June 01, 2015

Limping Along: Using Technology to Help Us Function

Jeffrey M. Allen

By now, most of you know that I have practiced law in and out of the office for a very long time and that I have considered myself a road warrior for most of my career. What most of you may not know is that as I got older, I developed some limitations that, in the politically correct parlance of our times, we refer to as a “disability” (no, I am not talking about my personality—that one has been around for an even longer time than my practice as a road warrior). As we get older, we all grow a bit less vital and a bit frailer. While our society has not yet reached the point of treating age formally as a disability, we have moved and continue to move in that direction.

Health has become an increasingly important concern to attorneys. Too many of us spend our younger years locked up in the office or working on the rood, without taking proper care of our bodies or watching the quality of our diet. As a result, we may acquire illnesses requiring special considerations and treatment. While genetics plays a role in this, as a general rule, those of us who fail the worst at taking care of ourselves tend to incur various diseases and suffer the consequences of those diseases at an increasingly younger age.

Over time, I have become aware of a variety of circumstances that pose threats to the practice of lawyers. These circumstances relate to physical and mental health, and they potentially impact lawyers who spend more time traveling than those who spend more time at home. The changes that I refer to sometimes happen dramatically and rapidly, but most of them sneak up on us over time. Many of them can start to impact us as younger lawyers and simply get worse over time.

As someone who spent most of his life abusing his body, I speak from experience. If I had made it a point to take better care of myself when I was a younger attorney, I would probably have fewer problems now.

Age itself might not yet qualify as a disability, but some of the conditions that we acquire as we age certainly do. As we age, some of us lose auditory and visual acuity. Some of us acquire illnesses that require special considerations and treatment. Some of us suffer from after-effects of illness, surgery, or accidents that leave us less able to function physically. Many of these conditions fall into the category of disabilities. When you recognize this, you realize that the legal profession now has a great many members who suffer from some level of disability. A significant number of these attorneys continue to practice in and out of their office. Many (most) of these attorneys benefit from the use of technology in their practices and with respect to their mobility. The technologies they use can also benefit attorneys and their families after the attorney retires from practice (assuming that the attorney ever does).

While I do have some issues related to age and the consequences of many years of not taking good care of myself, I consider myself fortunate in that my disability(ies) do not rise to the level of some of the other attorneys whom I have met.

My primary issue is difficulty with my sense of balance, a condition I acquired as a consequence of an illness. I use a cane and sometimes a dog to help me maintain my balance as I wander around in my role as a road warrior and in my personal life. Some time ago, I had surgery on my foot and spent several months in a motorized wheelchair while I healed from that surgery. That was an eye-opening experience, and it taught me a great deal about what it means to have to deal with a disability. I think many people would benefit in understanding and dealing with those suffering from some form of disability by putting themselves in a position to experience life from the perspective of a person with a disability. See how other people treat you, and you will likely learn to treat all disabled people with consideration. I know that I did.

The technology that helps me get around today, primarily a cane, does not represent high-tech anything with respect to functionality. People have been using versions of canes and walking sticks for thousands of years. Nevertheless, without it, I would have a much more serious mobility problem. The cane, a dog, and a wheeled briefcase (when I have to carry more than I can comfortably tote in a backpack or a shoulder bag) pretty much take care of what I need. The rest of it comes from the use of glasses (without which I would be pretty much finished as an attorney).

Glasses do not represent the highest level of technology these days; we have had them around for centuries. They are damned useful, however, as they can easily correct many vision issues that, uncorrected, could preclude someone from practicing law (or at least make it much more difficult to do so).

Another very common corrective device that in my experience gets much less use than it should—the hearing aid, which represents a much higher level of technology. Hearing aids have grown smaller and less intrusive in recent years, and many of them even come with Bluetooth capabilities, allowing them to interface with Bluetooth-enabled smartphones and function as an earphone both for phone calls and for streaming audio signals such as music, Internet radio, audio from films, and audiobooks. Many seniors do not like to admit that they have lost the ability to hear well, but the statistics reveal that, as we age, most of us lose some (sometimes a significant amount) of our auditory acuity. I have never understood why so many people willingly deal with glasses but resist using hearing aids. Perhaps they just do not appreciate how dysfunctional an attorney can become without the ability to clearly hear a client, opposing counsel, the judge, or a witness.

