Historical Perspectives: The Techno Age

Technology has made the practice of law vastly different from that practiced a generation ago. The changes first emerge in law school, which is also radically different from that of a couple of decades ago. I remember vividly the agony of Timothy Bottoms, the beleaguered student of the classic film Paper Chase. He would scratch out summaries of cases on yellow legal pads and the papers would overflow his worn folders like they were over- stuffed tacos. Bottoms, with his fashionable 70’s mutton chop sideburns, carefully guarded these summaries and shared them with only his study group. He wanted to impress the unsmiling teacher, John Houseman, whose daughter Bottoms was squiring. These cases were painstakingly extracted from volumes in the law library.

My experience from law school days, which Bottoms actualized, was that the volumes tended to vanish as multiple students zealously grabbed them. Then when the volume miraculously appeared, like the Holy Grail, the relevant pages had been ripped out by a larcenous student who cared not that his act was punishable by the student court firing squad.

Today’s law student need search no further than his iPad, iPhone lap top (or her soon to be obsolete desk top computer). If today’s Professor Houseman counterpart suddenly called for a case summary, a dozen right hands would shoot up, with the left hands holding the smart phone.

It’s a probability that, in this age, many students would need a map to find the law library. I remember many quiet but stressful hours, hiding out in the stacks and carrels, keeping watch for the Maryland Report I needed to finish my fourth amendment research project to appear,. And to write a paper yesteryear, without the necessity of whiteout, is a marvel for which we would have paid highly.

Many hours were actually spent studying in the library. The University of Baltimore now has a high tech library with internet access, direct lines to Lexis-Nexis and enough stations to accommodate a law review army. There is a waterfall flowing through the multi levels, so that the sound of a trickling brook might give solace to those burned out by computer key confusion.

When the professor would call for a case summary, unless we had a centipede’s arms, we could hardly carry Black’s Law Dictionary, Murphy’s Evidence, the Annotated Code, MLE or the Maryland Digest. Now it all can be on a disk. Law school grades were anxiously received by snail mail, a wonderful improvement over the pony express. Now there is no longer a painful wait for the U.S. mail. Students need only await electronic delivery on the computer, the same computer used to deliver the papers to the professors.

The brave new techno world has revolutionized the practice of law. Lawyers communicate by fax machine, emails, texts and scans. It is no longer necessary to race the pleadings to the clerk’s office by 4:30. Electronic pleading is almost universal. Archaic is the practice of the letter, phone call or the face to face meeting.

I can remember opening the window of my law office and shouting across the alley to opposing counsel. He signaled settlement by his thumbs up. And only Rome still uses the smoke signal.

It is indeed easier to practice law and to study law today. Is it better? That, my dear fellow lawyer, you must decide for yourself. The virtues that make a good lawyer are unchanged and are what is in his or her soul and not in the computer. A sense of honesty and honor, a sense of fairness and prudence, the courage to do what is inherently right regardless of consequences, come not from the hours spent on a case or in the library memorizing precedents. And a judge must do what he or she senses is right, not what public perception might dictate as the popular decision. Been down that road by the way. The values, which make us better lawyers, also make us better human beings. They come from the Almighty and not from man’s marvelous inventions of techno wonders. As a sage of spiritual depth once tersely said, “The wind blows in four directions, but only God can make a tree!”