One of the last bastions of doing things the old fashioned way has been our legal system. The way that lawyers do things has remained virtually unchanged for many, many years. That paradigm is about to shift with the recognition by electronic management of the judicial system. It is time for technology to take its place in the way that the legal field is run. The most tangible proof of this in the state court system is the advent of filing pleadings electronically. This has been in place in the federal system for quite some time. Practice in the federal courts is limited to a certain number of lawyers who know those rules and take those kinds of cases. Those of us who practice in state court have never had to adjust to this change. That is all about to shift.
All innovations for forms of progress require some growing pains. It is sometimes difficult to teach an old dog new tricks. I have not found, however, that that is necessarily a bad thing. I recall breaking into private practice in 1988 and being one of the first solos to have a computer. I took out a loan and bought a state of the art XT with an NEC Spin Writer 2050 printer. The automation that allowed my particular practice to grow was astounding. That initial loan and investment allowed me to survive in those first few years and paid for itself many times over.
Now, a similar shift is about to take place. In as few as 20 years past, one could only buy merchandise at a store or through a mail order catalog. Now, the two experiences are blended with online shopping. I am unaware of what the figures are for how much of our consumption of consumer goods is online but I assume it is extensive. I also assume it is growing all the time. This is not to say, however, that the shopping experience within a store is completely obsolete. On the contrary, the online browsing of items to purchase actually stimulates peoples need to go to the store and actually see and touch the item that they are considering for purchase.
I believe that this is the same process that will take place in the legal business. The need and necessity of attending court hearings will never completely vanish. It is true, however, that many brief hearings that would require personal attendance can be considered and decided online. Issues surrounding discovery or, in a criminal case, the admissibility of certain types of evidence, could be reviewed by a judge online and decided based on pleadings. In many such circumstances, oral argument is not a factor in the judge’s decision.
There is a risk the legal business could lose the “personal touch” that is necessary for just and fair results. The fear is that we will become a nation of callous inhumanity that does not know how to directly interact in a human sense. Our society has adapted to inventions and changes in the past. The advent of the automobile a hundred years ago drastically changed our way of doing things. It improved our communication and ability to travel long distances in a short period of time. Our world view increased. The rustic charm of long journeys by train or horseback slowly decreased but did not disappear all together. We have adjusted and learned how to use those inventions in a way that enhances our lives.
There will be some periods of difficulty during the adjustment to technology in the legal business. In the end, I think our way of doing things will be better. We need to see where technology will take us and adapt as it goes along. Those who see the changes coming and adjust now will be much better off in the long run. It is time for lawyers of all levels of experience to get out those manuals and start learning how to do e-filings. The changes in the discovery rules, along with these changes in the pleading department, will take us to a better place if only we are patient and do our best to adapt.
By: Kent M. Barker