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DTCI: Find your technological balance

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I am 57 years old and have practiced law for more than 32 years. But, I don’t feel old. I have three young boys with whom I love to play football, baseball, and basketball in the backyard. I still windsurf and do flips off the diving board. I listen to WTTS Radio for its new music, I have the Dave Matthews Band and Guster on my ITouch, and I enjoy playing drums in a rock and roll band. I like wearing designer jeans, flip flops, and t-shirts and hanging out with my daughters and their young adult friends. I still consistently bill the hours that would be expected of an ambitious associate or junior partner.

Nevertheless, when I think back on my experiences as a lawyer, I realize I must be old. I feel compelled to reminisce and record some of the law office history and evolution that I have witnessed during my career and to note the blinding speed with which technology has overtaken our professional lives.

When I started in the private practice of law in 1978, the most impressive room in a law office was the library. It contained shelves and shelves of beautifully bound books which were essentially the source of all legal knowledge. Yes, the law school did have one computer in its library, but it was primarily an educational tool, available across town by appointment only and its database was severely limited. It was not a viable substitute for legal research by the books.

All telephone calls to the firm were answered by the receptionist. There was only one telephone number and no direct lines to anyone. If an attorney was unavailable, the receptionist would fill out a little pink slip with the caller’s name, number, and message and place the message slip into slots at the receptionist’s desk. In 1984, when our firm built out our new space in what was then known as the AUL Building, we even had a decorative wooden panel with message slots constructed as a permanent part of the receptionist’s work station. Pink slips were the state-of-the-art message service and we assumed they were here to stay. Voice mail was only a vision in Scott Jones’s mind at that time. (It may surprise younger lawyers to know that voice mail in its infancy was not well received by many clients because it was deemed too cold and impersonal.)

We did have telephones on our desks. The only other piece of technology on our desk was a Dictaphone. It was an unwieldy instrument with a separately held microphone connected to the base unit by a curly cord. It used 3” brown cellophane-like bands that were placed over rollers inside the machine to record the voice data as the tape turned. When the recording was complete, the user turned off the machine, removed the cellophane band and paper clipped it to the file for transcription. Cassette tapes (let alone micro cassette tapes) were not yet in use.

The office secretaries had typewriters, of course. The gold standard was an IBM Selectric with a metal ball that rotated to imprint the characters. Some sophisticated models had “mag cards” which were capable of recording and reprinting short passages automatically. Carbon copies were made using messy carbon paper that was unforgiving of typographical errors. Does everyone today know that “cc” originally stood for “carbon copy” not “courtesy copy”?

“Xerox” machines were available, but they were expensive and certainly not ubiquitous like today’s printers and copiers. Moreover, they did not have automatic feeders, collators, color or any other special features like the ability to enlarge or reduce size. Actual size black and white copies were made one at a time by opening the lid, placing the original material on the glass, closing the lid and pushing the button once for each page to be copied.

Forget smart phones. We didn’t even have cell phones. Telephones were fixed landlines used for audio communication only. In the mid-1980s, because of a large and demanding case I was handling, I became one of the earlier users of a “car phone.” At that time, it was regarded as a novelty, not a necessity. When I would call my friends, they would make jokes saying things like, “Come in, Mobile One” as if it were a Citizens Band radio.

It is no surprise to me that cell phones quickly and thoroughly penetrated the market. The convenience and efficiency created by wireless phones may be the greatest advancement in technology for the law practice in my career. Client service and productivity increased dramatically with the ability to report the results of a court hearing or deposition while driving back to the office. (We still had automatic change of venue back then which resulted in significant work in the contiguous counties.) I remember wondering why everyone didn’t have a mobile phone and whether it would be technologically possible for the airwaves to accommodate everyone that would eventually want one.

Fax machines were much heralded in their arrival, but regarded by some with skepticism. Overnight delivery was already available if necessary. Was there really a need for more speed than that? If so, why not rent or borrow fax capabilities when necessary. Our firm debated this issue for some time before purchasing our first fax machine. Less than a year later, we had two.

Of course, the typewriter morphed into word processors (remember the Wang?) and PCs on the desks of administrative assistants. But without the Internet, computers could only process data that the user keyed in. Because attorneys did not have time to input data, most people believed there was no need for a computer on the attorney’s desk. I recall a good client at a large insurance company telling me in the early 1990s that someday he would be able to send me messages from his computer directly to my desk. Although I was intrigued by the concept, I was secretly concerned that my comfortable reliance on the postal service’s three-day turnaround time would be eliminated. However, I was comforted by the knowledge that I did not have, nor would I probably ever have, a computer on my desk for the clients’ messages to pop up on anyway.

Those days are gone. Computers are not only on our desks, they are in our pockets and on our nightstands. It is truly amazing how much the pace of our practice has changed since that time not so long ago, when attorneys could not even call in to get their messages after the office switchboard closed at 5:30 p.m. We now practice in a world of instant messaging and 24/7 accessibility. The challenge for lawyers today is not how to communicate instantly, but knowing when and how to stop. Delivery services like the Post Office and Federal Express no longer provide an excuse for us to stop and catch our breath. Lawyers can now e-mail, text, transmit documents and talk to clients around the clock. Even the courts are open for electronic filing after traditional business hours.

I predict the accelerating pace of technological advancements in the practice of law will continue. This will not only create ever increasing opportunities for speed and efficiency, but opportunities for undue haste, miscommunication and mistakes as well. Therefore, the most successful lawyers in the future will be the ones that strike the best balance between constant accessibility and instant response versus the need to periodically shut down to recharge and engage in-depth and well considered analysis. Striking the proper balance will allow lawyers to remain grounded in the real world, establish stronger interpersonal relationships, and provide accurate and more valuable answers, advice, and advocacy when they once again power up to energetically and enthusiastically serve their clients.

I wish you all the best in finding and maintaining your technological balance to enjoy a successful law practice and help your clients achieve their goals over the long term.•

Mr. Bennett is a partner in the Indianapolis firm of Riley Bennett & Egloff and is a member of the Defense Trial Counsel of Indiana. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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