How This Judge is Improving the Justice System One Process at a Time
On this week’s episode of Lawline's Lawyers Who Lead podcast, Sigalle interviews the Honorable Judge Scott Schlegel, elected to the bench of the 24th Judicial District Court for the Parish of Jefferson, Division D, State of Louisiana. Judge Schlegel shares his journey from civil litigator to felony prosecutor before being elected to the bench. His insightful interview reveals how understanding workflows, leveraging technology, and being persistent, can help make major improvements to the justice system. Listen to the full interview or read highlights of the interview below! Transcribed answers were edited for readability.
Here to Serve Others and His Community
I'm just grateful to have the opportunity to be here and, and serve my community. I'm grateful for this unique opportunity I've been given. And, you know, I think having that kind of mentality and then that gratitude kind of keeps you grounded and, and reminds you of what you're doing and why you're doing it. I'm a man of faith and my faith is everything to me and that's really why I do what I do. I think that I'm here to serve others.
On His Path Before Becoming a Lawyer
Studied to be Physical Therapist then Switched to a Financial Advisor
I had no desire to be a lawyer. My father has a law degree and he was in oil and gas, but he never really practiced law, but no was never on the radar. I actually wanted to get into medicine and be a physical therapist, but I found out I couldn't pronounce half the words in my zoology classes and my anatomy classes.
So I switched over to finance and actually became a financial advisor before I even went to law school. I started when the market went south for 10 years straight, kind of like it's doing right now. And I've married my high school sweetheart. So we've been together since we were 17 and she looked at me and said, I think it's time to go to law school.
On His Pivot to Law
Worked Full-Time While in Law School and Worked in Product Liability
I actually went to law school at night while I was a financial advisor. So that's how the law school started. With my financial background, I wanted to get into executive planning and doing all of those types of things, but there wasn't a real job market for that in the New Orleans area when I graduated. So, thankfully I was able to still get a job and did product liability at a big downtown law firm and again, thankfully had an opportunity. Wasn't exactly what I was looking for. But again, when you're young, I don't think anybody's got it figured out, including me.
On Becoming a Domestic Violence Prosecutor
Felt that His Desire to Serve Others Fit Well With Being a Prosecutor
Moved on to be a prosecutor in Jefferson Parish. Actually became a domestic violence prosecutor for about a year and a half before they assigned me to a division of court where you handle anything from possession of marijuana to murder.
I don't think the big firm was a good fit for me personally. I learned a tremendous amount about how to read, how to write. How to take massive amounts of information and compress it, but it's billable hours and long hours. And I just don't think that it fit my personality as well. And was just looking around and thankfully, I also applied to become a prosecutor and was hired as a domestic violence prosecutor. I feel that it's really important for me just to serve as best as I can. And I found that I could do that as a prosecutor and I really just wanted to serve my community and thankfully was again offered a job. So it was great.
On the Difference Between Civil and Criminal Practice
Criminal Practice Allowed me To Handle Thousands of Cases
When you're a civil practice and you're a young associate, it's literally just reading and writing and researching and preparing memorandums. And some days you get to step in a court and handle that exciting motion to compel, but that's about all you do in the court when you're a young associate.
From day one [in criminal practice], I was assigned to eight divisions of court doing vertical prosecution, screening our own cases, dealing with all the different aspects of trial work. And it's literally, here's a file go and get it done.
So handled thousands of criminal cases and, you know, when you're assigned a division of court, you literally are in the courtroom, just getting whatever cases that are together and get them tried.
On Some of the Biggest Lessons Learned
Code of Evidence, First-Hand Experience with Law Firm Work, and Seeing the Big Picture
You learn a lot. You learn the code of evidence, which is insanely important as a judge. It's amazing the skill sets that you get from each type of practice. Again from the civil, I'm thankful that I had the opportunity to work at a big firm with really smart people. Because when lawyers come into the court, I can look at those briefs and I can look at their arguments and go, come on. We're not having this discovery dispute are we? Cause I lived it.
