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Law Office Management

Sep. 2, 2006

The Technology: From 9 to 5 to 24/7

A quarter century ago a lawyer's desk had no computer, no keyboard, and no mouse. Today your virtual office includes a laptop, a BlackBerry, and a cell phone in your pocket or purse. By Sandra Rosenzweig

By Sandra Rosenzweig
      If you're old enough to remember a time before you owned a computer, think back 25 years to what you had on your office desk: a telephone, a timer, several sheets of grid paper for logging client calls, a legal pad and Mont Blanc fountain pen, a framed family photo, and a cup of locally roasted coffee.
      Off in a corner, just in front of a bookshelf lined with bronze-and-red-trimmed court reporters, sat your first fax machine-which didn't hit its commercial stride until about 1983, when California Lawyer was two years old. With that machine, you exchanged document drafts with co-counsel and received copies of client letters, which they would also mail to you. (The copies weren't suitable as evidence, but they were enough to work with until the originals arrived.)
      Using this technology, the pace of work seemed hectic enough. The volume of paperwork-typed and then revised by your secretary-could be daunting. And your office phone was both a means of generating income and a constant irritant. Twenty-five years later-despite the advances of voice mail and Internet call routing-that's one thing about your practice that hasn't changed.
      In 1981 and 1982 MS-DOS, Intel's 8088 processor, and IBM's Personal Computer (PC) emerged victorious from early battles with their competitors. In 1984 Apple introduced the first Macintosh computer, with the first graphical user interface in a consumer-level computer. Microsoft won the operating system wars that followed, but either a PC or a Mac would get you where you wanted to go.
      Lawyers, in particular, were early adopters. Lured by the promise of hassle-free writing, lawyers ran for the nearest IBM-PC or one of its clones. In fact, clones made the personal computer industry. If all the boxes had had to carry IBM's brand name, or that of the more expensive Apple Macintosh, PCs might have remained just a rich kid's toy.
      Word processing was the main reason you bought a PC. Revisions were a snap, as was correcting typing errors. No more carbon paper or bottles of Wite-Out. So you added a computer box, a keyboard, and an unbearably loud dot-matrix printer to the surface of your desk.
      MicroPro's WordStar was the early leader in word processing programs, but that was pre-PC. Then the company stumbled, fatally, in 1982, and WordPerfect grabbed the advantage with its WordPerfect for DOS. Its commands, like WordStar's, were in the form of keyboard shortcuts that were so efficient, even today there are those of us who mourn the death of WordPerfect 4.2 (1986). Why keyboard commands? Because PCs back then didn't come with a mouse. Even though the company had provided extremely helpful phone support, WordPerfect gave birth to a new world of software trainers, as well as hundreds of books and cheat sheets, on how to use the programs efficiently.
      Microsoft Word for DOS would soon make predatory raids on WordPerfect's market share. But lawyers stuck with WordPerfect as long as possible because it had become the industry standard. Word, nevertheless, had the advantage: It was designed to work under Windows, Microsoft's new graphical user interface. Windows 3.0 appeared in 1990, complete with a mouse interface and a few other interesting features. You could keep several windows open simultaneously on your computer's so-called desktop. This led to a primitive form of multitasking. And the program introduced a set of cute little symbols called icons.
      Unfortunately, Windows 3 required you to use the mouse for every task. Because the primary graphical user interface at the time sat on Macintosh computers, almost everyone compared Windows unfavorably to the Mac's operating system. It wasn't until the 1995 version of Windows that its graphical user interface became truly usable, with built-in Internet support, dial-up networking, and new plug-and-play capabilities.
      For the general consumer, Windows and Word for Windows owned the market. But lawyers dragged their mice on the switch: They had invested a fair amount in WordPerfect software, training, and books. Unfortunately, converting files between Word and WordPerfect was difficult and time-consuming. And by the early '90s most clients had already migrated to Word. Reluctantly, lawyers followed their clients' lead to Microsoft.
      But wait-we almost skipped modems. By the mid-1980s many PC users also had modems-a 300 baud model or a really advanced 14.4K baud Hayes Smartmodem-for conversing with each other on Internet bulletin boards. Lawyers, however, didn't really consider using modems until their clients demanded it. If you were an early adopter lawyer, you did some or all of your research online, dialing in to the computer-assisted legal research service of either Lexis or Westlaw. That required still more software training sessions.
      By then your desk had gotten a bit crowded, but the way you practiced law hadn't changed that much. In addition to word processing, maybe you started keeping time-and-billing entries in a spreadsheet program. Outside the law office, however, digital technology continued to grow and metastasize.
      Email began in the mid-'60s as a way for users of mainframe computers to communicate with each other. By the end of the decade researchers used the ARPANET, the ancestor of the Internet, to send messages across networks of computers. By 1973 email made up 75 percent of all ARPANET traffic. At the end of the decade CompuServe began offering email service to PC users. But in 1979-and even by 1989-most lawyers hadn't heard of ARPANET and were still leaving the office before dinnertime. Usually.
      Eventually, clients forced email onto the legal profession just as their use of Word had brought lawyers into the world of Windows and mice. By the mid-'90s even the older, big-firm guys had accepted the concept of a computerized legal practice.
      Crowded Pockets
      In the early '90s an early cell phone advertisement in California Lawyer pictured a successful lawyer holding a cell phone as he emerged from his home in the morning. The copy read, "Every day this attorney is earning money from the moment he leaves his driveway." Reality, however, was a bit more complicated. In 1988, for example, most of South-Central Los Angeles was one gigantic blank for cell phone coverage. In addition, early adopters' phone bills ran $200 to $300 a month.
