I find it truly amazing that the General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division (first called the Section of General Practice) came into the ABA a half century ago. I would say that it seems like only yesterday, but it really doesn’t. Even though I have been around the Division longer than almost everyone currently active in it, I did not start practicing law until 1973. For those of you who suffer from math issues, this means I will observe my 39th anniversary as an attorney this year. I will also observe the 39th anniversary of my membership in the Section (now Division) this year.
As the Section came into existence the same year I started high school, I cannot attest to personal knowledge of the issues affecting mobile lawyers in 1962. But as someone who has had a keen interest in technology since before I started high school, I do know the state of the art in the days of carbon paper and typewriters. As someone who actively worked as a mobile lawyer from 1973 to the present, I can track most of the evolution of the technology of mobile lawyering through the personal experiences of my own career.
When I started practicing in 1973, some law offices still used carbon paper as well as typewriters. My mentor in the practice had the idea that lawyers should lead the implementation of technology, rather than follow grudgingly behind, and we had both a photocopy machine and a word-processing machine (magnetic cards and no display), both state of the art and relatively new on the scene. They represented the height of technology in large and small firms. As far as helping the mobile lawyer, my first mobile lawyer tool kit consisted of a briefcase with a pad of paper, a paper calendar and address book, and a few writing implements. I preferred fountain pens to quills, even then. (Note, we had ballpoint pens for many years by then, and although I carried one for emergencies, I did not much like them.) I also kept a roll of dimes in my briefcase to use in pay phones, so that I could keep in contact with my office.
We had no laptop computers, smartphones, PDAs, or even cell phones in those days. By 1975 I had an MTS (mobile telephone system) and then an IMTS (improved mobile telephone system) in my car. That meant I drove around with a radio station in the trunk of the car. The San Francisco side of the bay had three stations available, as did the East Bay. Depending on where I drove, I had anywhere from one to five stations available to me. All functioned as party lines. To determine the availability of a station, you had to listen to it and see if someone else had a conversation going. Don’t even think about the issue of confidentiality, as none existed using the IMTS system. That’s why I also carried the roll of dimes.
As for those pay phones, you could find them everywhere—courthouses, office lobbies, hotel lobbies, stores, gas stations, even on the street.
We also had recording devices available to us back in the day. Not the small, sleek, digital devices that record for days on an SD card and weigh next to nothing, but fairly heavy, bulky, portable reel-to-reel (fortunately using small reels) devices that almost filled up a brief-case. By the time I started practicing, some clever soul had invented the cassette, and we had full-sized cassette recorders that took up far less space, but still had much more weight and bulk than the current recorders. Later, they came along with the mini- and micro-cassette recorders that could fit in a pocket. Although they had sizes similar to the current crop of micro-cassettes, these older models weighed considerably more, and the miniature cassettes only held enough tape for about 45 minutes of recording time. In their defense, I will say that those recorders generally had better audio quality than the initial magnetic card devices that later came out, but nowhere near the functionality or audio quality of the current crop of recorders.
I also kept a camera around. In those days, you could not get good pictures without at least a 35 mm SLR (single lens reflex) camera. The smaller and more portable cameras that would fit into your pocket used 110 film, which generally did not take pictures capable of blowing up into larger prints. Of course, we had no ability to upload pictures from camera to computers in those days. (Who had computers in their office in 1962?) When we started getting computers in the office in the 1970s, the computer equipment we had bore little resemblance to the fast, sleek devices we now have, and you could not reasonably refer to the first luggable computers as laptops; in fact, they dwarf many of today’s desktops. We used photographic film in those days and for many years afterward. The general availability of digital cameras did not start until the 1990s, and they did not equal the performance of film cameras until around 2000. Today we have high-quality digital point-and-shoot, SLR, and other types of cameras readily available with the ability to take high-quality, high-resolution pictures that we can easily print into large images, view on computer displays (or iPads or smartphones), or project electronically onto screens.
Speaking of electronic projections, those of us who did trial work back in the dark ages did not have projectors or document cameras to assist us in presenting information to the jury. In fact, we did not have computers to assist us in organizing and retrieving our data for presentation at trial, either. We did that manually.
In terms of preparation, we also did not have the ability to conduct full-bore legal research on the go when I first started practicing law—unless, of course, you counted using another firm’s law library or the county law library. In those days, research meant literally hitting the books. Online research is a much more recent phenomenon.
My mobile lawyer’s tool kit now takes up a bit more space than it did back in the day, but it does one heck of a lot more. It includes things that we did not even anticipate when I first started practicing law: cellular phones, iPads, incredibly fast and powerful laptop computers, document cameras, digital cameras, digital image projectors, digital recording devices, and sophisticated software programs to help us get the maximum use out of our computers, smartphones, and iPads (and similar devices). We also have the Internet and all that it brings to the party, including, without limitation, electronic mail, video webconferencing, full-bore legal research, and the ability to transmit and share vast quantities of information over large distances in little time. It also gives us the ability to transmit voice dictation files to our offices or outside agencies for transcription or documents for printing and/or filing. And, even better yet, cellular modems and wireless hot spots give us the ability to access the Internet on the go and from many places.
Even back-office work has benefited from mobile technology and the Internet. When I first started practicing law, the billing process was slow and laborious. We hand wrote billing tickets that clerical staff manually sorted and entered onto ledgers. The attorneys would get the ledgers and their billing slips and manually dictate invoices to the clients. Secretarial staff would transcribe the dictated billing and send out the bills. Today, we can enter billing into sophisticated online programs from laptops, tablets, or smartphones. In fact, I can generate my firm’s monthly bills in a matter of minutes from anywhere in the world, print them to PDF files, and e-mail them to my office for printing and mailing when necessary (some bills simply go to the clients by e-mail, while others get delivered by the U.S. Postal Service). In fact, I have done my firm’s monthly billing when several thousand miles away from my office on more than one occasion in the last year or two.
So, what does the evolution of mobile technology mean to the current generation of road warriors? It means that we can practice out of the office with virtually the same efficiency as we can practice in the office—something that we would never have believed possible 40 years ago.
Although we cannot credit the General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division with inventing the technology that has made it easier for us to practice law successfully and efficiently on the go, we can acknowledge that the Division has done a great deal to bring the knowledge of the available technology to its members so that they can more readily and easily avail themselves of all it has to offer.
Congratulations to the Division on its 50th anniversary. I won’t be around for its 100th anniversary, but I anticipate that the growth of technology over the next 50 years will vastly outpace the advances of the last 50 years, and that the innovations of technology will continue to influence and change the manner in which we practice law in and out of our offices.