The Disconnected Lawyer

Vol. 28 No. 4

By

Steve Andersen practices criminal defense in Montana City, Montana. He can be reached at andersen@montanacitylaw.com, but it may be a day or two before he responds.

 

As a sole practitioner in a state where cows outnumber people, I’m constantly reminded of how fortunate I am to live and practice law in Montana. Our office building in Montana City—don’t be misled by the “city” part—is cradled between the Elk Horn and the Big Belt Mountain ranges that merge in a dramatic defining point in the Missouri River Valley just east of our continental divide.

On any given day, I can expect to see big game species such as elk, deer, and antelope with their noses to the ground maximizing their caloric intake. Coyotes and foxes dart across fields and between the other humble businesses in a search for the next field mouse, vole, or shrew that isn’t paying attention. A small pack of grey wolves trotted over a nearby wooded knoll recently. Bald eagles glide by from time to time, and Canada geese honk as they head for ancient breeding grounds on the Big Mo. Songbirds of all sorts land in the quaking aspens that stand tall near the windows of my upper-floor perch. The panorama of snow-draped mountains offset by the amber foreground of stubble wheat fields is a collage of color and light that at times defies reality. Change is constant.

Those of us who live and practice in Big Sky Country insist on a slower, more deliberate lifestyle. We choose to endure brief summer seasons where growing plump red tomatoes requires a greenhouse, and winter can give us the back of its hand with a swat that stings at 40 degrees below zero. We enjoy greeting our colleagues by their first names, and we take comfort in the relaxed atmosphere of our courtrooms where it’s okay to wear sports jackets, khakis, and Western boots. We drive pickup trucks to court where our judges frequently use our first names—on the record. We have no metal detectors to pass through. Law and motion takes only an hour or so. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Yet even country lawyers are not immune to the technological sea change that has engulfed the profession and demands us to change, to hurry, to do more. The streaming deluge of new electronic gadgets continues to cascade down on us like Yellowstone Falls during spring runoff. The market demands that we buy the latest and greatest, urging us to stare at another screen, tap another keyboard, or even tap a screen. We have cell phones, iPhones, iPads, BlackBerries, Droids. Already we have iPad 2. We e-mail, text, and tweet. It’s instant communication, with volumes of information at our fingertips. We pride ourselves on our ability to multitask at the highest level, the circus equivalent of juggling a bowling ball, a chainsaw, and a feather while hopping on one foot. Researchers claim that today’s high school students send and receive an average of 17,000 text messages per month on their cell phones. That’s more than 500 per day. The time we spend staring at LED screens, from the miniscule to the magnum, has increased exponentially. As a result, we tend to expect more and more of ourselves—to do things faster and to manage several tasks at once, and then to move on as quickly as possible.

But are we forgetting what it’s like to take our time and to think, process, and create? To do one thing at a time? To do it well? And to actually enjoy it? Studies show that the frenetic techno-wave to which we’ve been subjected—and to which we eagerly overindulge—is changing the way our brains function. Our attention spans have shortened. Our creativity has diminished. Our patience has thinned. Are we less civil toward each other as a result?

The lack of civility in our modern legal profession—an issue that many have raised recently—might be traced to our dependence on all the gizmos we use. We rely on symbols, snippets, and phrases that breed virtual relationships, rather than face-to-face meetings, letters, or even phone calls that remind us that our colleagues are flesh and blood. It may be easy for some lawyers to be short and even rude to their adversaries in an e-mail, text, or tweet. But it’s not so easy when we have to write a message by hand, or sit down, look each other in the eye, and first ask, “How are you?” And mean it. The veteran lawyers I know and for whom I have the deepest respect all seem to agree: Lawyers were nicer to each other in the old days. Because we can process more work with the help of our gadgets, we’ve increased our caseloads—but at our own peril. For we know an ever-increasing caseload is inversely proportional to the quality of our work and our professional well-being. More is less.

A decline in mutual respect between colleagues is not relegated to the legal profession. After the tragedy in Arizona, politicians and pundits alike professed the need to improve our public discourse, virtually blaming the tragedy on our electronic trash talking and the nasty atmosphere in Congress. Yet who can deny the raw power of the electronic social media to bring about dynamic change on an unprecedented scale? The breathtaking revolution that’s sweeping the Middle East is due in part to the Internet, where thousands of young protesters stand in awe of the privileges available to citizens of distant democracies. Authoritarian regimes across the globe are reportedly realizing that to maintain their tyrannies they must control the Internet with propaganda rather than make a futile attempt to snuff it out. Even they know it’s too late for that. Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter pose a tremendous threat to dictators who have always relied on keeping their subjects—especially the younger ones—unplugged and unaware.

