By Ernest Summers III
Faegre Baker Daniels
Looking back over my 30 years practicing law, it is an understatement to say there have been a number of dramatic changes in how we practice. I am sure there is no consensus on whether the changes, or which of them, have been for better or worse, but nobody can deny that practicing law is very different today than in 1980. Changes in technology, the organization of law firms and legal business practices have significantly affected the practice of law.
It may be easy to think about practicing law in a world with no cellphones, e-mail, text messages, video conferencing or Internet. It may be a little harder to think about practicing law without any word processing, voice mail or computers, but all of those tools have developed over the last 30 years with significant impacts on the speed of communication and information access and on productivity.
In the early 1980s, drafting and editing documents on memory typewriters was labor-intensive and slow compared to the speed at which documents can be created and changed today. Legal secretaries in the early 1980s spent much of their days answering the phones and handwriting messages from callers. As a result, only one or two attorneys' needs could be supported by a single legal secretary, in contrast to the multiple support assignments today. Back then, documents and edits were either written by hand or dictated on tape. The time and effort needed to make changes to a document, even for very small typographical errors, was substantial. There was no spell check, redlining or automated comparisons of changes between drafts and documents were proofread manually. Today, many lawyers type and edit their own documents. Technology checks spelling and compares changes from prior versions. Law firms have internal document management systems that allow them to store and retrieve relevant documents and pleadings forms at the touch of a button.
The "office" today has become a very fluid concept, expanding to include our homes, cars, hotel rooms and any other place where we can get a cellphone signal. We are generally accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Printed newspapers and printed "advance sheets," which were the primary sources of news and developments in law, have given way to electronic media that disseminates information instantly and to a larger audience.
E-mail allows simultaneous communication to a much larger and more geographically dispersed group than was imaginable when communication was limited to letters and phone calls. Information is disseminated much more widely and quickly than ever before, which can be very good, but it can also create its own pitfalls. "Reply All" means that a message intended for one person can be sent to countless others, increasing the number of incoming messages we all receive. "Reply All" can also result in private or privileged communications being inadvertently disclosed to unintended recipients. Electronic communications and data have created real problems in discovery burdens, document retention and document searches as courts struggle with the scope and expense of legitimate discovery.
Litigation efficiencies can be realized in terms of "paperless" litigation, including agreements for e-mail service, e-production of documents or imaging instead of photocopies and electronic document searching.
In the 1980s, a firm of 100 lawyers was considered a large firm, in contrast to the mega-firms of today, which include up to several thousand lawyers. Firms also tended to have offices in one or a few cities, whereas today, many firms have numerous offices with national and international presence.
Lawyers in both corporate legal departments and firms now have a greater tendency to concentrate their practices on a few industries, lines of business or practice areas than ever before. Personal relationships and firm relationships continue to be very important factors in the clients' decisions to engage counsel, but there is an increasing emphasis on engaging firms with specialized experience in very narrow areas. Similarly, the geographic presence of a local office has become a prominent factor in law firm selection. Conflicts of interests are a more frequent problem as firms grow in size and geographic reach.
Demographics have also changed significantly over the last 30 years with more diverse workforces at both clients and firms. Diversity is frequently specified as one of the important factors in employment decisions and in law firm engagement decisions.
Law firms and clients today have a much greater focus on the business aspects of practicing law. Core competence is just as important, but business practices have become a priority. Predictability and efficiency in legal spending have become high priorities too. Legal matter budgets were almost nonexistent 30 years ago, but have become commonplace and increasingly sophisticated. There is ever-increasing competition among law firms for legal business. There also seems to be a trend among clients to concentrate their legal matters in fewer firms that know their businesses and can handle a range of matters.
Law practice has changed in many ways and will continue to change. Most of the changes improved the speed and quality of the practice, but some present vexing challenges.