      Over the next few years the number of carriers increased, and monthly bills fell. Now, in addition to the clutter on your desk at the office, your purse and pockets were filled with gadgets. In 1992 there were about 10 million cell phone subscribers. The same year, Strategy Analytics estimated that by the end of 2006 there would be 2.5 billion subscribers.
      Technology finally began to alter law practice. The cell phone, for example, made the era of 24/7 lawyering possible. Changes were also apparent in legal publishing, which was transformed by compact discs, cheap CD players, and the potential for online research.
      West was the official reporter for California, so you had that set of CD or online subscriptions and, perhaps, a few others that sounded good. In 2003 Lexis assumed duties as California's official reporter. By then you'd probably switched to online versions of these publishers' books, so you just added a subscription for California Official Reports to your Lexis account and removed it from your Westlaw account.
      Lawyers still hadn't given away their books, though, and at first stacks of Lexis and Westlaw CDs sat in their jewel cases next to a cache of blank CDs. In the early days of search engine development, practitioners read everything they could about Boolean logic, keywords, which reference source was easiest to use, and which one found the most relevant hits. Lawyers were printing out so much case law, they bought paper by the case.
      By the time the World Wide Web arrived in 1989, you'd been using the Internet as long as you'd had an email account. But when the University of Illinois introduced the Mosaic Web browser in 1992, you began to use it as the world's largest library. It took legal publishers several more years to improve their Web-based products. Because this was still in the era of long waiting times for dial-up Internet connections, a bottle of Maalox often sat next to the phone.
      By the end of the millennium, digital subscriber lines and cable modems provided broadband access wherever you went. The top of your desk now included a DSL or cable modem, and a router to connect it to the other office computers. And if you did much online videoconferencing, a webcam. Manuals for hardware and software filled a couple of desk drawers.
      Eventually, your professional life became as crowded as the surface of your desk. You were conducting online legal research, filling out online forms, and filing court documents online. You were producing and revising documents online, and communicating instantly with clients by email, cell phone, and BlackBerry.
      But your workday was constantly interrupted by videoconferences, midnight email, voice-mail messages from hysterical clients, and on-screen notices for scheduled backups of computer files. Your productivity was soaring-but you had a recurring nightmare that your pants pocket was ringing in the middle of your mother's funeral.
      21st Century Limited
      In the new millennium, the virtual desktop on your PC screen is more crowded than ever. It includes icons for launching a Web browser, email, online storage, Westlaw, LexisNexis, LoisLaw, California Judicial Council forms, e-filing programs, direct access to Web bookmarks, and a Voice Over IP logon for computer-based phone calls. Another group of icons is for so-called productivity applications: Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook; a form-filling program; a digital photo editor; an audio player for listening to recorded depositions; maybe even a time-and-billing program. Still another group contains shortcut icons for e-discovery services and a virtual document repository. And finally, another icon group is for security and spyware applications.
      All of these icons reflect changes in the work process. Most weren't initiated by lawyers but were forced upon them by clients who demanded greater speed, efficiency, and attention. Though I grouse a lot about broken hardware and inept software, I'm convinced that word processors, email, the Web, Lexis and Westlaw, electronic filing, and the rest of these innovations have made lawyers more productive. (The exception may be cell phones: As far as I'm concerned, everyone over the age of 24 should hand in their cell phones, or at least turn them off nights and weekends.)
      There is even hope for decluttering the surface of your desk. Microprocessors are now being built into keyboards, telephones, televisions, old-fashioned clipboards, bed pillows, and even pens. By the middle of this century, most people won't use a desktop or a laptop computer. They'll just write with their pens, on paper. I can't wait.
      Time Capsule Sidebar
      Time Capsule ? 1997
      Black Panther leader Elmore ?Geronimo? Pratt is acquitted of murder in a retrial after spending 25 years in prison.
      Ally McBeal, starring Calista Flockhart, premieres.
      ?American Jews as a whole?at least those kinds of American Jews who become lawyers?are beginning a decline that may bring a virtual end to the Jewish presence in the country by the middle of the coming century.? ?Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz
      Time Capsule ? 1998
      $1 trillion - Experts? cost estimate for litigation to arise from the so-called Y2K bug
      The city of San Francisco wins a $585 million settlement from the tobacco industry.
      Gray Davis is elected governor; Bill Lockyer is elected attorney general.
      The State Bar temporarily suspends investigating discipline complaints after losing most of its funding in a dispute with Gov. Pete Wilson.
      Theodore Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber, is sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty in a nearly two-decades-long mail-bomb campaign that killed three and injured 29.
      ?Congratulations, Mr. Starr! As a result of your callous disregard for cherished constitutional rights, you may have succeeded in unmasking a sexual relationship between two consenting adults.? ?Monica Lewinsky?s lawyer, William H. Ginsburg, in ?An Open Letter to Kenneth Starr,? published in California Lawyer
      Time Capsule ? 1999
      Gov. Gray Davis signs a 20-year compact with 58 of the state?s 108 federally recognized Indian tribes, giving them a statewide monopoly on slot machines.
      A suit on behalf of five plaintiffs, ages seven to nine, accuses the makers of Pokemon trading cards of violating the federal RICO Act by engendering addictive behavior among minors.

Annie Gausn

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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