The changing face of the law

I went to law school in the days when students still took notes by hand. When I started practicing law, secretaries had computers at their desks, but no lawyers did. My first law firm used a “Wang” word processing system, which was really nothing more than a typewriter on the screen. The word processing department had to place the footnotes manually when the document was in its final draft. Woe unto the lawyer who waited to long to finalize a document and then tried to jump the line in word processing.

Legal research was still primarily a matter of books — lots of them. If you found a case from 1955 that was really good, and you wanted to see whether it had been followed in the intervening years, you had to plow through volume after volume of “Shepards,” the series of books that tracked every single subsequent reference to any case every written. Computer research was coming into being, but you could only get to online databases through dedicated computers in the law library. Because it was so expensive, only the big firms had access — and even then it gave them an advantage.

A mere four years after I started practicing law, there’d been a sea change. Every lawyer in my firm had a computer on his or her desk, and secretaries, instead of typing documents from scratch based on handwritten notes or dictation, were used merely for finishing and copying documents. Cases and statutes were available on line — by modem! at your own computer! — and also could be had on disks that you just popped into your computer. Things have been moving forward wildly since then.

I work out of my home now, but I still have access to complete legal databases via computer. I just get on the internet, go to Westlaw or Lexis and voila! I have easy access to precisely the same material that used to require a long shlep to the library, a photocopy card, and a lot of time spent standing in front of that copy machine. Finding cases is a matter of playing around with words and concepts until the computer coughs up something useful. If you like what you find, creative research allows you to spin it out endlessly, through subsequent decisions, varying jurisdictions, source books, and time frames.  At the end of the day, you print the results or download them or save them as a pdf file, whichever works best for you at a given moment in time.

The internet has also changed the ancillary aids to law. For one thing, a Google search often yields surprising results. More and more firms and lawyers have law blogs (or blawgs) where they post memos they’re proud of, tout their legal expertise, or provide helpful links to other legal sources. There’s even a blawg about law blogs.

Lawyers aren’t the only ones who are using the internet to market themselves. There’s a lot of legal support out there too. When I had to serve a subpoena across the country, I hopped on the internet and quickly found a process serving company — there are dozens referenced on line now. When I had a US Supreme Court writ of certiorari I had to file, I found a company that walked me through the complex procedure for preparing a brief and then got the filing done for me. I can’t remember which company it was, but it easily could have been this one, which I just found through a Google search.

Nowadays, you don’t even need a secretary anymore. Even if you’re not adept at typing or finalizing documents yourself, with modems and scanning, you can do it all from a distance. Here’s a gal who notes (correctly, I’m sure) that she’ll save money for the lawyers who hire her, since they only pay her for work actually done. No more salary, no more unemployment payments, no more health insurance. Simply send her a half-done file, or a pdf of a handwritten draft, and she’ll do all the secretarial work for you — and that’s true no matter where you are relative to where she is.

What’s also fun is all the information about judges that’s out there now. There’s a cool website called “The Robing Room” where lawyers get to say what they really think about judges — and much of it is not pretty. I discovered it when someone sent me a link to a judge who got the following types of reviews:

This judge is the an absolute embarrassment to the bench. While personal epithets are not always appropriate when rating someone on a site like this, a federal judge should be bright enough to do his job, and this one is simply stupid. He tries to cover up his stupidity by being pompous, but he simply does not get the issues. His pompous, obstructionist attitude carries over to his miserable clerk, Kevin. Percy Anderson is a strong indication as to why the federal courts need an analogous statute to California


The worst judge: stupid, arrogant, rude, and unfair. Seems to be mentally unbalanced.


This is a very bad man. He is arrogant, aloof, lazy, unable to grasp difficult concepts, completely pro-government and business, and totally against the little guy. The Ninth Circuit sua sponte has removed him from cases and is believed to have put an asterisk next to his name so that when appeals from him come before the court the staff attorneys give it special scrutiny.


This judge is ruthless, mean, and demeaning, for no apparent reasons other than just being like that. He is one of the worst judges in the Central District of California. He’s not very smart, but thinks he knows everything. This combination of ignorance and arrogance is awful for lawyers and litigants.

Wow! What’s even more of a wow is that Judge Anderson hasn’t cracked the “worst judges” list at the Robing Room. It’s hard to believe that there are less competent judges out there, but there are.  Indeed, there seems to be a problem with Anderson’s district (the Central District of California), since three of the ten bottom rated judges come from there.  Thanks to Robing Room, you’re armed when you go into Judge Real’s court having already read these reviews:

He is a tyrant and undiagnosed bipolar jurist who needs to have his mediciation checked by the 9th Circuit. He is a poster boy for the mandatory retirement of U.S. District Judges. Mel Brooks was right when he said “it’s good to be the king,” but it’s better to be a federal judge.