Next to my computer sits a matte black Underwood Standard typewriter circa 1943. It’s an impressive 20-pound behemoth with a high-rise carriage that reminds me of simpler times. Thankfully, I never had to practice law back then because I can’t imagine pecking away—it’d be more like pounding away—on those stiff, steel keys when I have a big brief due. I envision tearing erasable bond from the black roller with a rrrrrrripppp and throwing another crumpled page into an overflowing green metal trash can while the clock ticks away. The onetime metal marvel reminds me that the pace of things was slower once. And in some ways, maybe better.

A new client came to my office recently after being charged with several felonies that threatened huge fines and life in prison. He was distressed and racked with worry. He sat down and we began an honest dialogue about the various directions his case could go and what I might be able to do to help. I was in the middle of explaining a critical point of law pertaining to his case when his cell phone rang. Without hesitating, he answered. Hello? Hey . . . Yeah I know . . . Does she know? Really? Would you tell her for me? I’m not really sure . . . Okay . . . I’m in the lawyer’s office right now . . . I gotta go . . . I’ll call you later though . . . Okay . . . Yep . . . Bye. He looked up with an expression that said, Okay, you may continue now. By answering his phone at that moment, my client may have attained some measure of comfort in the face of an enormous personal crisis. But isn’t that why he came to see me in the first place? Do I need a cell phone symbol with a red line through it hanging on my door? Our reflexes have been so conditioned to respond to myriad electronic stimuli that we jump at any ring, beep, or buzz, like the subject in a contemporary Pavlovian lab experiment.

I’m no different, though. I check e-mail when I’m away from the office. But I don’t really need to. I answer my cell phone when I’m away from the office. But I don’t really need to. I talk when I’m driving. But I don’t really need to. I’ve dropped my phone and spilled my coffee and swerved all over the road like I had just thrown back three Irish Car Bombs at Riley’s Pub—all in an effort to stay plugged-in and connected. And even worse, my cell phone has rung in court.

But I worry. What if I miss an important call? What if I miss a new case? What if they go somewhere else? What if? What if? What if? I’m fretting that I won’t keep up. That I won’t stay in touch. That I’ll miss something. Miss what? Uh, I don’t know, maybe . . . life? Oh, yeah. I’m missing something alright. I’m missing life. And yet by today’s standards, I’m stuck in the early Paleolithic Age. I still use a black academic calendar and a mechanical pencil. I’m shivering in my cave and chipping away at a stone club while my colleagues huddle around something bright and warm, and tear into the roast beast they just killed with their shiny steel spears.

So I did an experiment of my own. I took a deep breath and left my cell phone home one day. When I got to the office, I turned my desk phone off. I even ignored my messages. I refused to turn on my computer and check e-mail. I unplugged. I disconnected. I waited. Nothing happened. I worried. I took a sip of coffee. Still nothing. I fretted. I opened a case file. Nothing. And then, I started to relax a bit. I looked out the window just in time to see a young mule deer buck bound across the road. I took another satisfying breath and stretched. I relaxed a bit more. I grabbed a good old-fashioned Number 2 Ticonderoga—no modern mechanical pencils for me. I was going cold turkey.

I started taking notes on a yellow pad for a brief I needed to prepare. I wrote, read, thought, and wrote some more. I chewed lightly on the end of my pencil and studied the icy peaks of the Elk Horns as the morning sun drenched the ridges in a prism of fresh light. I pulled case law from real books. My thought patterns slowed and the finer points of legal arguments had time to steep in the pool of my consciousness. Thorny legal issues practically sorted themselves out. The law, I rediscovered, can be captivating. By five o’clock I was relaxed and satisfied with the notion that I’m not really all that important. I hadn’t spoken with anyone, checked any devices, or stared at any screens. And I was more productive than I had been for some time. I knew I’d ease out of my time warp and rejoin the Connected Age—to a degree anyway—but I vowed to downshift and enjoy the privilege of practicing law and the pleasure of living life. On my way out, before turning off the light, I glanced at the old Underwood. Less is more.

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