Friday 5: The Biggest Changes Since I Started Practicing Law
I was sworn in to the practice of law in 1991. In those days, I had to get up early every morning to chop the day’s firewood, churn butter for the breakfast toast, slop the hogs, then take my mustang into town — not a Ford Mustang, but an actual horse, whose saddle was weighted down with not only me but the 50 pounds of client papers I hauled home to study by candlelight after the family retired each evening.
OK, maybe I’m thinking about 1891. But my point is this: the practice of law has changed dramatically since I started. Here are five areas where I’ve seen the greatest transformation over those 23 years.
- No more books. There’s no longer any question that my generation of lawyers (those who started practicing before 2000 or so) will be the last to have ever been dependent on printed books. For centuries, lawyers needed easy access to rooms full of books. Research meant looking up topics in books that directed you to other books, which contained the actual court opinions. Then you needed to consult even more books to confirm whether those opinions had been overruled. If you needed to research cases from other states or on arcane subjects, you might have had to travel to a law school library and hunker down for hours, even days. About the time I graduated from law school, that began to change; books were rapidly being replaced by computer disks and then online services. Today, many of us rarely pick up an actual book. We have more research material available via computer or smartphone than we had in our old libraries.
- Pro: Because I can call up cases, search text, cut-and-paste quotations into documents, etc., I spend significantly less time on research while doing as good or better a job as when I was surrounded by bound volumes.
- Con: Occasionally I get nostalgic for the scent of leather covers and paper dust, the muted symphony of shelves creaking and pages turning, and the people-watching opportunities afforded by hours spent in a library. But the feeling subsides quickly.
- Not much paper. Without even making a conscious effort, I have turned drastically toward paperlessness in recent years. Email and digital scanning have made the biggest difference. Much of the correspondence I do is via email, or even text messaging. I save and categorize vital email and frequently back up my computer, rather than printing out everything. Most people I deal with are more than glad to exchange documents, images, etc., by electronically transmitted digital files rather than paper and snail mail.
- Pro: In terms of practicality, pretty much everything.
- Con: Having grown up reading things on paper rather than an electronic screen, my brain is still attuned to the physical aspects of turning pages and examining documents located on different parts of a desk. Those physical cues still help me mentally organize ideas. I genuinely believe that the brains of people growing up today will work differently, perhaps having reduced attention spans but greater facility for communicating via images, symbols, or sounds. I suspect that even court opinions and written agreements will eventually incorporate sophisticated graphics and multimedia to supplement the text.
- Less precision. Based on the documents I review as a lawyer and ADR neutral, it seems that verbal and logical precision in legal writing and presentation has perhaps declined somewhat in the past couple of decades. (I hasten to add that I, and most of the practitioners I regularly deal with, are litigators, whose work is generally meant to accomplish a specific task for a client rather than advance the general state of jurisprudence or create great literature.) But what I’m talking about is obvious typos, poor grammar, confusing sentence structure, non sequiturs —that sort of thing. I believe this reflects the economic realities of practicing law, especially litigation. In general, lawyers can’t afford to spend as much time on certain tasks — perhaps including polishing and editing documents — largely because their clients can’t afford to pay them to spend so much time on those tasks. I’ve noticed that a particular decline in legal “workmanship” seems to have accompanied the recent Great Recession, and I doubt it’s a coincidence.
- Pro: Of course, there’s no “pro” to untidy work. But if it means that lawyers are working more economically for their clients’ benefit without actually reducing the effectiveness of the legal product, then I suppose a little less polish and pizzazz is acceptable.
- Con: If slipshod writing and presentation results in a judge, jury, or other party’s inability to understand or appreciate a client’s case, then it is doing harm.
- Less localization. This doesn’t apply to all areas of law, and it’s of interest mainly to those of us who practice outside the Seattle area. But some of us litigators feel more remote than ever, despite how technology is generally thought to have made the world seem closer-knit. Through most of my career, I have done primarily plaintiffs’ personal injury work. When I began practicing, many of the people I dealt with were based right here in Bellingham, including injury claims adjusters for many insurance carriers. Likewise, carriers often hired defense counsel from here in town. By contrast, claims adjusters today are rarely closer than Seattle. Written communication often has to pass through an insurance company’s national document center somewhere before making its way to the adjuster I’m trying to reach. And opposing counsel on my litigated cases are almost always from Seattle.
- Pro: Presumably, the centralization of insurance company operations is aimed at efficiency and cost-effectiveness. If this leads to better service and lower premiums, then I guess I shouldn’t complain.
- Con: I had closer relationships and more familiarity with my claims adjusters and defense attorneys when I worked with them frequently and saw them around town. Then again, everything still mainly comes down to the quality of the individuals involved. In the old days, there were local people I could never get along with, and I have good working relationships with many of the people I deal with now from afar.
- More marketing. Of course, in plaintiff’s PI work, we’ve never been shy about promoting ourselves. But it seems that lawyers in almost all areas of private practice today are under pressure to tout themselves in every way possible, including whatever Internet/social media avenue is hottest right this minute. Here in Bellingham, we’re all solo and small-firm practitioners, but I’ve seen colleagues’ ads pop up everywhere from the backs of buses to late-night TV commercials to the bottom of the screen on the sports score app of my smartphone.
- Pro: I have managed to resist a “you kids get off my lawn” attitude toward lawyer advertising. We need to promote our services like everyone else who is trying to make a living. And good advertising (including informative lawyer websites, blogs, and social media accounts) genuinely helps educate the public about our profession.
Con: Like most lawyers, I didn’t become interested in law and endure three years of law school because I looked forward to hawking myself on the market. Especially as a solo practitioner now, the time and expense of keeping up with the latest marketing trends is daunting and leaves less time for actually practicing law.