I have come across attorneys who cannot use a keyboard, either because they have lost the use of one or both arms or because they suffer from arthritis, or a nerve dysfunction. That disability could interfere with the ability of an attorney to work on the road, as the attorney could not perform many of the tasks we take for granted while on the road, unless he or she brought someone along to help. For the last 10–15 years, we have watched the evolution of technology to help people with such issues. That technology also makes things more convenient for people without any disability (as part of being politically correct, we let anyone benefit from technology; you don’t need to have a disability).

Many of you will remember HAL, the talking computer from Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi classic 2001: A space Odyssey. I don’t know about you, but ever since I saw that movie, I wanted a computer that could talk to me. We now have reached that point—we have mobile devices with that capacity. We can also go beyond tablets and smartphones and talk to our computers. If you have not yet tried voice-recognition software, I recommend that you do so. That technology can help lawyers who cannot use a keyboard effectively or efficiently for any reason, as well as those who cannot see. It can also help those without any disability.

When I first started looking at it, it had some major performance issues. Although still not perfect, it has evolved considerably in the last 10–15 years. The Dragon VR engine (now owned by Nuance) emerged as the king of the hill on both the Mac OS (Dragon Dictate) and Windows (Dragon NaturallySpeaking). The current iterations are version 13.0 for Windows and version 4.0 for the Mac. They also have apps for smartphones and tablets. Interestingly, they have more competition on the smartphone and tablet than anywhere else. These programs let you dictate to the computer and have it transcribe your dictation into text. They also allow you to give the computer instructions as to what windows or files to open, what boxes to click, etc. I do not yet know how much better the new versions are than the previous ones, but I expect to find out shortly as I have made arrangements to review them. Look for that review in an upcoming issue of GPSolo Magazine and/or GPSolo eReport.

We have seen the evolution of voice-recognition software that allows dictation of letters, briefs, memos, and even emails without touching a keyboard. These technologies benefit not only those suffering from the loss of an arm or hand or the loss of use of those limbs owing to a medical condition (such as disabling arthritis or a nerve disease) but also those who are blind. Interestingly, I just read an article on National Public Radio’s website about the impact of this technology on the blind. Although not new (it dates to 2012), the article makes some interesting points. The author, Megan Verlee, observes that many blind people have started to use this technology rather than braille and, over time, have lost the ability to use braille altogether (another case of “use it or lose it”). The article asserts that only 10 percent of today’s blind population is currently literate in braille. The article focuses on the importance of braille to enable the blind to function in business and to obtain and hold employment. I think the article is worth reading (you can find it on line at http://tinyurl.com/832hb8b). If you are interested in the subject, you might also want to check out an article I found on the website of the American Foundation for the Blind addressing the evolution of braille technology. It talks about technology designed to help blind or visually impaired people who read braille by offering them specialized equipment.

This article merely scratches the surface of technology available to help those with certain disabilities function effectively and efficiently in their personal and professional lives and even as road warriors. As time goes on, technology will continue to evolve, making more and more things available to help those who suffer from a condition such that they need that assistance.

Jeffrey M. Allen

Jeffrey M. Allen is the principal of Graves & Allen in Oakland, California. A frequent speaker and writer on technology topics, he is editor-in-chief of GPSolo magazine and GPSolo eReport, an editorial board member of the ABA Journal and Experience magazine, author of jallenlawtekblog.com, co-author of Technology Solutions for Today’s Lawyer (ABA 2013) and iPad® for Lawyers (West 2013), and a liaison to the ABA Standing Committee on Technology and Information Services. In addition to being licensed as an attorney in California, he has been admitted as a Solicitor of the Supreme Court of England and Wales. He is an associate professor at California State University of the East Bay. He also works extensively as an arbitrator and a mediator.