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April 29, 2024 View from the Chair

Human Interactions and Communications in the Legal Profession

Loren D. Podwill

The need for human interactions and communications is embedded in humans. While artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are becoming increasingly more prevalent in society and in the legal profession, human interactions with clients, opposing counsel, judges, and juries, in my experience and opinion, will remain critical to a successful and fulfilling legal practice and career.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favor of innovation and tools that add efficiency and time savings, cost savings, and reliability to the practice of law. I remember with mixed emotions my early years of legal practice starting in 1984, spending days in the law library using the keyword indexes, topical digest, and state and federal digests to identify scores of potentially relevant cases and statutes that I read, photocopied, highlighted, tabbed, and Shepardized, with the pile of books getting bigger and bigger over the days, and then smaller and smaller until I identified the key relevant cases and statutes that I would then summarize and start working into a brief or memo. The feeling of satisfaction when I finished my research days later and returned the books to the shelves and cleaned the table was enormous. Years later, of course, Westlaw and other research programs significantly reduced the research time.

Then there was the drafting of the memo or brief, which was generally done by dictation onto a small audiotape that I would drop off at our word processing department. A few days later, I would get the draft back, which I would hand edit and return to word processing for further revisions, and after a couple rounds of this, a finished product!

Today, what may have taken a week of research and then another week or so of drafting can be accomplished in far less time and soon even faster using current and soon to be available AI technologies.

While this process has changed for the better and will continue to improve with new technologies, what hasn’t changed is the need for human interactions and communications within the profession. Early in my career, I learned the importance of good professional and social interactions with opposing counsel, clients, and others I was dealing with. Let me share a few examples.

I defended an aviation consulting firm in a $50 million lawsuit alleging losses incurred by the Public Employee Retirement Fund in an investment gone bad in an airplane maintenance facility. The fund’s lawyer was probably the most experienced and successful lawyer in our city at the time, with a larger-than-life reputation and ego. For over a year, we traveled around the country taking and defending depositions, zealously representing our respective clients. Early on, we learned that we both loved baseball, and the fund’s counsel invited me to attend an MLB game one evening. I happily accepted. Over the next year, we attended games in about 15 different cities. While we were both tough and relentless during the daily depositions, we developed a professional relationship and mutual respect during our evening baseball game outings. I eventually negotiated a fair settlement for my client in a difficult mediation that was aided by the trust and mutual respect we had developed over time. Subsequently, I started the practice of inviting opposing counsel in my other cases to attend a sporting or music event or dinner when we were on the road. Some opposing counsel said no way! But many others accepted, and I am confident the practice helped bring civility and sanity to our legal practices and benefited our respective clients as well.

Years later, in another case against the same lawyer, I defended an accounting malpractice claim. My insured client committed suicide early on in the case after being accused of conduct unrelated to the case. It was a very difficult situation for his family, and an early settlement of the lawsuit was in their best interests. But there had been little to no discovery, making an early settlement very difficult. Plaintiff’s counsel and I agreed on an early mediation and at the mediation agreed on a settlement range based upon certain evidence plaintiff’s counsel said existed and agreed to submit confidentially to the mediator. Of course, I needed a way to evaluate that evidence. Therefore, we agreed to a settlement at a certain price point, contingent on the mediator confirming that the evidence proved certain key points supporting the plaintiff’s claim. Based upon my prior dealings with this attorney, I knew I could trust him, and the process bore that out.

Finally, in another dispute, I represented a partner of a very successful start-up business in negotiating a buyout from the estate of the other deceased partner’s ownership interest. The deceased partner had failed to obtain mutual life insurance intended to be used to buy out the estate’s interest in the event of early death. The partners were friends, and the deceased partner had a spouse and five young children. The estate’s attorney and I developed a good professional relationship while negotiating a fair and reasonable resolution to this very difficult situation. A few years later, the other attorney became general counsel for a very large international manufacturing company I had no prior relationship with. I wound up litigating several commercial disputes over the following years for that company, including a 10-week antitrust case. But for the professional relationship we had developed years earlier, it is unlikely that I would have been retained by the client. This was yet another example of the value of personal relationships.

Personal interactions and relationships in my opinion are key to practice and professional development. TIPS is a great example. I’ve been fortunate through my decades of TIPS involvement to develop personal relationships with both outside and in-house counsel from around the country. Some have become close personal friends and others good professional colleagues. I’ve been the beneficiary of referrals and direct retention by and through my TIPS friends and colleagues numerous times through the years. I have also recommended TIPS friends and colleagues many times to clients seeking counsel in other jurisdictions or in practice areas where I do not have expertise. I was confident in making these referrals because I’d seen these folks in action through their TIPS leadership positions and knew that they were talented lawyers and could be counted on to do a great job. Just as importantly, I knew they were good people because of my personal interactions with them and had confidence that they would represent and treat the clients well.

Finally, let me address my thoughts on the Eisenhower Matrix and its intersection with AI. Former two-term president and general Dwight Eisenhower had an incredible ability to sustain his productivity over decades. His methods for time and task management have been studied extensively. His productivity strategy known as the Eisenhower Matrix is a simple decision-making tool that separates actions based upon four possibilities: (1) urgent and important, (2) not urgent but important, (3) urgent but not important, and (4) neither urgent nor important. Essentially, the Eisenhower Matrix is a strategy that allows you to plan, delegate, prioritize, and schedule daily and weekly tasks. By assigning tasks to one of the four quadrants, you can quickly decide how urgent they are and how to best deal with them, either by yourself or through delegation.

Blending the Eisenhower Matrix with the power of AI has the potential to elevate productivity to new levels. AI can help analyze tasks, categorize them into the Eisenhower quadrants, and suggest optimal completion times. With its memory, AI can discern individual patterns and goals and help manage priorities with precision and purpose. A powerful combination indeed! I also believe that AI can support tasks that fall into the urgent but not important and not urgent but important quadrants, while those falling into the urgent and important quadrant would be best handled through direct interactions and communications. But even with the case of AI, human interactions and communications remain necessary to successfully delegate those tasks. We cannot lose sight of the importance of human interactions and communications, and it is my hope that current and future generations of lawyers will find the right balance of human interactions and communications and new technologies in the legal profession.

I look forward to seeing many of you at our upcoming CLE programs and leadership meetings!

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Chair, Tort Trial and Insurance Practice Section