Lawtech of Yesteryear

Vol 29 No 2


Jerome Kowalski is the founder and principal of Kowalski & Associates, which provides consulting services to law firms. He is also a dynamic (and often humorous) speaker on topics of interest to the profession and may be reached at.


My senior colleague, Sam Ott, and our junior associate, Dave Kocaj, were relaxing in a Starbucks recently after conducting an intensive webinar on legal knowledge management and efficient use of extranets for law firms. I was reviewing e-mails on my smartphone, Sam was reviewing some spreadsheets on his notebook computer, and Dave was glued to his iPad. Out of the corner of my eye, I sensed somebody looming over us. I tore my eyes away from my inbox and looked up to see my old mentor, Leon Finkle. Leon, a robust, strapping, six-foot octogenarian, had been actively practicing law for six decades and always swore that he would retire only when he was wheeled out of his office, feet first. He clutched a well worn, over-stuffed cardboard Redweld folder under his arm.

I greeted Leon warmly. Leon leered down at each us of us glued to the Internet wirelessly and sneered, “If they could find some technology that would allow you to keep working while you were sleeping, you guys would be the first to buy it.”

“You know, Leon,” I said, “all of these new technologies have done nothing to improve my life. They have just added to the pressures.”

Leon grabbed a chair and joined us. My colleagues barely noticed. “This is nothing,” said Leon. “I remember how the technologies of the 1970s changed my whole life around. I am still rubbing my wounds from that.”

Leon continued, “The one biggie for me was fax machines. They were at first only used by those big, fancy firms and cost a ton of money. I had a small shop and didn’t want to be messing around with those rolls of waxy paper that I saw my friends at larger firms dealing with. The whole idea made me sick. Before there were fax machines, a client would call, tell me about some problem, and then mail a package with the relevant documents. I then had a couple of days to think about the problem before the documents arrived. But if a fax popped onto my desk, I felt the pressure to deal with it immediately. I didn’t want that kind of pressure.”

After taking a sip of his café Americano, Leon continued. “I had a real important client in Pittsburgh who was on my case about getting a fax machine. I finally caved. I called the phone company and set up a new line. I went out and bought a fax machine for $1,000. I had my mail room person unpack the contraption, read the instructions, and install the device. Later that day, I dictated a long letter to my secretary. (She used Pitman shorthand—do you remember that?) She transcribed the letter using carbon paper for the two required office copies. Changes and typos were made by cutting and pasting. We used real paste and scissors in those days. I called in the mail room guy, who I had told earlier in the day to learn how to use the new fax machine. I told him to send this letter by fax to Pittsburgh. I went back to work, and two hours later my client from Pittsburgh called and he was rip-roaring mad. He screamed at me, ‘Leon!! What are you doing? I have 40 copies of your letter, and you’re totally tying up our fax machine.’ I ran in to the mail room and demanded to know what was going on. ‘Boss,’ the mail room guy said, ‘I was just going to come in and see you. The machine is broken. I keep putting the document in, dialing the number, hitting the send button, and it keeps coming out on the other side. It just ain’t going to Pittsburgh.’”

Leon was a great raconteur, and his boisterous reminiscence got Dave to take his eyes off his iPad and raptly listen to the story. After a good laugh, Dave said, “Mr. Finkle, if you didn’t have faxes, was there a way you could get or receive an important written communication to a client?”

“Yes, my boy,” said Leon, “we had Telex machines and cable addresses.”

“What in the heck are those?” asked Dave.

“Telexes were pretty new. They were big, clunky machines with an old-fashioned clunky keyboard. The operator would type out a letter, and the machine would spit out a half-inch-wide spool of paper that could be five feet long with little holes punched into it. The operator would then type in a Telex number and feed the spool into the machine, and the letter would print at the recipient’s office. Damn fast, too. Two to three minutes a page. But they weren’t pages, just a long spool of paper. Cable addresses were something you got through Western Union. Damn expensive. Mine was Finklaw. Had to keep it short because they charged by the letter. You would get and receive a cable from a courier from the telegraph company. But you damn better keep them real short. They cost a bundle.”

Dave’s jaw was agape. “Mr. Finkle, what was that other thing you mentioned—Pitman?”

“In the olden days, when you wanted to write something, you would generally dictate it to a secretary who was trained to write it on special pad using symbols—Gregg and Pitman were the most common. She would then take it to her desk and transcribe it on her typewriter. You would always begin by saying something like ‘original and two.’ That meant she would have one original piece of stationery and two onion skins behind it separated by carbon paper.”

“What’s carbon paper?”

“Don’t worry about it; you’ll never see that in your lifetime. But the point is that this way, she could type a document and you would immediately have an original and a file copy as well as a client copy.”

“Why didn’t you just photocopy them?”

“Because that was very slow and messy. It took about a minute a page and the copies were made on this heavy waxy paper. And after a year or so, the copy would start to fade.”

Dave seemed incredulous. “Mr. Finkle, the whole idea of your sitting there and dictating to your secretary strikes me, with all due respect, as being really inefficient. You probably had to gather your thoughts while she sat there and probably take telephone calls as well. Why didn’t you just use a tape recorder?”