And from a criminal perspective, just trying so many cases as a prosecutor, you kind of see the big picture. A partner told me once as a young associate, you run in there and there's question "A" asked of you. And you run back in with an answer to question "A". At some point they're like, look, there are other questions "B" and "C" that you should be able to see by now and answer those cause I'm gonna have those questions for you.
And so I think being able to be in both the civil and criminal justice systems and see it from those perspectives really help you see the big picture and see where you're trying to go and how you're trying to get there and make sure that folks are getting there.
I think that there's certainly judges that have no criminal experience and some that have no civil experience. And there's some that have 30 years of civil experience, which is much better than my three years when I took the bench, you know?
So I think that there is definitely a unique skill set to have as a judge. And I think that we all have our own experiences that prepare us for the bench and some are better prepared when they take the bench than others. But that doesn't mean that he or she can't be a great judge.
On What Being a Judge Means to Him
Serve His Community in a Deeper Capacity and Fix Inefficiencies in a Leadership Capacity
Being a judge to me is an incredible opportunity to serve my community. I mean, that's really why I ran for judge is to serve in a more meaningful, at a deeper capacity. When I was a prosecutor living in the courtrooms, you just see the inefficiencies and it just drove me crazy just to see the inefficiencies in the system. And so my wife was in school. My son was in school. I quit my job, cashed out some 401k and I ran to be an elected judge. And thankfully I won because there was no more money in that bank account if, if I didn't win so. The only way to change the system, in my mind, is in the leadership positions. Whether it's law or finance or anything else, it's the folks that are leading the ship that need to change the direction of the ship.
And that's not to say that we're the only ones that can do it, but it's certainly people who pick up the phone when they hear judge calls, you know? So the judge in front of your name helps advance the cause.
On Where His Desire to Serve Comes From
Faith and the Desire to Do Better Every Day
My faith. Every bit of my Christian faith is why I do what I do. I mean, I think each and every single one of us is given a certain level of gifts and talents. And you can use those to serve others. That's really why I do what I do. I get up every day and say, how can I serve? How can I do it better? Not just do it. How can I do it better every day? And some days I didn't do it better, but that's okay. There's another day. Just keep failing and iterating, failing and iterating. Don't be afraid to fail. Just keep pushing. I've never met a person that's never failed.
On Advice to Others Struggling with the Idea of Failure
Be Prepared and Reflect Upon Why the Failures Happen
Well, certainly try to fail a lot less, you know? You don't wanna just go jump off the bridge, you gotta prepare yourself. So I would say if you're failing that's okay, but are you failing because of lack of preparation? Or lack of understanding? Are you failing because look, it's just natural that you do the best you can and things happen?
So are you prepared for whatever the battle is in front of you? Or are you just throwing yourself out there? And I think if you can talk to yourself about that and say, look, that's on me. I wasn't prepared. Then you can at least know where to go from there. So failure's not the end, but certainly you don't wanna keep failing and you don't wanna keep failing at the same thing. Otherwise you're not learning and you're, you're not moving forward. Fail forward is what I say. Fail forward.
On Advice to Others Looking to Become a Judge
Ensure Family is On Board, Understands Risks Involved, and Take a Chance
Well, first is your family on board? If your family's not on board, don't do it. No doesn't mean always no it might be no for now may not be the right time. The timing is a big part of this. You know, be realistic. Understand the risks that are involved. And if your family is there with you and you understand your why, you know, if you don't understand your why don't do it. So family, understand your why, and look, take the chance.
What's the worst that could happen? You lose. Big deal. I mean, it'll hurt. It'll be tough. Nobody's gonna like it. You know, you're gonna moan and groan for quite some time after the loss. But that's okay. You just keep getting up and keep doing what you think is right. And what is right for you and your family. And it'll all work itself out at the end of the day.
