What it was like to practice law 25 years ago without the use of any computers

October 26, 2007 | By | 2 Replies More

What it was like to practice law 25 years ago without the use of any computers

It’s amazing to think that I’ve been a lawyer since 1981, which is more than 25 years ago.  The years are certainly going by quickly, which is a bit disconcerting. I currently work with some lawyers who were not even born when I became a lawyer.  I’m not bothered by my age (51), since I am healthy and I’m able to do essentially anything I want (racquetball, cycling, hiking).  In fact, I’m not really able to complain about anything at all.  My life has consisted of a string of fortunate occurrences, combined with some hard work.

The point of this post, though, is that I sometimes think back “only” 25 years ago to recall the role of computers in the law office back then.  The description is short and simple: there were no computers in law offices in the early 1980s.  This was true of most law firms in most cities. In the 1980’s, I worked at a medium-sized law firm that employed about 40 attorneys. There were no blackberries, no cell phones, no laptop computers and no desktop computers.  Back then, if you wanted to see a fancy gadget, you might look for a typewriter with a tiny LED screen that had a memory that could store a few pages of text.  The secretary (only special secretaries had access to these fancy machines) could type in a document, which would be stored in that modest memory, such that corrections could be made, and the document could be reprinted without rekeying the entire document.  That was as close as you got to a computer in most law offices in the 1980s.

Instead of computers, we had secretaries, lots and lots of secretaries, who transcribed attorneys’ dictation.  We dictated our documents onto small handheld tape recorders.  We would turn these tapes over to secretaries, who would type out the documents and bring them to us of our review and signature.  These documents were typed out on electric typewriters (almost none of them being those fancy LED typewriters described above).  As a result, if you found a mistake in the printed out letter, you often had to ask the secretary to retype the entire letter.  If it was a multipage letter, this could require the secretary to spend an hour or two (or even most of the day) typing the entire letter, just because you forgot to insert a paragraph in your dictation.  Many an attorney who needed to make a change in a document received the evil eye from his or her secretary; this was good incentive to think things through as well as you could prior to turning tapes over to secretaries. In fact, if you noticed that you forgot to include a paragraph in a document, your best strategy was to look to see whether the secretary herself had made some major mistakes that would require the letter to be retyped anyway.  Only then would you bring it to her attention.

If you find it tedious to think about running an office without computers, consider that letters were the shortest and easiest documents to retype.  I worked in a law office that specialized in litigation.  The documents we needed to produce included 20-, 30-, or 40-page legal pleadings.  Sometimes those documents would include appellate briefs that could run in excess of 50-pages.

During the past 15 years, more and more lawyers have been keying in their own documents, bypassing the need to hand dictation tapes to secretary.  In the 1990’s, attorneys keying in their own documents was frowned on by management; it amounted to attorneys doing “secretarial work.”   Eventually, attitudes changed, however.  Having access to a desktop computer has made life more bearable for many attorneys, who now have immediate access to the various drafts of documents.  Tiny changes can be made repeatedly, with no need to apologize to a secretary. In fact, I often create long summaries of documents without any use of the keyboard.  I’m doing it right now, using voice activation software (Dragon version 9).  One particular bright spot for me was that law firms have finally broken away from WordPerfect and moved to MSWord.  I know that there are some lawyers who will disagree, but WordPerfect 5.0 doesn’t bring me any warm memories.  Though many people became proficient at using it, it always seemed crude and clunky to me.

We did not have any such thing as a scanner at any of my law firms, until five years ago.  Therefore, every important piece of information was preserved in hard copy, if at all.  Sometimes, those critical pieces of paper were misplaced or lost entirely. This made it critically important to keep track of those important copies.  It’s so different now; I scan every important piece of paper that comes into my office, so that it is easily available and always available to me.

Until about 10 years ago, all communications were by telephone or written letter sent to the United States Postal Service. If something was extra important, it could be transmitted by fax, though most pleadings and letters were entrusted to the postal service only.  What’s missing in this picture?  E-mail.  Somehow we got along without any e-mail.  As I recall, most lawyers were not using any form of e-mail for business use until the mid-1990s.  In fact, most lawyers did not have any computer on their desks, even in the mid-1990s.

We’ve certainly made up for not having e-mail by the way we have overused e-mail in current times.  It used to be a curiosity to actually do business through e-mail.  This is not the case anymore, however.  Now, it seems that a typical day involves sending 30-50 e-mails and receiving 50-100 e-mails (admittedly, many of these e-mails received our mass mailings that could be quickly reviewed and deleted).  The upshot is that several hours of every working day involve sending and receiving dozens of e-mails, many of those containing important attachments.  Admittedly, much work is done through the exchange of these e-mails, and it is sometimes done extremely efficiently.  Most phone calls still require the exchange of pleasantries prior to getting down to business-this is often gratifying, although it does slow you down any keep you from getting home earlier at night.  Just imagine the difference in time of sending 10 e-mails versus making 10 phone calls.  Further, after every important phone call, responsible attorneys document that communication.  Who did you talk to and on what case?  What was said and by whom?  When you communicate through e-mail, all of that is automatically documented and therefore retrievable.

