Most law school grads who began their careers at large law firms probably remember the research assignments they received as young associates, with the long hours, the frustrating Lexis searches and the overbroad results–all for an answer that a more experienced lawyer could have found in 10 minutes. For Dov Seidman ’92, one of those assignments led him to found LRN (formerly known as the Legal Research Network) in Los Angeles, a business that today hopes not only to change the business model of legal research but also to become the gold standard in online ethics training and certification.
After barely starting a preclerkship at O’Melveny & Myers in Washington, D.C., Seidman had his Big Idea: During three weeks spent in the law library, he said, “the epiphany happened. I looked at the law firm structure. . . . I started to develop some deeper thoughts about the legal practice and the business model of law, and I thought it needed reform generally.”
By December 1992, Seidman had left the firm to meet with investors and attorneys to explain the concept of LRN. His business, he told them, would offer clients direct access to experts. When a company needed a research question answered, LRN would forward it to law firm partners and professors employed full time elsewhere and working on a per-case basis for LRN. The client would be charged a flat rate for the service, thereby eliminating the costly billing typical of a law firm.
After initially financing his venture on credit cards and with friends’ help, Seidman raised $2 million from investors eager to give the new business model a try. Today, LRN’s network includes more than 1,600 law professors and senior attorneys with expertise in 3,000 areas of law. The company’s client list is as impressive as that of any large law firm, with more than 200 of the Fortune 500 companies listed.
But the big ideas didn’t stop at research. Seidman’s main academic interest was in ethics and philosophy. In 1998–several years “BE,” or Before Enron–he got the idea of incorporating his passion for ethics into the mission of LRN.
What started as producing handbooks covering topics like prevention of sexual harassment, protection of trade secrets, avoiding conflicts of interest and other problems has morphed into a comprehensive online training program. Unlike most of corporate America, LRN has benefited handsomely from the recent wave of corporate scandals, as companies rush to jump on the ethics bandwagon. Of the $150 million LRN has received for online education contracts, approximately half has come in the last year alone. Today, over 4 million employees worldwide have access to the company’s more than 200 online education modules and other ethics education services through LRN’s Legal Compliance and Ethics Center.
“It’s become increasingly practical to be principled,” Seidman said. “It’s become good business to invest in creating ‘do it right’ cultures.”
But Seidman is not pushing ethics only for profit. When he gave the 2002 commencement address at the University of California, Los Angeles, his alma mater, he told the students how his love of ethics and philosophy started by accident. He had been admitted to UCLA at the last minute after filing a hardship appeal, and he took a class in those subjects simply because other classes were filled. Despite having dyslexia and less than stellar high school grades, Seidman today boasts degrees from HLS, UCLA and the University of Oxford, with much of that study focused on ethics. And in his commencement address, he spoke about what the subject means to him: “[T]opple the belief that success is measured solely by money–and create a new definition based wholly on character. Overthrow a world based on fear, and replace it with one based on trust. Bring down a system based on expediency, and build one up based on principle.”
Given that Seidman has the success to back up his advice, students in that auditorium–and LRN’s corporate clients–would do well to listen to the advice he gave them that day:
“Do the right thing. That’s the most practical and principled advice I can give you.”