I love doing a retrospective. When I was a young lawyer, my mentor and employer had 38 more years of experience than I did. He used to love telling us about how the practice of law had changed since he first hung out his shingle. Last December I observed the 38th anniversary of getting sworn in as an attorney. I figure that type of longevity gives me certain storytelling rights.
Working as a mobile lawyer in the 1970s bears little resemblance to the mobile practices of today. I will explore those differences with you, as the discussion will help you appreciate how much better we, as mobile lawyers, have it now than we did 40 years ago. I will also don my Nostradamus cap for a few paragraphs and prognosticate about how we can expect to see mobility in the practice change in the near future.
In the Beginning
Forty years ago we had limited ability to practice as mobile lawyers. Work out of the office consisted primarily of depositions, trials, law, and motion appearances and meetings. We had no laptop computers, smartphones, tablet computers, portable printers, portable scanners, document cameras, or even pocketable telephones. “Mobile phones” consisted of a radio station in the trunk of your car and shared “party” lines with no privacy. If you did not have one of those (and they were expensive), you used a pay phone or a landline phone in someone else’s office or home to make a phone call. We had no ability to send text messages. The best we could do was carry a pager that would let us know someone wanted to talk to us.
If we wanted to work on a document, we had to do it longhand. If a task involved legal research, we had to copy the pages from a book and bring them with us or go to a law library and get them; we had no online legal research available to us. In fact, we had no “online,” period!
We Enter the Digital Age
By the early 1980s we had started to enter the computer age. We still had no laptop computers, but we had luggables (suitcase-sized) such as the Osborne and the Otrona Attaché. Luggable computers gave us some ability to function on the road respecting document preparation, but they proved very limited. We still lacked the online research facilities currently available. The 1980s also saw the beginning of the mobile telephone. My first truly mobile telephone had the size and weight of a brick. The battery weighed almost half a pound and held about a 30-minute charge. I carried three, one on the phone and two extras. The package weighed about four pounds. The charger added another pound. The phone had a limited range and mediocre reception, but was truly mobile. It could not do anything but make and receive phone calls. Although four pounds sounds like a lot for a phone by today’s standards, it represented the state of the art in the early 1980s.
By the mid-1990s telephones started shrinking in size and weight and adding features. They weren’t yet what we would call “smart,” but they were less dumb than earlier models. By the end of the 1990s we had the PalmPilot and the beginning of a new era of data mobility. The Pilot kept contact, calendar, and other information and played games. The evolution of devices such as the PalmPilot and its marriage to the telephone gave birth to the progenitors of the smartphone. This decade saw the beginning of battery-powered laptop computers. Not as light, sleek, or powerful as today’s models, they gave us the ability to do more work on the road. Accessing what there was of the Internet remained problematic and slow. We used a modem across a telephone line for connecting. In truth, it really did not make that much difference, as we didn’t have much to connect to in those days.
The last 15 years saw computers grow smaller, lighter, more portable, and more powerful. We almost all have smartphones (by the 1990s standards we should call them “genius phones”). Today we can access a vast array of information and entertainment through the Internet. We have better and more powerful library facilities available than we ever had before, accessible from anywhere we have an Internet connection. Electronic storage and cloud storage allow us the ability to carry a vast amount of information with us in very small packages or store it in the cloud.
We have achieved true mobility in our practices. In most cases, we can work as efficiently out of the office as we can in the office. We have virtually all our tools available to us out of the office, including a law library. Although we may have support personnel that we do not take with us on the road, we take with us the ability to easily communicate with that personnel. The evolution of technology has made more and more attorneys mobile in their practices and created the ability for attorneys to telecommute and/or work in a virtual office environment.
A Glimpse of the Future
So, where does technology take us next? I predict, with considerable confidence, that we will continue to see the means of access to information improve. We will have faster access to more information, using more powerful and lighter devices. We have already seen a shift from laptop computers toward the use of lighter and more portable slate or tablet devices with longer-lasting batteries and high-speed Internet access. These devices do not yet have the power of a laptop computer, but they will in the not-too-distant future. Likely by the time this happens, we will have even smaller devices available, including glasses that contain a viewing screen wirelessly connected to a pocketable device (perhaps the size of today’s smartphones) working off of a voice-activated interface instead of a keyboard and offering memory, speed, and storage capacity comparable to today’s best laptops. Likely these devices will also include telephonic capabilities as well as the ability to access the Internet at high speeds, giving us an all-in-one device that will service our mobility even more.
The increasing mobility of our society and the freedom created by technological innovation will likely increase the number of attorneys practicing out of virtual law offices rather than traditional bricks-and-mortar facilities. Our increasing mobility will likely increase the frequency of attorneys and legal support staff telecommuting as they become more and more efficient outside the office.
Likely most non-trial court appearances will take place using videoconferencing for the convenience of all concerned and to save clients the cost of their attorneys’ traveling to the courthouse and sitting around waiting for the court to handle other matters. We may even see many, if not most, depositions handled by videoconferencing as well.
Technology has already had a major impact on trial work and will likely cause changes in the future. We have largely moved to electronic presentation of evidence and the use of television monitors or projectors and screens rather than passing a picture or a document around the jury box. We have moved from using legal pads and notebooks to notebook computers and now to tablets. I can foresee that in the not-too-distant future, we will not bother with television monitors or projection screens. Rather we will hand out tablet devices to opposing counsel, the court, and the jurors and use software to direct the presentation of our evidence as well as PowerPoint presentations using software and wireless connections inside the courtroom.
Simply put, the evolution (the changing face) of technology has created a truly mobile lawyer and made it possible for all lawyers to work more effectively and efficiently in and out of their offices. Count on the fact that the future will offer more evolution and better assistance to attorneys in their practice. Properly used, technology can produce great efficiency and work as an equalizer, offsetting some of the advantages that a larger staff would provide.