FOIA Facts: What I've Learned About FOIA in 2003

As my first year in private practice comes to an end, I’m going to take this opportunity to reflect on what I’ve learned about the FOIA (and other things) in 2003.

As many of you may know, in a previous life I was an attorney for the Department of Justice (Office of Information and Privacy at the FBI) doing what many thing of as unglamorous FOIA and privacy Act work. While the FOIA and the Privacy Act are not the sexiest area of law, I always found during my time at DOJ, that the FOIA was a door to very exciting and often issues that were in the news. If it was controversial at DOJ or especially, the FBI over the past decade, I more often or not got to work on some aspects of the matter. As I left the Bureau a year ago, I wondered if practicing FOIA law from the other side would be as fulfilling and exciting.
I am pleased to give my answer as a resounding yes. The fulfillment and pleasure of building my own law practice has far exceeded my expectations. And once again the FOIA has proven to be a door that has led me to see, learn and be involved in a number legal issues and matters. I’ve been able to interact with a number of FOIA professionals in many government agencies, some former peers and associates, the others I look on as new friends. I’ve learned that any agencies work hard to help FOIA requesters even as they are squeezed by shrinking budgets and too few hours in the workday.

While this is meant to be a positive article, I’ve also noticed that a few agencies omit a few FOIA essentials when they get a request. First, if a request is a little off the wall (such as for a topic rather than a person or event), agencies tend to just give a no records response rather than attempt to do a search for records. And many agencies fail to give adequate appeal rights of their decision. Finally, the agencies that handle FOIA in a centralized location tend to do a bit better job in responding to requests (though that is definitely not rule all the time.)

The real pleasure in my first year "on the outside" was helping clients, be they individuals or corporations, get their FOIA needs fulfilled. With government agencies doing work that covers most areas of American life, I am lucky to have projects that vary from soup to nuts. Now try to tell me that FOIA work isn’t as sexy as other areas of the law. I’ll take FOIA over torts or bankruptcy any day.

Through this column, I have learned that writing is probably the most difficult thing I can think of (but having a great editor helps).  While the ideas may form in my head, putting them down on paper (or electronic media) is another story. Performing this task monthly gives me new respect for writers of all types. While I’m far from it, my goal is to one day be known as the Peter Gammons of FOIA.  I enjoy hearing from readers and I’d love to know what topics I should feature in future columns.

I could go on at length writing about what I’ve learned this past year (and you, the reader, don’t have the luxury of my wife telling me to leave you alone!) But in lieu of that choice, I will state that the most important fact I’ve come to understand about the FOIA in 2003 is how really important it is. Individuals need documents to fulfill legal obligations and to move on with certain aspects of their lives. Companies need documents to assess legal claims, perform research and find out about the competition. The competition needs to protect their confidential business information and trade secrets. Thus, the FOIA has evolved into an important American institution, which I hope to be a part of for years to come. Have a great holiday season!