On Some of the First Things He Experienced as a Judge
You Don’t Fully Understand the Weight of the Robe Until You Put it On
It's kind of you don't know until you know. Everybody knows what a judge does until you actually become a judge. And then you really understand. I used to give this speech and would say, Hey, how much do you think my robe weighs? And I would hold my robe up. And I would ask everybody and you'd get the whole I know! 10 ounces, a pound, two pounds. The answer is you have no idea how much this thing weighs until you put it on. I mean, it's heavy, it's ridiculously heavy. And the point is you see that robe and you think, oh, these people are just making all these different decisions.
And it's hard, if you care. If you care about what you're doing, if you wield a robe improperly, you're gonna hurt somebody and the weight of it will crush you if you don't understand what you're doing and why you're doing it. So that's kind of just an example of, you know, you don't know until you put it on. You think you know, but you really don't.
I handle child custody cases. Who gets the children and visitation, you've gotta deal with again, domestic violence victims. You have victims in murders and rapes and horrible things.
Um, civil, speed is important too. And I'm not saying speed for speed's sake, but if you get sued in a civil matter. If your case lingers for 2, 3, 4 years, that's a lot of weight and pressure that people feel and they just want an answer and they just want their matter resolved so that they can continue to move along their life.
They just need an answer. They may not like your answer, but they prefer an answer rather than no answer.
On Inefficiencies in Court System
Identify Purpose and Alignment of Workflows, Start Figuring Out How to Initiate Change, Do One Little Thing Every Day to Move it Forward
You look at the different inefficiencies and you just look at the whys behind it. Let's just talk about speed for a minute. There are certain things in the court that should be slow. Let's not speed that process up. There's a real reason that takes time and that's okay.
But defend your position, defend why that process is so darn slow. Defend why that piece of paper has to go from that wire basket to that wire basket to that wire basket, then walk three flights of stairs up to hand to somebody for the next part of the process. You can't defend that. And if you can't defend it, let's look at how we change it. So really, really understand your workflows. And if you understand your workflows, you can start breaking it down and figuring out. Where's the hold up. Why's the hold up and do we need to change it?
And in the justice system, it's insanely complex and complicated and nuanced and difficult. You have multiple agencies that you're dealing with. The clerks of court, you've got the sheriffs, you've got the DA's you've got the public defenders. You have so many different agencies that you are interacting with that have their own work processes, their own budgets, their own Kings and Queens. And it's very difficult to change that one wire basket.
And you just do it. You get up every day and you do one little thing. You've got the whole, how do you walk a thousand miles, one step at a time.
I jokingly always tell everybody, look, you could tell me no, but I'm gonna outlast you. So tell me no today. That's fine. But I guarantee you, I will outlast you. And so that is one of the things that I do. It's just, I pick a workflow. I start looking at the various technologies that exist in the private sector and say, how can I use that for the public sector? How can I use it safely? How can I use it efficiently? Are the costs there that we can actually adopt that technology? And then you just start working on it and you start iterating on it. And then you start and stop, start and stop until you get it done. I've got projects I've been working on for almost 10 years that still have not been complete, but I haven't stopped thinking about it. I haven't stopped doing something about it. You know, send that one email to that clerk, forget about it and put a tickler. And then two months later, send another, Hey, where are we on this?
On Additional Approaches to Process Change
Understand the Players, the Challenges Each Face, and Take the Macro and Break Down Into the Micro
I think it comes from the practice. We talked about it earlier just being in the courtroom and living it and breathing it and having to take cases from start to finish. I mean, you start to understand where the breakdowns are. You start to understand who the players are, what the different challenges are for each one of those players.
