By Arushi Pandya & Hayley Ostrin
John Browning is a partner at Passman & Jones, a Dallas law firm. Browning earned his juris doctorate at the University of Texas School of Law, and his undergraduate degree from Rutgers. Browning serves as an adjunct law professor at SMU, Texas A&M, and Texas Tech law schools, teaching a course on social media’s impact on the law. Moreover, Browning has published 4 books and over thirty law review articles on how technology and the law intersect. His work has garnered numerous journalism awards, including the Clarion Award for Outstanding Newspaper Column; the Texas Press Association’s Outstanding Column Award; and Print Journalist of the Year (2009); 6 Philbin Awards for Excellence in Legal Reporting; and in 2007 he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Journalism. Browning is the current Chair-elect of the SBOT Computer and Technology Section.
- How did you transition from journalism to becoming one of the leading voices when it comes to social media law?
Actually, there was no transition because I’ve practiced law full-time since being licensed in 1989. Journalism has been an interesting “sidegig” for me for many years, and I’m fortunate that it’s been one that has broadened my audience and earned me some very nice accolades—not too many people can say they’ve been both Texas Lawyer’s “Trial Lawyer of the Week” and the Houston Press Club’s “Print Journalist of the Year!” In both professions, my role is to take issues and concepts that may be difficult for the public to understand, and make them understandable. Social media or the intersection of law and technology, genrally areas that impact so many people, I find it’s even more vital to educate the public.
- You’ve written extensively about social media and the law. What do you think the biggest issues are facing social networking and the law?
I believe the largest issues will continue to be how we reconcile new sources of evidence, new causes of action, and new rights and responsibilities with our existing framework of laws. The law can never hope to keep pace with technology, and so we will continue to be challenged to make technology “fit”—whether it’s the evidentiary significance of emojis or ephemeral messages like Snapchats, or recognizing constitutional protections for “likes” and tweets.
- How do you recommend young lawyers stay aware of the changes happening in newly developed legal fields, such as social media law?
I recommend that younger lawyers join the State Bar Computer & Technology Section, which offers many ways to stay on top of these changes, including through CLE offerings, our “Tech Bytes” short videos, and our journal Circuits. I also recommend great news sources, including bloggers like Kevin O’Keefe and Bob Ambrogi; platforms like LegalTech News; or thought leaders in specific areas like my colleagues Shawn Tuma on cybersecurity or Elizabeth Rogers on data privacy.
- What has surprised you the most about how the law is developing in social media?
I think the biggest surprises for me are the regular emergence of new theories (like a tweet being considered a “deadly weapon” when used to send a strobe GIF to induce seizures in an epileptic) and how quickly privacy rights have been abandoned in the age of social media. People are so eager to share the most intimate details of their lives, with little regard for privacy—and social media platforms are happy to capitalize on this.
- What are your responsibilities as Chair-elect of the State Bar of Texas’ (SBOT) Computer and Technology Section?
As Chair-elect, I help implement the policies of our presiding Chair, Sammy Ford. That can entail such things as overseeing our Nominations Subcommittee and spotting potential new leaders, assisting with planning and organizing our CLE efforts, and helping with our Circuits publication.
- Texas is home to multiple technological hot-spots; how is this taken into consideration by the Computer and Technology Section of SBOT?
Many of our Council members have come from in-house positions with technology companies, or have represented tech companies, from startups to giants like Dell, as outside counsel. We also have great relationships with providers in the legal technology sphere, so we have cutting edge access on fronts ranging from e-discovery to law practice management and legal research/data analytics.
- What issues is the Computer and Technology Section currently focusing on?
We’re focused on our core mission of helping Texas practitioners understand and effectively (and ethically) use technology to better represent their clients. One of the most acute needs in recent years has been helping lawyers be prepared for natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey through technology. We’ve developed and presented CLEs on ways to capitalize technology to “disaster-proof” your practice. We’ve also been active in recent years with aiding the cause of equal access to justice through the “With Technology and Justice For All” CLEs that we put on for free for Legal Aid and public interest lawyers.
- Are there other resources a practicing lawyer can turn to in order to keep abreast of how the law is responding to technological advances?
In addition to our publications and the many CLEs that our members present at, we’ve also made “Tech Bytes”—short, CLE-accredited video presentations available through the State Bar that tackle specific subjects like encryption of emails in easily digestible “bites” that you can access without ever leaving your office. Thanks to our committed members and leadership, we have these short videos on an amazing range of subjects.
- Does your work in journalism influence your legal practice?
It certainly helps give me a vital perspective when I’m representing media outlets or litigating defamation cases. I was also fortunate enough to successfully defend one of the first “tests” of Texas’ journalism shield statute. But perhaps more than anything else, knowing how to communicate and write clearly and effectively has been a key skillset that is as important for lawyers as it is for journalists. Chief Justice John Roberts was presenting me with a national legal writing award several years ago, and he said “You don’t write like a lawyer. I mean that as a compliment.”
- What other experiences have shaped your path to where you are today?
I was raised in a big Irish Catholic family, and while my parents didn’t have much money, they valued education and hard work. College and law school were only possible for me because I earned academic scholarships for each, and worked my way through as well. I was raised knowing that nothing is handed to you in life, and that defined my approach to getting my first job, making partner, starting and running my own law firm, and becoming a partner at large national law firms. I was also raised with the importance of giving back ingrained in me, and that’s why today there is a scholarship at the University of Texas School of Law that my best friend and I endowed with the goal of making law school possible for individuals who might not otherwise have that opportunity. Some of our recipients are the first in their families to go to college and the first to go on to get a J.D.
- Based on your extensive writing experience, what do you suggest young lawyers do to improve and maintain their writing skills while also balancing a busy career?
First, read voraciously, and read good writers. Second, I highly recommend Prof. Bryan Garner’s extensive and influential works on legal writing and usage; even better, take any of the CLE writing seminars he offers. And finally, write. Blogging about a recent decision or writing about an interesting area of law for publications like the Texas Bar Journal or a specialty bar publication are excellent ways to get your name out there and build your reputation as a knowledgeable lawyer. In addition, they provide a wider audience and require less time than a scholarly law review.
- What advice do you have for law students and new lawyers who are interested in working with technology?
My best advice is to join our Computer & Technology Section, of course. I also encourage law students and newly-admitted lawyers that it doesn’t matter what your background is: you don’t have to be a techie or coder to have an appreciation for technology. I don’t come from a tech background, but it hasn’t prevented me from incorporating technology in my practice, representing tech companies, or being a thought leader in the area of law and technology.