Having practiced law for 35 years, I have seen a lot of cutting-edge equipment come and go, along with a host of hot new trends in the practice of law. My first job was in a small general practice in Albany, Oregon, in 1977. The office, equipment, communication techniques, and nature of the general practice today is far different than it was 35 years ago—let alone the 50 years since the founding in 1962 of the ABA Section of General Practice (now the General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division).
Not gone but becoming a dinosaur is the office suite or freestanding office building of the general practitioner. Formerly, this suite or building would be replete with the attorney office or offices, reception area, law library, file room, and space for secretary/support staff that executed a variety of functions. The general practitioner’s office today is likely an office in an executive suite where a number of independent attorneys share the services of a receptionist and/or a secretary, or share only the space itself. Just as likely, the practitioner may not have an office at all but rather may be mobile or practice from his or her home. Answering services, the virtual receptionist, and other such services replace staff.
Today’s electronic devices, such as laptop and desktop computers, iPhones, iPads, printers, and copiers, make the equipment available when I began practicing law unfathomable to younger attorneys. I remember using carbon paper—honestly—and the IBM Selectric typewriter was thought to be a wondrous thing. Attorneys used to jokingly predict that they would expire at their desks with a Dictaphone in their hand. Now, someone in that predicament is more likely to be face down on the keyboard with little waffle marks all over her face. Whatever a practitioner’s favorite electronics, there is no doubt that today’s electronics have revolutionized the way we practice law.
Voice mail, e-mail, texting, tweeting, faxing, the social media—all make communication nearly instantaneous. No phone goes unanswered in the law office today; some answering device will pick it up and provide the opportunity to leave a message. Who could have foreseen that mail—the U.S. Postal Service kind—would be derogatorily called “snail mail,” or that the post office would have such competition from e-mail. Practitioners today certainly have an easier time communicating with clients and colleagues than previously.
There was a time, perhaps 20 to 25 years ago, when many practitioners did not have a fax machine. You were actually in the forefront if you did have one. Remember the slick paper that came in a roll and faded over time? Remember the rolled-up copies? Now we can fax from our computer and store and retrieve it from our computer. What an improvement.
Continuing Legal Education
Whether it is maintaining competency in a practice area with which you are already familiar or learning new kinds of claims and legal theories, practitioners currently have nearly unlimited resources for continuing legal education. Where we once spent hours and hours pouring over treatises, reporters, and case books in the law library, we now educate ourselves at our desks or anywhere that we have access to the Internet. We may spend just as much time, but we’re capable of learning much more and doing so more efficiently and under far more convenient circumstances.
Fifty years ago, my home state of Oregon, like most states, did not have a mandatory continuing legal education requirement. Today, Oregon, like most states, does have mandatory CLE and CLE reporting. The myriad CLE topics, the frequency of the programs, the vast number of CLE providers, and the expertise of the presenters give practitioners fabulous opportunities for continuing legal education. Some of the educational programs are very expensive, some are outside the financial resources of the general, solo, or small firm practitioner, but there are lots of opportunities for every practitioner, nonetheless.
Obtaining CLE has never been easier or more convenient. We formerly were required to travel to one location for a live program or a video replay, but today CLE is available at our desks or at our computer, wherever that may be. State bar associations are increasingly recognizing and accrediting distance education in satisfaction of CLE requirements.
One ingredient in the mix has not changed over the last 50 years, however: the human element. There is much to be learned from colleagues who have been there and done that, or who are doing it every day. A mentor, a generous colleague, a partner, or an associate who is willing to help educate or help one learn the ropes is invaluable. That holds true whether you are learning practice and procedure, getting a feel for a new practice area, or just finding your way around the courtroom. In my first legal job, the practice had four senior partners who had more than 100 years of practice experience between them. What an education to watch and listen to these wise lawyers. Most lawyers, then and now, are generous with their time and energy to help a colleague perfect a skill or gain expertise.
The Changing Face of GP
I would be remiss not to mention one facet of practice that has changed: There are many more women practicing today than 50, 35, even 20 years ago. There is still a long way to go to achieve full diversity in the profession, in more aspects than sheer numbers. But the number of women in the law has, at least, increased exponentially while I have been practicing law. There were not very many women in my law class or sitting for the bar exam. The four senior partners at my first firm, as well as the other three associates, were men. In fact, I was the first woman in private practice in that county, a circumstance that provided some comic moments and some that made me grit my teeth.
But the dearth of women in practice has changed. It has changed in the profession and it has changed in the Section of General Practice/General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division. As recently as the mid-1980s, there were not very many women in the Section, especially not in leadership positions. (Not until 1999, the Section’s 37th year, did I become its first female Chair.) The Division is curing that. A third woman chairs the Division in this, our anniversary year, and two more wait in line.
Looking Toward Tomorrow
As the practice of law goes forward, change is inevitable. The way we communicate and the devices we use to practice and communicate will continue to evolve. Practice and procedure will be more streamlined. Hopefully, the collegiality, the expertise, and the diversity in the profession, in general practice, and in our Division will not change, but will grow and thrive during the next 50 years.