And you just start getting it in your brain, if I wanna fix it, how do I fix it? And you just take the macro and then you break it down into the micro. And again, you just formulate yourself a plan. It's no different than trying a case, frankly. If you know how to try a case, you know how to change these systems. There's a problem. How do I find the solution? And if I can't find the solution, how do I just own that part of it and say, look, I'm not gonna fix that part. I'm moving on to the next one, because there are plenty enough problems out there. If I fix 60% of it, the other 40% will take care of itself.
On the First Process He Focused On Improving
Calendaring: The Tale of the Big Red Book
Calendaring. If you've ever heard me speak, I always talk about the big red book. The big red book drives me crazy. So every clerk in the entire country, minute clerk, probably has the big red book. And if you, a lawyer, want to get a date, you have to call this minute clerk, or you have to send a runner to get to this minute clerk and you have to say, Hey, I have a motion for summary judgment that I'd like heard. What dates do you have available?
That's one thing you have to just start with and you might have to leave that message and then that clerk's gotta call you back at some point, and that clerk's busy. So it might be a day or two or three days. And you just want to get something on the calendar. Why does this one individual control the entire courts calendar. And as a judge, I didn't even know what was coming up on my docket because I didn't have the big red book. I'd have to go ask, Hey, can I see the big red book to see what's going on? And this thing has scratches in and out of it, the erasures everywhere, I'm like, this is madness.
So I purchased an online calendar for $150 bucks. Put my calendar online, gave lawyers the opportunity to pick their own dates, call opposing counsel. Make sure it works for everybody. It'll send you a text and email reminder with a zoom link before zoom was a word. And it will also give us all the opportunity to not file motions to continue just because no one checks somebody else's calendar. $150 a year. I could change the entire justice system for $150 a year.
We don't need to spend $150 for a runner. We don't have to spend another couple hundred bucks to file a motion to continue. And here's the other thing, when you, the lawyer, gets the text or email reminder, you are triggered to call opposing counsel and go, do we really need to bother Judge Schlegel on this silly discovery dispute? And half the time, half my docket falls off because people are sending letters saying we resolved it, or we don't need that pretrial anymore. And we spend less time in court, which dries down the cost of litigation because of a simple $150 online calendar that has built in text and email reminders.
And that same calendar we use for criminal as well. I had about 80 cases on my criminal docket today. And we send texts and email reminders to defendants as well. So we can cut down on the failures to appear, which cuts down on the warrants, which cuts down on the amount of people that go to jail, just because they forgot.
Now there's some people that are running. I got it. We'll cut warrants for those individuals, but, you know, 10, 15 people just truly forgot. So why don't we send them texts and email reminders as well and value their time as well. And start staggering our dockets. I can't handle a hundred cases at 9:00 AM, but most courts start at 9:00 AM and most people just pack 'em in.
Come at 9, 10 or 11. It doesn't matter to me, I'm gonna be here until all those cases are resolved. You might have to drop your kids off at school. You might have to take public transportation. You might have an appointment in the morning and you can't make it till 11. That's fine. Tell me what time you wanna come. I'll give you the day you tell me the time. And then we'll send you text and email reminders to, again, help you remember so that we can keep the cases moving forward.
On the Implementation of a Virtual Verification Process
Virtual Verification of Parties Attending Remotely
In the state of Louisiana, we have a digital license. We're actually one of the first in the country to have digital licenses. And as soon as the pandemic hit, I reached out to the digital license folks and said, Hey, look, you can verify when somebody's purchasing alcohol and they show up at your door and you wanna verify how old they are. How about you verify the identity of the individual for me in court, since we're gonna be doing this all virtually. Look, we don't check the driver's license of everybody who comes into our courts because they're here physically so you're not gonna get your buddy to stand in physically for you. We have the lawyers here to verify yep that's my client.
But when we went all virtual overnight for two years, I didn't feel comfortable attaching somebody without first verifying that it was in fact, John Doe in front of me, who didn't appear the next time after I ordered him to. And so we built in a remote verification process whereby the individual simply pushes a button on my website. It generates a random code. They push that random code into their Louisiana driver's license, LA wallet, and then it pushes back to the court. Yep. That is Scott Schlegel in front of you.
