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Who Is...| Ernest Svenson

Q&A with Mark Tamminga

FROM: July / August 2005, PAGE 22 BY: Mark Tamminga

Vital Statistics

Ernie Svenson
Gordon, Arata, McCollam, Duplantis & Eagan
New Orleans, LA
www.ernietheattorney.net and www.pdfforlawyers.com

It takes a certain kind of lawyer to be head over heels about new technology. But every lawyer who wants to get ahead can learn something from those brave few on the edge. That’s why we have our Technology Editor Mark Tamminga embarking on a series of Q&As with top lawyer-technologists. Here we kick things off with a business attorney who’s well known for his “Ernie the Attorney” Weblog. (He’s also a member of the Between Lawyers blog group—don’t miss their roundtable discussion on page 44.) There are, though, lots of other things about technology that make Ernie tick!

I know you’re a tech-head today, but did you always have a geek side?

ES: Probably. I took a computer programming course in college, even though I was a philosophy major. Nothing reeks of geek like someone so desperate to be near a computer that they would use punch cards and learn Fortran just so they could have an excuse to interact with a machine. I also got a TRS-80 Radio Shack computer back in the late ’70s and learned Basic. That was heaven.

Then, when I was entering my last year of law school, Apple announced the Mac, and I had to have one. I still have that original machine (which doesn’t work, of course) in my garage. Along the way, I stopped using Macs in favor of PCs, but two years ago I switched back to Macs for all my personal computers.

What was your moment of geek-piphany? Or put differently, you’re a lawyer, so what was it that pulled the technology trigger for you?

ES: My “ Eureka” moment as a legal geek came after law school when I was clerking for a federal judge. I was using my Mac to write bench memos and realized that I had my own sophisticated word processing system that was more effective and easier to use than the “bureaucracy approved” system the court had for its secretaries. When I went to work for the law firm where I still work, the firm had a Wang system, which required a special cooled room and a harem of attendants. Going into that cool room reminded me of Apollo 13 —for a lot of reasons. To create a footnote on the Wang, you had to create two separate documents through a cumbersome process only a slide-rule-toting engineer could appreciate.

Somewhere in the midst of using the industrial-strength Wang and constantly comparing it to my cute luggable Mac, I realized that PCs (and Macs) were more efficient and would soon take over. The bankruptcy of Wang made me certain that my “legal geek-piphany” was not a fantasy or some kind of idle wish.

I realized then that technology would inevitably lead to efficiency. Of course, since then I’ve had a sort of reverse epiphany—which is that you can never underestimate people’s reluctance to adopt new technology, even if it is demonstrably efficient. This is especially true for lawyers.

I know you have a lot of technology at your disposal. But what special thing are you doing, or working with, right now?

ES: Well, the thing I want to work on most these days is voice recognition. The time has come for that technology to thrive, and all I need to take advantage of this tool is more RAM, a copy of the latest version of Dragon Naturally Speaking and a good USB microphone. With a little training, I’ll be dictating at more than twice my typing speed, which is probably about 40 words per minute on a good day.

And, of course, I love finding ways to use my beloved Mac laptop in the practice of law. While the Mac is clearly not everyone’s cup of tea, for lawyers who appreciate a reliable, secure and fun operating system (i.e., OS X) the Mac is a wonderful tool that truly makes life easier. And that is what technology is supposed to do, right? Make our lives easier? So anything that cuts down on the number of reboots is a valuable tool as far as I’m concerned.

What’s the one thing you can’t live without, and how does it drive, enhance or brighten up your workday?

ES: Google. I’m completely, madly in love with Google. I love using Google, and I love the Google folks’ constant efforts to create new things like gmail and satellite imagery. I love watching my three kids use Google. (In fact, they probably use Google more than I do.) So Google is not only a great search tool, but it is also a force that brings families together (grin).

What do you think is the most exciting, intriguing, provocative legal tech tool or concept on the horizon?

ES: I’m not sure there is one all-encompassing legal tech tool. To me, the legal profession is in large part an “information-processing business.” And there are a lot of tools that lawyers have to use to process their information.

Of course, some people would dispute that the law is an information-processing business. But the fact is that lawyers have to refer to laws (gather information) in order to offer opinions (synthesize and communicate information) and so forth. Technology is an integral part of any system that needs to manage information. And, of course, every day the information that we have to access or analyze is presented to us in digital form, which is the native format for over 90 percent of the documents created today.

So any program that helps lawyers catalog, sort, search and analyze digital information is an important tool. And increasingly, lawyers are finding it necessary to learn how to use these tools. Delegating the important task of managing digital data to paralegals makes sense in many cases, but it is making less sense in other situations. Lawyers who don’t want to embrace technology are in peril of becoming inefficient and undesirable to potential clients. Knowledge management is going to matter more and more. That’s the overall concept that I find most exciting and provocative for our profession.

What’s your quick-shot theory on the future of law practice technology?

ES: The world always moves in the direction of efficiency—not because the large players want it, but because the small players have an edge when they are competitive. And the small players eventually get to the point where they can afford tools that allow them to compete with larger players. A small law firm couldn’t have afforded a Wang computer system to do word processing, but now all firms use basic low-cost PCs. Small firms can also now afford Westlaw or Lexis and prefer to use those tools rather than books, which are cumbersome and expensive by comparison. Eventually, the only places you’ll find law libraries with books will be in large law firms where they can absorb that inefficiency.

There will always be a need for large firms to handle mega-cases and mega-transactions. But increasingly, technology is making smaller firms more efficient and those firms are getting better at making potential clients aware of the significant cost savings they offer. Inevitably, technology will make the practice of law more efficient overall.

It may happen on a geologic timescale, but eventually it will happen. Probably about the same time that we finally colonize Mars.

Mark Tamminga ( mark.tamminga@gowlings.com) practices law at Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP in Hamilton, ON, and is Law Practice’s Technology Editor.