How to Practice Law in a Barn

By Jack Dveirin

I spent my junior year of college at Edinburgh University in Scotland. Backpacking through the Scottish Highlands during school breaks taught me a valuable lesson about self-sufficiency, namely that you’d better carry everything you may need to provide for your survival—food, clothing, shelter. This advice proved unexpectedly handy on August 27, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina began threatening to visit New Orleans and I had 24 hours to pack my home and office into a car and flee. I knew that I might never again see anything I left behind.

My Electronic Moving Men

Packing your home or office usually involves a large truck and large men. I had neither, but I had my electronic movers. I had set up shop as a sole practitioner in 1985, using my first retainer to buy the biggest Smith Corona typewriter on the market. It was an electric memory typewriter, and expensive, but I wanted the best, most up-to-date technology. A while later I upgraded to the first Smith Corona word processor ever shipped to New Orleans. It had a 12-inch monitor and used removable disks. I thought I was on the cutting edge of law office technology until I heard that the biggest law firm in New Orleans used something called a scanner. This discovery coincided with a visit from a West Publishing salesman, who said I needed $20,000 to buy a law library. I was a little short (about $19,500), but I had read an article about West’s work using scanners to produce electronic versions of case reports on CD-ROMs. I told the West guy I didn’t have room for law books and would wait until Louisiana cases were scanned. Then I set out to learn what scanners and CD-ROMs actually were.

I had first heard about scanners during the summer of 1974 at a student science training program I attended after my sophomore year of high school. A professor there explained that one day, scanners would add up prices in grocery stores. The excitement that concept aroused was lost on me. During the mid-1980s, I spent a long time trying to understand how documents could be transmitted over a telephone line. I never figured out how a fax machine does that. But I learned I don’t need to know how an electronic device works—I just need to know what it can do for me and what it costs. Eventually I learned what scanners could do. I also learned they, too, cost $20,000.

In the early 1990s, I was co-counsel in a civil rights case with a lawyer more than 30 years my senior. He had a huge IBM computer. He asked me if I knew anything about scanning. I found a copy of Computers for Lawyers that had a chapter on scanning. Now I was excited! I read that a scanner (which had by now dropped in price to under $2,000) could use optical character recognition (OCR) software to enter a document into a computer. I was accustomed to retyping 15-page documents to make even minimal changes.

At this point, I started making regular trips to the library to copy magazine articles on every piece of computer hardware I was interested in. I created two notebooks for the articles, organized by device. I bought a Mac IIci (and upgraded the RAM to 10 MB!), an external hard drive, a tape backup drive, a 15-inch color pivot monitor, a color inkjet and a laser printer, an HP Scanjet IIc, a three-button mouse, and WordPerfect and OmniPage Pro software. Soon, lawyers started noticing I could do things their offices could not. I received multipage documents and sent back revised drafts in less than an hour. My pleadings contained color pictures; my letters contained images I’d inserted into the text. I used color graphics in court. I became a tech guru and was asked to speak at CLE seminars on computerizing the small law office.

In the time between my Smith Corona word processor and my first computer system, I learned how vulnerable law office files can be. An apartment above my office at the time was rented to recent college graduates who had come to teach in New Orleans as part of Teach for America, which targeted inner-city schools. One of the students left her contact lens heater on her bed, plugged in, and it eventually ignited the linens. Soon a fire raged above my head while I sat reading cases in the conference room. The landlady, who happened to be driving by, rang the bell. I looked outside and saw flames shooting from above the conference room. The landlady grabbed my cocker spaniel (office mascot) and drove her to safety. I grabbed file cabinet drawers full of files and electronic equipment during as many trips in and out of the building as I could muster before smoke made me quit. The ceiling over the conference room crashed down. After that, I started keeping a duplicate set of word-processor disks off-site.

My first computer system was atypical—the Mac IIci, its internal and external hard drives, the monitor, and the scanner still work today. Subsequent computers, hard drives, and monitors have come and gone. The general computer rule is there are two types of hard drives: Those that have crashed and those that will crash. My rule, therefore, is that all electronic equipment must be redundant. If a computer, hard drive, monitor, or printer dies, we say Kaddish real quick and grab another one. My certified paralegal and I each have desktop and portable computers. We have multiple external hard drives for backups. We keep a copy of essential data files on the portables. We scan incoming documents and save them as PDF files. Electronic copies of all files are kept on the hard drives, organized as we would paper files. A backup is kept in a safety deposit box—which seemed like security until August 29, 2005.