On How He Moves Process Improvement Ideas Forward
If It Takes Two Minutes, Do It Now. If It Takes Longer, Write it Down.
I have random thoughts every day and I call random people every day. If it takes you two minutes, do it now. If it takes you a little bit longer, write it down. So most of these are quick hit send this email to this CEO. Or I know somebody who knows somebody who knows, you know, the first thing I did was call the state representative that I knew who passed the legislation and said, make the intro for me.
On the Practical Ways Courts Can Improve Processes
With a $500 Annual Budget You Can Improve Website, Assess Calendaring, and Provide Electronic Document Capabilities
I always tell everybody, if you spend $500 or less a year, I can change your entire world overnight. Literally in three days, I could change your entire world. Build a website, a simple, Square Space, Wix website for $200 bucks a year. Embed an online calendar for $150 bucks a year. Throw all your PDF forms online that cost you nothing. Embed your zoom license or your WebEx license, whatever video conferencing platform you're using. That's literally under $500 a year, would change the entire system. I mean, that's it. That simple. It's very difficult to do, but it's that simple if you know how to do it.
And then the most recent one that I think will be very helpful for lawyers is I've embedded a drag and drop feature on my website so that lawyers can just drag and drop their courtesy copies and it automatically goes into my one drive and I have it immediately. So, you know, don't send a runner. I've had my fax machine off forever. I've always just told lawyers to fax courtesy copies. Don't print everything and put a stamp on it and mail it out. That costs you a fortune. And I've always tried to figure out a way to drag and embed, but now I can.
And so now, I had a civil jury trial on Monday, and the lawyers were dragging and dropping all the trial exhibits over the weekend. And it was just dumping into my one drive, immediately. So Monday morning, they didn't have to bring a flash drive and didn't have to bring those big old bench books for the judge for trial and spend all that money. It literally was already in my iPad because I have the drag and drop feature and it cost me nothing.
On His Ability to Influence Others to Align with Process Change
Show People What’s Possible and Keep Layering Over Small Changes
I always use the four minute mile as an example. You know, no one thought the four minute mile was possible. But as soon as somebody broke the four minute mile, everybody started breaking the four minute mile. And I think it's really just showing people what's possible out there. Is it possible? Can I do it? Is it expensive or inexpensive? So, you know, once you start breaking down the barriers and you just start reducing as many barriers as you can. No, it doesn't cost that much money.
Now look, there are things that I do that do cost a lot of money, so you know, I don't wanna go out there and go, Hey, look, this is all cheap. It's not. There's a lot of things that I do that cost money. But I think what the pandemic did is everybody now has the hardware necessary to do it and they just need to get the SaaS or the software to take it to the next step. Everybody's got the webcams now, everybody's got the audio, everybody's got the computers, everybody's got the proper wifi speeds. Everybody's got what they need. And now that you have those bones, you can start layering.
So I would say, just start small and start layering from there. We can layer you to a thousand dollars a year, then I can layer you to $5,000 a year. If you gimme $5,000 a year, oh, what we could do. Five grand, not a lot of money when you're talking about changing the justice system. Know the process and now just start layering the technologies. You'd be amazed at how much you can do, literally in one week's time with $1,000.
On Leadership in Law
Seeing What is Broken with the Justice System and Taking Ownership to Fix It
I think we've been talking about it. Seeing what is broken with the justice system and taking ownership of it and saying, look, I'm not okay with that and I want to fix it. And just working with everybody to fix it. And look, we're not gonna fix everything. I get it. It's all good. But there are certain things that we can fix if we just move in the same path together. And we're not gonna agree on everything and that's okay as well. But we can agree on 50%. Everybody can agree that the big red book must go. We all can agree on that.
