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Quick glance at lightning-speed changes in law | Ken Hill

Tuesday, October 05, 2021 @ 10:04 AM | By Ken Hill

Ken Hill %>
Ken Hill
In November 2020, I wrote an article in this space about how COVID-19 is forcing change and the acceptance of new uses of technology in the justice system and the practice of law. Since then, I am sure we have all heard a few stories of mishaps, such as the Texas “cat-faced” lawyer and the one I heard from counsel at an online hearing, about an expert witness pushing back from his desk to retrieve material while giving evidence, only to reveal to all the fact that he had not bothered to put on pants that morning. 

This got me thinking about some of the technological changes I witnessed during 40 years of legal practice. Starting out in the stone age of the late 1970s, things were pretty “analogue.” A cutting-edge law office had telephones with more than one line and the newest typewriters had the ability to do corrections right on the original. Nice, but what about the carbon copies? Well, some offices had photocopiers. There was no voice mail, so beside each phone there sat a “toad-stabber” where pink or yellow notes of phone messages lay in wait each time you passed your secretary’s desk. Yes, they were called secretaries in those days —  nary an “assistant” to be found. 

There was plenty of time between most written communications since lawyers usually dictated their letters, which would be typed up in a day or two, often sent back for corrections, retyped and then the missives spent a day or more actually being physically carried to the recipient.

Some technology came into prominence only to disappear during my time in practice. Here is a sequence of the kinds of questions heard over the span of a few short years, concerning a certain revolutionary piece of technology:

“Did you know that you can send a document instantly through the telephone lines?”

“Do you have a fax machine?”

“Why don’t you have a fax machine?”

“Are you still using a fax machine!?”

Do you remember recesses at multiparty hearings or trials, when there would be a rush of counsel out of the courtroom, toward any adjacent public telephone? There you would be, standing in line, palms sweating with the anxiety of not knowing if you would get a chance to contact the office (perhaps to ask your student to look up a case, copy it in triplicate and rush it over in person) before you had to hustle back into court.

Would it be better to leave the courthouse in search of a nearby payphone? By the way, do they still have public payphones these days? Then one fine day you noticed the cool counsel, casually strolling out of the courtroom, calmly chatting on their very own mobile phone. I bet they previously had a pager! How did we ever get along without the mobile phone — which is now the Swiss Army Knife of everyday life? 

A few decades ago, a law firm’s value was based in large measure on two factors: 1) the number of wills in its vault and 2) the extent of its library. The wills implied a goldmine of future estate administration work, while the library was the engine of legal research. Believe it or not, lawyers used to bring bound volumes of law reports into court, until the spread of photocopying enabled the printing of a copious number of cases. Now those dusty shelves of law reports and encyclopedic digests have been rendered more of a burden than an asset, since the Internet allows access to a cornucopia of legal knowledge and precedent, which you can access right from your desk or even while sitting on the throne. But do old lawyers miss the slightly musty smell of a vintage volume of the O.R.s or W.W.R.s?   

And what could be more revolutionary than e-mail? Overnight it transformed communication — for better and for worse. A written offer, question or demand could now be sent at the speed of light, but a responding volley could just as easily fly back at you within nanoseconds. I grew to love e-mail but it sometimes made me nostalgic for the days when I could rattle off a number of letters into a dictaphone, and sit back, knowing that there would be plenty of time to think about my next clever moves before the responding letters arrived — no sooner than a few days later.

But that’s just an old guy’s nostalgia talking. I have no doubt that on balance the efficiencies offered by the new technologies far outweigh the drawbacks and, like it or not, evolution is a one-way street. 

Ken Hill is happily retired from just about 40 years of litigation practice in Newmarket, Ont.

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