Katrina and Chaos

The night of August 27, after the order to evacuate New Orleans had been given, I made a list of what office materials I would try to fit in the car. Weather forecasters had talked for years about the possibility of ten or more feet of water covering New Orleans, but I had never before evacuated for a hurricane. Once, I had boarded up my second-story bedroom and ridden out a hurricane with food, water, and an axe in case I needed to get out through the roof. But Katrina looked bad, real bad. I packed two portable computers, an external hard drive, a printer, and all my software CDs. We left the city at 2:00 PM on August 28; it took us nine hours to get across Lake Pontchartrain—about 30 miles. A few hours later, I silently did the math. We were averaging seven miles per hour. At that rate, we would die on the interstate when Katrina hit. At some point, traffic finally started moving faster, and we made it to Prattville, Alabama, at 5:30 AM on August 29. Katrina began laying waste to the Gulf Coast less than two hours later.

On Monday, August 29, while uncertainties about my home and office loomed in my mind, I recalled I had a filing deadline on a case. The desk in my room at the Days Inn became my new office. I set up my portable iBook but discovered I needed an Ethernet cable to access the DSL. I learned that Wal-Mart sells computer cables. Then I did my work. I didn’t have my desktop computer with its two large monitors and laser printer, but I had my files on the hard drive of my iBook and a portable inkjet printer.

The news reports were not good—New Orleans was flooding. It would be almost a month before I would get any word about the fate of my home and office. After eight days in the hotel, we drove to South Carolina to stay with family. At that point, we did not know we were in the early days of a nearly two-month odyssey, during which we stayed in an apartment for one week, in a “barn” (nicer than it sounds) in Laurens, South Carolina, for a while, and in hotels in Greenville and Charleston, South Carolina, and Meridian, Mississippi. I was glad I still had dial-up with AOL, because the barn had no DSL. I was glad I had wireless capability in the hotels that had wireless Internet access. The uncertainty over so many things was stressful, but I was able to stay in touch with my clients and perform essential work while I looked for a health department that would administer inoculations recommended by the Center for Disease Control before I returned home.

In late October, I returned to New Orleans. Eighty percent of the city had flooded. I was one of the lucky ones: The flood waters had stopped four blocks from my office in two directions. A chimney had crashed through the slate roof, causing significant water damage to both floors. The computer system had gone haywire. The bank that held my backups in a safety deposit box was closed. The stench and coffin flies defied description. I learned how to gas up a generator. (As anyone in “Katrinaland” can tell you, all generators are not created equal—Honda’s “inverter technology” models are surprisingly quiet and prevent surging of electronic devices.) When I wanted a fallen tree removed, I bought a chainsaw. Insurance was slow to respond. Restoration was slower than molasses. A diminished population means fewer potential clients. I wondered if anyone would come after my office was finally fixed.

Revitalization

Antoine’s Restaurant in the French Quarter reopened for New Year’s Eve. The maître d’ for 43 years, a beloved figure, had died when his home flooded during Katrina. My waiter of many years had not been heard from. More than 22,000 bottles of wine in the restaurant’s renowned wine cellar were ruined. I forced myself to go to Antoine’s for dinner and to a party in the Pontabla Building at Jackson Square. Insurance money had finally started to arrive in late December. I began 2006 with hope.

I soon learned my only sibling, a seventh-grade English teacher in Dallas, was terminally ill. Katrina restoration was no longer my priority. I began a series of extended visits to Dallas to be with my sister. She had DSL in her apartment, which became my satellite office. I spent long days in a series of hospitals with my sister. Very early each morning and very late each night, I did my work in her apartment. I was accustomed to working like that after my Katrina odyssey.

Katrina makes me feel as if I lost a year of my life, but losing my sister was far worse. If I had not been able to practice law from hotel rooms, a barn, and apartments, I probably would have lost my law practice, too. I am thankful to still have the privilege of running a thriving law office in Uptown New Orleans, and to all those who have written articles and books to explain the technology that enables me to do so.

Jack Dveirin practices civil litigation, including family law, personal injury, and civil rights, as a solo in New Orleans, Louisiana. He can be reached at jdveirin@aol.com.

Copyright 2006

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