June 01, 2013

The Leading Edge

Laurie Ristino

“Full warp speed ahead, Scotty.”
—Star Trek

Between 1884 and 1886 George Seurat painted A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte. The painting must have bewildered the general viewer at the time, painted as it was with a technique invented by the artist called “pointillism.” Pointillism is the use of tiny dots of color—which make little visual sense close up, but when one steps back a composed image emerges. Seurat’s technique was an exploration of color theory, the science of optics and perception. So, a charming scene of top-hats and parasols is inverted in a pixelated disruption, reflecting the immense changes wrought by industrialism.

When I step back and view my legal career, looking at its whole composition, I am struck by our current age of disruption. Twenty years ago as a new attorney for the Forest Service, I did not have email. The lawyers used the Forest Service’s decidedly non-user friendly system called the Data General. Discovery was a nightmare requiring the preservation of back-up tapes, which were generally not searchable. Incredibly, some attorneys still used typewriters. We drafted legal memoranda, which went through several reviews and revisions, at what now seems a quaint pace. The internet was an uninviting gopher used primarily by universities.

Fast forward to the new millennium and everything had changed. Actually, it was the technology that changed, but it dragged legal practice with it. Legal memos eventually became the exception, not the rule, as the client, Congress, and the public demanded answers in real-time. Information was more readily accessible through the Internet—and there was a lot of it. We needed to train our minds to take in more information, process it faster, and provide coherent advice—in an email or a conversation.

“The Age of Disruption” is a phrase used these days to describe the effects of technology on everything from journalism (the near demise of print media) to education (the use of distance learning to deliver content). Technology is a double-edged sword. It effectively kills certain ways of doing things while providing the means to do them differently. And in those moments of transition, society struggles with what collateral to take with it and what to leave behind. Sometimes the things we leave behind we regret. In response, we reach back to old ways of doing things. The sustainable food movement is one example of turning back the clock with a modern twist (social media to promote organic produce).

As we step back from our collective canvas, how has the age of disruption changed your client relationships? The nature of your legal advice? What changes have been beneficial?

What has been lost that you long to recapture?

Laurie Ristino

Laurie Ristino is the Director of the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems and an associate professor of law at the Vermont Law School. The views expressed in this column are solely the author’s own.