But again, you know, like we'll have great debates over whether virtual jury trials are smart thing to do or not. Look debate that all day long. I'm not an advocate for it, but I know others are. There'll be great debates of whether or not we should be all in person again, versus some sort of hybrid. Those are great things to, to talk about. But there are certain things that you can look at and go, those forms are horrible. Can we, for the love of God, put those online in a good readable format that's easy to find?
Can we just put a website together that has phone numbers so I can call the right person? I mean how hard is it to get a phone number to a certain division or a certain employee in that division? Just look website, phone numbers. Names. That'd be great. Those things are so simple, but they are challenging to do in a justice system that's not used to technology. We understand each other's roles, but let's go ahead and reduce as many barriers as we can.
On One thing He Would improve about the Legal Industry
Need to See More People Consider the Process, From Start to Finish
Process. Considering the processes. I don't think people necessarily consider, start to finish, the entire process. Whether that's the lawyers or the judges or the clerks, just how many clerks still don't have e-filing. But that's just a process that can be just changed. It's very difficult to go from paper to eFiling, but that's just, if each person looked at their process, because they're the experts in their process, and said, all right, I'm gonna start designing a better system. Then I think we'd be where we need to be in, I don't know, 20 years.
On Something People Seem to Misunderstand About His Work
No One Person is Responsible for the Entirety of the Justice System, We All Play a Role
I think people misunderstand people. What I mean by that is we each have our own roles in the system and not everybody can play the whole role. A prosecutor has a role to play. A public defender has a role to play. A judge has a role to play. And when something goes awry, or something doesn't pan out the way one thinks, they think it's one person's responsibility for the entirety of the outcome, as opposed to that person did his or her job.
People don't understand nuance. What we do is very nuanced and you can't broad strokes the justice system. Everybody broad strokes the justice system. Nobody understands how complex and difficult this is. You can read a charge on a criminal rap sheet that doesn't tell you anything that just tells you the charge. There is so much to that charge and so much to what comes next. And it's just, it's insanely complicated and nuanced, and I just wish folks wouldn't broad stroke the justice system, because you can't do that.
On a Piece of Practical Advice for Leaders in Law
Do Something Little Every Single Day to Affect Change
Pick something to start with and just start. Do something little every single day. Whether that's reading an article or sending an email. Look, call random CEOs all day long. It's fun. They may pick up the phone. I've never had one tell me no.
And look at it from different perspectives. If you walk around your daily life, you'll see all these different systems that are in place that people have spent millions of dollars thinking about and work shopping. It's really the same skillset that can be used in the justice system. If you just look at it from that perspective, just rename all the roles to what it is in the private sector.
Look, and I get it, we have different complexities and different things to deal with like public records, requests and different budgets. And we can't just go buy what we wanna buy. You have to go through the right processes. But if you just pick something and start and do something little every single day, you will see progress. Outlast them.
Family, Guitar, Exercise, and Reading
I hang out with my wife and son all the time. I was playing the guitar before I jumped on this podcast. I love the acoustic guitar and anything that can be played on the acoustic guitar. Exercise, read, hang out with the family.
Lawyers Who Lead is a weekly podcast that celebrates lawyers who are making powerful changes through extraordinary leadership. Each week, Lawline’s Chief Storyteller, Sigalle Barness, interviews a lawyer who is driving meaningful change in the legal industry. Guests represent a diverse and exciting range of experiences but with one common thread, the pursuit of bettering the legal profession.
Each episode explores the guest’s journey to leadership, the underlying principles that helped them make an impact, and devises ways listeners can apply these concepts in their own lives.
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About the Author
Written by Sigalle Barness
Sigalle champions and grows Lawline’s brand awareness through impactful stories that are authentic, meaningful, and thought provoking. She designs communications strategies that underscore the why and how behind Lawline's work. Sigalle is an avid lover of music, video games, blogging, asking questions and all things food. She is also fluent in Hebrew and enjoys writing fiction, traveling and scuba diving.
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