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Dr. Jonathan Lazar LLM’18: “Legal knowledge is for everyone”

October 20, 2021

Instead of brushing aside the legal questions his work as an information science professor raised, Lazar grew interested in learning how to find the answers.

As an information science professor, Dr. Jonathan Lazar LLM’18 was an atypical student in the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s LLM program. Still, he “can’t say enough good things” about his experience as his time at the Law School has enriched his career in many ways.

Dr. Jonathan K. Lazar LLM'18 Dr. Jonathan K. Lazar LLM'18Lazar explained that as a professional who focuses on technology access for people with disabilities, he was often asked what amounted to legal questions.

“I would be ready to talk about interface design and accessibility guidelines, but I would be getting questions asking, ‘What does this recent legal case mean?’ and ‘What does the ADA require?,’” Lazar said. “And it just wasn’t satisfying to say, ‘I don’t know what it means. I’m not an expert on law.’ I came to Penn Law so that I could gain knowledge, be able to answer those questions, and become a more effective teacher, researcher, and advocate.”

LLM program offerings and opportunities

Typically, the LLM program welcomes foreign-trained attorneys interested in gaining familiarity with the American legal system; however, when Lazar applied to the program, he had neither been an attorney nor planned on becoming one.

Instead, he held several information science degrees, including a PhD that focused on human-computer interaction for people with disabilities, and at the time had been a professor of computer and information sciences at Towson University since 1999. Over time, he recognized that his research and advocacy work was increasingly intersecting with complicated areas of disability rights law. He had been asked to give testimony to the Maryland state legislature, submit comments to ongoing regulatory processes, and work on a few different legal cases as an expert witness.

Instead of brushing aside the legal questions his work raised, Lazar grew interested in learning how to find the answers.

His first foray into legal education was at Harvard University, where he was selected to be a Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. During his Fellowship, while he researched the relationship between interface design for people with disabilities and policy and law, he audited classes at Harvard Law School and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Recognizing that he, a tenured full professor at Towson University, was in somewhat of a unique situation, Lazar began to consider how he might obtain the education he needed to meet his specific goals of better understanding the legal aspects of his technology accessibility research. He credits his passionate legal mentors from the disability rights law community in his choice to go from being a professor to becoming a graduate student again.

“I knew why I was going back to become a graduate student again, and I knew that I needed to become an LLM student at Penn Law,” Lazar said, noting that when he applied to the LLM program, he also applied for a leave of absence from his professorship so that he could potentially attend the LLM program in 2017-2018.

As a student in the LLM program, Lazar valued the encouragement he received from faculty, administration, and classmates. Because his work sat at the intersection of technology and law, Lazar greatly appreciated the Law School’s cross-disciplinary philosophy.

“Penn Law is the type of place where people are encouraging, ‘This is great: you’re trying to use legal knowledge to solve problems in the world and improve access and equity!’” Lazar said. “There’s a sense that the law is for everyone. Legal knowledge is for everyone. I really liked the approach taken at Penn Law – it was a great fit for what I needed.”

Leading the way in interdisciplinary studies

After graduating from the LLM program, Lazar joined the faculty of the College of Information Studies (the iSchool) at the University of Maryland as a full professor. At the iSchool, in addition to teaching a course on human-computer interaction, he teaches a course titled “Legal Research for Information Science Professionals.”

In the course, Masters and PhD students learn how to incorporate legal frameworks into their research and practice. The idea, Lazar explained, is to continue to imbue legal knowledge into the information sciences by helping students gain the skills necessary to interpret case law, statutes, regulations, and policies related to their academic interests.

In addition to his role as a professor, Lazar also directs the Trace Research and Development Center (“Trace”). Particularly in this capacity, Lazar credits his education at the Law School with enabling him to continue to pursue cross-disciplinary work researching and advocating for technology accessibility for people with disabilities.

Lazar explained that the Trace Research and Development Center, celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2021, is somewhat unique in its multi-pronged approach to technological innovation, focusing on research, development and technology transfer, and informing policy. In recent years, both courts and administrative bodies have cited Trace Center research in a range of issues such as transportation regulation, election accessibility, websites, and mobile apps. Lazar draws on his legal knowledge when he leads Trace in its participation in policy and law; the Center responds to notices of rulemaking and regularly collaborates with the U.S. Access Board. Moreover, many of the faculty are heavily involved in advocacy.

This multi-pronged approach is unique. For instance, Lazar noted, he is currently collaborating with Adobe Research on developing interface approaches to assist content creators in making their PDF documents accessible, and at the same time he also co-authored a paper published in the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law’s Journal of Business and Technology Law about the legal aspects of document accessibility.

“The Trace Center is the perfect fit for all of the things that I am passionate about,” said Lazar, who was recently appointed as its Director after previously serving as Associate Director. “I get to do research, I get to work with tech companies on development, and I also get to work with the policy and legal communities, leading an amazing team of people who are all passionate about accessibility.”

For Lazar, there are clear similarities between how the iSchool views information and how the Law School views law. Information, he explained, is for everyone, working in every discipline — and legal knowledge should be, too.

“We never say that information science is only for librarians  — information is for everybody. We need information science in every area, no matter what your discipline is,” Lazar said. “Similarly, we all need legal knowledge. We all need to understand the power and impact of law in our own work.”

Following his graduation from the LLM program, Lazar was admitted to membership in the Disability Rights Bar Association, further demonstrating his involvement in the legal community and his dedication to disability rights advocacy.

Given his unique path to legal study, Lazar’s lasting impression of the Law School is one of inclusivity.

“As a graduate program, it was challenging — especially with my background being a little bit different,” Lazar said. “But the Penn Law LLM program helped educate me with the legal knowledge that I needed to make the type of change in the world that I want to make. I owe much to the LLM program because it gave me the knowledge and experience that I needed to be able to do the work I’m most passionate about. Everyone at Penn Law welcomed me, valued my work, encouraged me and made sure that I could reach my goals.”

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