Perritt Jr., who was one of the founding fathers of the movement to integrate information technology and law,” said Major. “He really put Villanova on the map as a leader in that area.” (Perritt’s massive 1988 book, How to Practice Law with Computers, is now in its third edition.) She began working for Perritt. Her computer background dovetailed neatly with his interests, and his encouragement turned her on to the developing issues of the ’90s, when lawyers were starting to realize the implications of the World Wide Web for the legal system.

“It didn’t matter what type of law you practiced,” Major explained. “Whether you were an attorney whose work involved contract, torts, criminal law, intellectual property, jurisdiction issues, privacy issues, etc., the Internet began to affect every area of the law. In the ’90s, it was suddenly important for attorneys to understand how the Internet worked, how messages were sent and received, how Web pages were published, how computers connected all over the world talked to one another. And my background in Moravian’s physics department—using the computers in the computer lab, accessing the Internet, using Unix, learning Fortran programming from Dr. Jack Ridge—made me very comfortable around computers. I understood the underlying infrastructure of the Internet. I came to law school equipped with that knowledge, having no idea how valuable it would be to me. This allowed me to be an expert in this field at a very early time in my career. I was in the right place at the right time.

“As a third-year law student, I had the opportunity to teach continuing legal education courses to practicing attorneys,” Major recalled. “I wasn’t teaching law at that time but the implications of the Internet for our legal systems. That’s where my physics background really came into play.”

Major witnessed the growth of the World Wide Web from an “amazing concept” to something of “overarching importance.” She became intrigued with how the Internet, as an information infrastructure, affected laws, regulations, and legal principles.

After she received her law degree in 1996, Major was offered a two-year teaching fellowship at Villanova Law School, then an appointment as visiting assistant professor. As she settled into her teaching fellowship, she realized that she needed to be an expert in many unexpected areas of law. Her courses covered new concepts that involved all facets of law: the legalities of electronic contracts, privacy issues, jurisdictional law, trademarks and copyrights, taxation, the use of information stored on computers for trial discovery, the First Amendment in cyberspace, and other issues that would alter the the legal infrastructure.

And while she was involved in all this, she found another opportunity to use her knowledge of computers and cyberspace, this time not for the day-to-day functioning of the legal system but for the global spread of the rule of law through the free flow of information.

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