Jim Swanson—An internet pioneer in the world of law
Jim Swanson: Master of Business Administration, 1997
Based in: Calgary, Alta.
Jim Swanson has always considered himself a computer geek. He bought his first PC in 1979: a boxy, beige Atari 400 where he could manage his chequing account and sequence and record synthesizer music. A decade later, he was one of the first people online, browsing Usenet groups and sending early emails. And by the early ‘90s, Swanson was working as a technology lawyer, trying to figure out how the World Wide Web would change the way he practised law.
“The first website I ever saw was a guy with a Unix programmer advertising his bait and boat shop in Florida,” Swanson says. “It was just a graphic with his toll-free number and a picture of the wharf. I had never seen anything like it, and I realized it was going to change everything.”
“I’m a successful, leading-edge law firm, applying my natural abilities as a lawyer as well as the knowledge and skills I learned in the program.”– Jim Swanson, MBA '97
In 1993, at lunch with a few friends, someone mentioned that Athabasca University (AU) was planning to launch an MBA program using Lotus Notes. “I thought, ‘You could do an MBA program on Lotus Notes. You could do anything on that platform,” Swanson recalls. It was the first online MBA program in the world and, a year later, when it launched, Swanson was one of its first enrollees.
The technology was primitive—you’d have to wait for the dial-up to connect and the server to deliver information from other computers—but professors were able to upload lessons, and the first cohort of students were able to submit assignments and engage in (very slow) group discussions.
Swanson found he was able to gain a whole new set of technical tools without interrupting his growing tech law practice. He mastered the fundamentals of business—strategic planning, accounting, marketing, management—while both students and professors used the platform to better understand educational behaviour. “From what I understand, a lot of the courses were essentially rewritten after the first offering,” he says. “Because they were able to see how people actually dealt with them. It became an exercise, ‘how do people work virtually as teams?’”
For his dissertation, Swanson designed and created a website for the Alberta Civil Trial Lawyers’ Association. In the era before Swanson’s site launched, a lawyer in Grand Prairie would have to drive to Edmonton to access physical binders that listed reliable expert witnesses. Swanson’s site included a digital Expert Witness Bank, where lawyers could provide contact info for the witnesses along with comments about their performance—kind of like an early Yelp for trial lawyers.
Swanson graduated from the MBA program in 1997 and quickly set about putting his new knowledge to use. As an Internet pioneer, he acquired dozens of domain names, which became ultra-lucrative as more companies set up their own websites and bought the domains from him. After learning about economic bubbles in the program, he was circumspect with his investments and remained successful when the dotcom bubble burst. He also set up an online directory of every firm in Canada that had its own website—at that point, there were only 12. He figured he’d get more traffic to his firm’s site than he knew what to do with, and law firms would be calling him, begging to get into his directory. And that’s exactly what happened.
Over the years, Swanson has worked at several large national firms, but this year, he’s planning to branch out on his own and launch his own virtual law firm from his home. He’ll have a physical drop-off location for couriered documents and packages, but he’ll mostly meet with clients through virtual boardrooms and offices. For one of AU’s inaugural MBA graduates, it is the perfect opportunity to combine the business skills he first began to develop more than two decades ago with his law practise today. “At my firm, I’m the CEO, the chief marketing officer and chief technology officer,” he says. “I’m a successful, leading-edge law firm, applying my natural abilities as a lawyer as well as the knowledge and skills I learned in the program.”
Learn more about AU’s MBA program.