In the early '90s, I was called on to take the deposition of a cattle-feeding expert who lived in western Kansas, just over the border from Burlington, Colorado. There were two of us making the trip, and we sure didn't want to drive eight hours over wintry highways. And there were no commercial airports anywhere near Burlington.
So I got excited when co-counsel told me he had arranged for a private plane to take us there and back. It wasn't my first trip in a small airplane (a twin-engine prop), but it was close. In the sometimes humdrum world of a commercial litigator, it promised to be more fun than driving to Stapleton Airport (now DIA) and flying to Chicago.
I remember crowding into the cramped cockpit on a frosty morning and watching every step the gray-haired pilot made as he prepared to take off. After walking around the plane poking and prodding in various places, he took his seat up front. Just as we were about to take off, he flipped down a visor and reached for a worn, plastic card held there by several old rubber bands. Looking at the card, he began going through a litany of questions, which he answered himself. "Flight controls: Free and correct." "Ps and Ts: In the Green." "Radios, Nav Aids: Set." "Altimeter: Set." "Flaps: Set." "Transponder: On." "Throttle: Max power."
As he worked through the card and confirmed each instrument, two things hit me. First, this checklist was like the Miranda warning. He knew it by heart already. Second, he undoubtedly went through these motions exactly the same way every time he got in a plane-despite the fact that he had been flying for more than 30 years.
Sitting there, I realized that this wasn't about plastic cards or a list of well-known questions. It was about systems. Years ago, this then-young pilot had learned that the best way to become an old pilot was to use these types of check systems. He did it religiously, as do most pilots who last in what must be called a hazardous occupation.
Why Not a Legal Pre-Flight Plan?
Lawyering can be a hazardous occupation as well, but too few in the profession understand the importance of systems. I got caught with my pants down not long after that flight. I filed my witness and exhibit list on a Friday. But it was due the preceding Monday. The motion to strike exhibits and exclude witnesses closely followed my errant filing. I spent a sleepless night contemplating trying a case with no witnesses or exhibits.
Vowing never again, I realized I had no system in place for docketing deadlines. I had been using the Kentucky windage method-if trial was approaching, I knew I had better start thinking about deadlines. A proper system, however, would have every deadline verified by at least two people, me and my secretary, and in place long before the deadline approached.
So I built a simple system called EZ Docket using a computer and a simple database program. Whenever a pleading came in, my secretary entered a response deadline into the computer before I even saw the document. She also marked the date at the top of the first page so I would know that it was in the system.
This meant that each morning I could start the day by looking at my own pre-flight checklist. With the push of a button, I could see what was due that day as well as what was coming up. Most importantly, I knew that if my secretary and I carefully followed our system, there was no chance that some deadline would sneak up and bite me when I wasn't looking. What a relief.
It wasn't long before others in my office started using EZ Docket. Eventually we figured out how to connect the whole firm. But the lure wasn't about software or hardware or even about "technology." EZ Docket was merely a platform for a system, one that used properly would help us take off and land our legal plane safely. In my case, the driving force was the proliferation of nonintuitive deadlines that litigators face. For others, it was patents or regulatory filings or deal deadlines. The point was, and remains, the same: If you mess up, somebody will get hurt.
The Real Point of Technology
This is our technology issue and it heralds TECHSHOW®, the LPM Section's annual technology conference. As a long-time technology buff, I love seeing new gadgets and you can't keep me out of Chicago in April. But I don't come just for the technology; I come to learn about systems-how we might better systemize our practices.
The revolution is not about technology per se. ("Computers are as dumb as a box of rocks," my wife always says.) Rather, it is about using technology to improve our law practices. Thirty years ago, our Section's founders preached the virtues of "practical office systems," albeit paper-based, as a means to improve quality and efficiency. Today, computer technology can take those systems a step further, but don't lose sight of the real point. The only sure way to succeed as an old lawyer is to develop and use good systems while you are young. Technology can help, but it is just a tool. Nothing more.
John C. Tredennick, Jr. ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is a partner at Holland & Hart and CEO of CaseShare Systems, an Internet company building paperless systems for the legal and business communities.