Technology - Property

Technology Property Editor: Gerald J. Hoenig, 8495 Caney Creek Landing, Alpharetta, GA 30005, Guest columnist: Assistant Departments Editor Eugene L. Grant, Davis Wright Tremaine, 1300 S.W. 5th Ave, Ste. 2300, Portland, OR  97201-5630,

Technology—Property provides information on current technology and microcomputer software of interest in the real property area. The editors of Probate & Property welcome information and suggestions from readers.

Thirty Years of Changing Technology in the Property Practice: Are We Finally Going Paperless?

Property lawyers of the baby boom generation, now nearing retirement age, have seen an amazing technology evolution during their careers. They started practice in the typewriter age when real carbon copies were still produced. Typing by attorneys was a rare occurrence. Dictation was often taken by secretaries using shorthand notes. Tape recorders were only gradually replacing the in-person taking of dictation. Telegrams were about the only means of same-day written communication over long distances. The only way to deliver closing documents a long distance overnight was to have someone carry them on a plane to the closing. Phone messages were taken by secretaries on notepads. Long documents were often edited by typing additions in between the lines and literally striking out text with a pen. Photocopiers were just becoming commonplace, allowing long documents to be edited literally by cutting and pasting new text onto a page to be copied. Documents tended to be shorter and deals tended to take longer to complete because of the difficulty in communicating and in producing and delivering the documents. Research was in hardcopy books in the firm library. Home offices were a rarity and night and weekend work was done mostly at the law office.

Thirty years later we have evolved from the manual typewriter to the electric typewriter to typewriters with varying degrees of memory to the desktop personal computer for secretaries. Then desktop computers started migrating to attorney’s offices for those who saw the efficiencies and advantages of working on their own documents. Of course, some Luddite lawyers (hopefully you were not one of them) swore that a computer in their offices was a curse they would never suffer. Those lawyers prescient enough to learn to type in high school or college had a big advantage and migrated to their own computers more quickly than hunt-and-peck lawyers.

Similarly, lawyers migrated from secretarial dictation to bulky desktop tape recorders and then to small handheld units. As desktop computers became standard in lawyers’ offices, lawyers more talented at keyboarding threw away their dictation units altogether as they discovered the efficiencies and other advantages of composing their documents directly on a computer screen.

In 30 years we have added a data network, usually called the Internet, to the phone network. There wasn’t much need for a data transmission network 30 years ago. Back then we had a document delivery network called the U.S. Postal Service, which has been laying off employees and shrinking practically the entire time. Facsimile transmission over phone lines and hardcopy couriers like Federal Express were early steps in speeding up document delivery and competed with the Post Office. As the computer network grew from intra-office to inter-office, the Internet was born and now is starting to become a combined voice and data network that carries calls, e-mails, and, most importantly, real estate documents. It seems only yesterday that lawyers were rushing to establish e-mail addresses and add them to their letterheads. It was not long before the virtues of transmitting large real estate documents postage free via e-mail file attachments dawned on real estate lawyers. The days of rushing to meet mail or courier pick-up deadlines or sending large documents via fax are largely gone.

As communications have shifted from paper mail to voice mail to e-mail, cell phones have become nearly as common and as important as office phones for voice communication. Calendars, contact lists, and all manner of published data have become computerized so that nearly all the information a real estate lawyer could ever need is easily accessible from his or her computer. With the advent of the personal digital assistant, which combines e-mail and cell phone capabilities in one device, lawyers have a virtual office in their pockets. About the only tools a real estate lawyer needs that are missing from a PDA, a word processor and related document management and comparison software, are available on a laptop computer, the real estate lawyer’s frequent companion when outside the office, whether at home or on the road.

As a result, data transmission has become as essential outside the offices as voice communications, and wireless data transmission networks are springing up all over the place, at hotels, restaurants, airports, and in lawyers’ homes, right alongside hard-wired Internet access. Today, real estate lawyers can quickly set up a virtual office almost anywhere that will function nearly as efficiently as their permanent law office setup, allowing them a freedom to choose where they will work each day that was inconceivable 30 years ago. The need to be physically present at a closing conference, for example, is far less crucial today than in the past for many property transactions. We have virtual closing conferences via our technology.

With the trend going against paper, it seems appropriate that technology’s Holy Grail over the entire 30-year period has been the paperless office. How often during those thirty years have baby boomer lawyers heard technology visionaries predicting that the paperless office was just around the corner? Are we really getting closer to storing communications and documents in digital form instead of as paper? The answer still varies from office to office, but in many law offices, copiers are being replaced by combination machines that scan and send documents as PDF files via e-mail, making it very easy and convenient to convert an incoming paper document to a digital form that can be stored in a computer file folder rather than in a paper file. The digitized document can then be quickly and conveniently forwarded to others via e-mail. The author’s law firm has established a system of permanent electronic file folders for every client-matter number into which e-mail messages and their attachments, PDF files or word processor files, can be easily placed, eliminating the need to print and file paper documents by hand. Another major advantage is that these electronic file folders are easily accessible by any of the office’s lawyers with a computer, whether the office is open or not. Only a minority of attorneys is using this capability, but the author has found it to be very worthwhile just from the increased productivity gained by avoiding the time-consuming paper filing process.

In this issue’s “Keeping Current—Property” column, the legislation update reports (see page 31) that California has recently adopted legislation authorizing the establishment of a system to permit the electronic delivery, recording, and return of instruments affecting title to real property as well as legislation authorizing electronic transactions based on the Federal Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act (E-Sign Act). Apparently, it is only a matter of time before real estate transactions in California and elsewhere are signed and recorded electronically with copies of the signed and recorded transaction documents delivered to the parties in a nonpaper format like an e-mail attachment or on a CD. The fulfillment of the paperless office dream has been much slower than many predicted, but its eventual reality seems more likely today, if not inevitable. That is certainly good news for tree lovers, if not paper companies.

The bottom-line justification for all technology should be increased productivity, of course, and over the last 30 years, baby boomer real estate lawyers have seen firsthand the dramatic productivity increases produced by the technology innovations described above. Sometimes the speed-up in the process seems a questionable benefit compared to the slower pace of the “good old days” 30 years ago. But these latent Luddite tendencies should be resisted. As with so many of the other “conveniences of modern life,” the author wonders how many real estate lawyers would really want to turn back the technology clock. We all run in the same competitive race, and technology is one essential means of keeping up—and maybe even getting ahead of the competition.