Computers have played yet another big role in the modern law office.  In the “old days,” to get a copy of a pleading, you had to physically go to the courthouse.  Even if you wanted to find out what was in the court file, you had to call a court clerk or traveled to the courthouse yourself and flipped through the legal file.  That is sometimes still the case.  On the other hand, many courts report their filings to a network that allows access by attorneys.  If I want to find out if a defendant was served in a particular case, I am often able to look that up at my desktop.

How did we ever get along without Outlook?  This situation is extremely hard to imagine now, even though I practiced as an attorney through that time period.  Nowadays, I’m always setting up meetings and alerts which guide me through every day and every week.  In the “old days,” paper calendars ruled.  In fact, if one were to have lost his or her paper calendar, it could’ve been a disaster, since there was simply no backup to that little book.  Now, Outlook tells me what to do, when to do it and where to go in real time.  It’s a super-charged calendar.  Yet I remember, even 5 years ago (and for some attorneys still) that many people resisted the move to an electronic calendar for fear of “losing the data,” as though paper calendars can’t be lost.

Litigation practice is littered with deadlines.  That is the nature of the practice, and these deadlines drive many lawyers to a state of high anxiety. Many of these deadlines involved filing pleadings.  In the “old days,” filing a pleading meant getting to the courthouse while the doors were unlocked and finding a clerk to stamp in your pleading to file it.  That is still the case in some courthouses, although the trend is to implement electronic filing.  This is a terrific idea that allows lawyers to electronically file pleadings from their own desktops in PDF form.  The system has been adopted by almost all federal courts, and state courts are now coming aboard as well.  The system means that you no longer have to drive anywhere to file a pleading on time.  In the “old days,” pleadings were occasionally lost.  Sometimes these important filings were lost under suspicious conditions.  That situation is now impossible with electronic filing, where pdf copies of all file documents are available 24/7 to anyone willing to pay the modest cost of accessing the documents.

Research has been totally transformed by computers.   In the 1980’s law libraries consisted entirely of books.   Often, critical volumes of books couldn’t be found, because they were removed by other attorneys who wanted to work in the privacy of their office.  If you wanted to do research at night, you needed to do it at a physical law library.  We often spent time at law school libraries, because no law firm actually had the space for all of the hard-copy books that are required to do a thorough job.  Things have changed dramatically, of course.  Now, any attorney with a laptop and a subscription to a legal research database has access to an entire law library’s worth of paper books.   Further, the ability of copying and pasting speeds forward the assembling of information necessary to create a brief.   Attorneys used to hover over copy machines as much as clerical staff.   That’s no longer the case.

During the last several years, remote accessing of one’s own law office network has become commonplace, allowing attorneys to work “at their desk.” It matter where they are in the entire world. This is a mixed blessing, of course.  It used to be that you simply could not do much work when you are on vacation (other than spending long hours on the telephone).  Now, it can sometimes be hard to justify staying away from the laptop and burning away vacation hours on work projects.  In fact, it is rare to hear of an attorney involved in litigation who has actually gone on vacation and not done a significant amount of work during the “week off.”

The bottom line is that an attorney at the top of his or her game in the early 1980s was essentially married to a secretary who kept track of hundreds of pieces of paper, cranked out all necessary paperwork, and did all the filing and scheduling.  Today’s lawyer can do much of that work (though certainly not all of it) without a secretary.

Have computers and improve the quality of life for attorneys involved in litigation?  Absolutely.  Is there a cost?  It seems so, although it is worth it.  The cost is that we now pour much more information through our heads in a given day simply because we can do this.  Many of the hassles and inefficiencies of only a couple years ago allowed us some time during each day to slow down a bit because we had to slow down a bit.  Now, everything is instant, which allows for the possibility of making instant progress (or lots of instant errors, if you’re not careful).  Therefore, the practice of litigation now seems sped up and seems as though everything has higher stakes, minute by minute.

Do the risks mean that I would go back to the old days of practicing law without a computer?  Not on your life.  Case closed!

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Category: History, Law, Technology

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (2)

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  1. Edgar Montrose says:

    I am not a lawyer, but I am currently a litigant in a very complicated case. I can say that having a computer, and having all of the statutes available on the Internet, has saved me a lot of money and strengthened my case immeasurably. I have personally found obscure but helpful clauses and legal provisions that would have taken a paralegal months to find if they had to thumb through paper pages.

    I'm not sure how lawyers feel about this kind of kibitzing, but it pleases me greatly to know that I have contributed to my own case.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Edgar: I am an attorney and I really appreciate it when my clients get involved in their own cases. You don't need to be a lawyer to understand many legal principles. I think it's a great idea for a person to have access to the law on the internet just like they have access to medical information that can help them help their own doctor.

    Further, I think access to the law is a great idea for those contemplating hiring a lawyer. I do not justify most of my pay by saying obvious and easily accessible things to potential clients (though I often convey such information to my clients). As I see it, much of my real value is knowing how the conflicting legal principles (they often conflict) resolve with relation to particular cases. Therefore, there is plenty of room for people who want to educate themselves to go to the Internet first, then to get confirmation from a lawyer. Sometimes, a person without a lawyer can completely answer his or her own questions by reference to Internet legal resources. Of course, the law often is not what it seems to be, so one needs to be extremely careful–even if one is trained as a lawyer!

    As far as legal resources on the Internet, they didn't exist 20 years ago, execept for some pricey proprietary services. Now many lawyers blog on the Internet and there are many free sources of legal information available to lawyers–much of it can be of value to non-lawyers as well.

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