“My wife, Belle, was my office manager back then. She got on my case about that. So we bought Dictaphone equipment. I had a tape recorder on my desk, twice the size of Sam’s laptop, with a microphone hard-wired to the recorder. The stuff was recorded on these broad, really thin belts, which often tore as you removed them and you had to start all over. The quality was also pretty nasty. My secretary had a large device on her desk—about the size of a small suitcase. She had a hardwired headphone set and a hardwired foot pedal to stop and start the recording. I hated the whole thing. A few years later, we got microcassette recorders, which were only marginally better. Last week, Belle got me some software called “Dragon.” Pretty amazing stuff. I’m still not a computer whiz, but I am trying.”

“That cutting and pasting stuff was also pretty amazing,” said Dave. “I never thought the term came from actual cutting and pasting. When did you guys ever get to automated word processors?”

This time, Sam piped in: “Leon was always behind the times. I was a managing partner at a fairly big firm in the 70s, and we tried to be pretty advanced. In about 1973, we got the first word processor on the market. It was called an IBM Mag Card Selectric. It was a standard IBM typewriter connected to a processor about twice the size of today’s CPUs. There was a very thin magnetized card—the mag card, about the size of a Number 10 envelope—that would be slipped into a slot in the processor. The mag card would record everything the typist typed. It would also store and save any changes. And it printed at what we thought then was lightning speed, four pages a minute. But here’s the thing: It didn’t have a screen. The secretary had to toggle up and down, by trial and error, printing random sections, until she found the part that required editing. The first real processor with a screen came out in the late 70s, and they were incredibly expensive. We had about 80 lawyers and did pretty well. But we only bought two of them because of the cost. It had a screen and printed at about two pages a minute. It was a monstrous contraption called Vydec and it was manufactured by Exxon, if you can believe it. The machine looked sort of like a lunar explorer. We actually used to bring clients and opposing counsel in to see it, and it became a little tourist attraction in our office.”

This was all news to Dave, of course. “I guess you didn’t have any computers at all in those days.”

“Nope,” three of us said in unison.

“How did you keep track of time and bill your clients?”

“Actually,” Leon said, “it was easier in those days. Every lawyer had a red day calendar book, and during the course of the day, he would jot down which matters he worked on during the day and how long it took him to do each task. At the end of the week, one of the ‘girls’ would collect the books from each of the ‘men’ and put it all into a master ledger, by hand, of course, and at the end of the month, a bookkeeper manually prepared the bills. The bills had very little detail. I must say that I am today embarrassed that in those dark ages all of the secretaries were uniformly referred to as the ‘girls’ and the lawyers were the ‘men.’ In any event, we almost never had to chase anybody down to record their time. It was pretty routine, and if you forgot exactly what you did for a particular client, at the end of the day, before you went home, you just wrote in a client name and put in w/o/m, which meant ‘worked on matter.’”

Sam piped in, “A couple of years later, there were companies that sprouted up that had computers and would process your time records and billing. I guess that was one of the first outsourced businesses. Lawyers would fill out manual forms that required a lot more detail, including client and matter numbers. The billing companies would then collect these slips, input them into the computer, and generate the output. Of course, when they came back, they were full of typos that had to be cleaned up, and the report had to be run again. After that, chasing our lawyers down to record time became an enormous challenge.”

“Well,” Dave said, “at least you had telephones.”

“Phones?” Sam yelped. “They actually bear little resemblance to what we have today. Every law firm had one single telephone number. Every call came in through a single switchboard, which looked just like the ones you see in old World War II movies. If the incoming phone traffic was heavy, the switchboard operator just missed a bunch of calls. Happened all the time. Nobody except the real senior people had a private phone number, and they used those phones only for personal business. There was no voice mail. If a call came in and you weren’t there, your secretary—and every lawyer had a secretary—would write down the message. If the secretary wasn’t around, the switchboard operator took the message, but because she was also busy fielding incoming calls, the chances of her getting a message written down correctly were slim. And if you wanted to call overseas, that was an ordeal in and of itself. You would have to call what was known as an ‘overseas operator’ at the phone company. You would give her the name of the country and the phone number you wanted, and she would then get the overseas person on the phone and call you back, whenever she got to it. And because there was only one telephone company in the United States then, it supplied you with your telephones and the service and charged you for both and very handsomely, I must say.”

“What were the biggest game changers you guys have seen?” asked Dave.

“Computers, for one,” said Leon. “I never dreamed I would have a typing contraption on my desk. And I still hunt and peck. Cell phones. Frankly, I still hate them. Who wants to take a call at any hour of the day or night? The Internet. And the lethal combination of e-mails and BlackBerrys. They are every lawyer’s ball and chain. I still can’t get used to the BlackBerry. And worst of all is having a client say, ‘I sent you an e-mail an hour ago, why haven’t you responded yet?’ Nobody will tolerate the fact that you wanted to give some thought to your response or that you were doing something else. But let me tell you something, it seems that every year over the past 60 years, there was a huge technological innovation that scared the pants off of me. I managed to get used to each one, fighting every inch of the way. And once I did, I can’t say I was happy about it. Then I would look back and think, how did we manage before this? And every morning I wake up and say, what are they going to throw at me today? By the way, exactly what is knowledge management and what is an extranet?”

Just then, Leon’s cell phone rang. He looked at the caller ID and answered it immediately, getting into a heated discussion. Sam and I returned to our iPhones and checked the dozen or so e-mails that came in while were speaking. Dave returned to his iPad. And Leon drifted off into the winter afternoon, yelling at some poor soul.


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