This guy is the worst federal judge. Yet again, the Ninth Circuit reversed him for arbitrary and capricious conduct, this time for doing something good — giving a lenient sentence — but refusing to give any reasons. He screws up everything. U.S.A. v. Medawar, 07-50180 (9th Cir. 03-12-08).


This lazy, vicious monarch has terrorized litigants and lawyers for 42 years and has the highest reversal rate in the Ninth Circuit, which virtually automatically and sua sponte re-assigns his cases to other judges when it remands them. Soon, hopefully, the Ninth Circuit will take all his cases away from him, but 42 years too late. Just an awful judge.

In the old days, unless you had a friend who had been in the Court first, you’d just get blind-sided.  At least now you can take your Valium first and see your therapist after.

Having practiced law for a long time now, I’m pretty sure that law is one area that has benefited substantially from the computer revolution.  Access to information and services is easier, and practice flexibility is hugely increased.  Has your industry benefited as well?

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  • Oldflyer

    Interesting Book.

    I have a friend who atttended Law School and set up a practice after retiring as a Naval Aviator. Some 25 years ago, I needed some legal advice and went to his firm, which included two partners who were also retired Naval Officers.

    In addition to their Law degrees, these fellows were all graduates in the fields of Opeartions Analysis or Computer Science. Using their considerable technical knowedge, they were embroiled in starting an allied company with the thrust of digitalizing law offices. At the time they seemed to be enjoying considerable success–and working themselves to death. I don’t know if they were pioneers in the field, or whether they were simply catching the wave.

    Unfortunately, they advised me that there was no way that I could legally kick my Employer’s rear end. Still, the SEC did the trick some years later.

  • jj

    And when the day comes when members of the public (you remember them: the poor saps who pay the bills) can get access to the records of which lawyers have had which complaints filed against them so THEY don’t get blindsided- we really will have gotten somewhere.

  • suek

    Ditto jj’s comment. Last time we had elections, I wanted to check out info on the judges who were up for election. Looking on line, I read that it’s against California law for lawyers to make negative statements about judges.
    Sure makes it hard to vote intelligently.

  • gkong3

    I’m in the event management/business intelligence industry, and oh yes, I have benefited greatly from the computer revolution.

    Information at my fingertips, databases of relevant people to do research or invite to speak (including contact details!) – don’t know what I would do without it.

  • Jose

    I started doing graphic design in 1984. We used drafting tools, airbrushes, large camera equipment, and photo typesetters which printed text on a clear strip of 35mm film. Also lots and lots of line tape.

    Two years later we had a computer (IBM AT 7 MHz w/ 20 MB HDD)with a 150 dpi laser printer, and a film recorder that produced stunning 35mm slides.

    By 1995 we had stopped using all the equipment in the first paragrah, and used LCD projectors showing Powerpoint and full color plotters printing 36 inch wide posters. It has been a lot of fun learning the new technology, although I miss using some of my painfully developed skills of the previous era.

    I’ve worked closely with photographers during that period. The advent option of digital photography began later, but the tools have also completely changed.

    In both areas the technology has permitted increased speed of production beyond imaging, but it seems to me that over all, skill levels have dropped as technology begins to compensate for ability.

  • Oldflyer

    Jose, your remark about the loss of skill levels is so true in so many ways.

    My introduction to the world of computers was in a Navy school in which we learned to program in machine language, i.e. in 0s and 1s. At that time the limited memory, and that is a gross understatement, placed a premium on efficient programming. Now, even many computer professionals are several steps removed from the machine.

    In the aviation business, there is concern about deteriorating piloting skills as the computer driven auto-pilots and navigation systems are close to making pilots superfluous–until something fails. A number of years ago, as much of the current technology was relatively new, Southwest Airlines allegedly opted to have a lesser level of automation installed in their new airplanes to keep their pilots more involved in routine procedures. Some folks accused them of doing so to cut costs, but my understsanding is that they actually paid more for customized cockpits. At another level the UAV technology is even closer to making military pilots obsolete.

  • Ymarsakar

    At another level the UAV technology is even closer to making military pilots obsolete.

    What I have heard about it is that it takes pilots away from flying conventional aircraft, whether fixed wing or rotary. It does not make them obsolete so much as a rarer commodity.

  • suek

    From a different perspective:
    My son is concerned about the “peak oil” problem. He feels that many of the technological benefits we presently enjoy may be unavailable in some 50 years or so, and the skills needed to enjoy anything approaching our present standard lifestyle are almost unknown to the majority of the population. He’s started collecting information. I’ve picked up a copy of “Foxfire”, a collection of narratives from the Appalachians. If you haven’t read it, you should. Enshrine it in your library, and then thank God daily that we live now!
    In one form or another, except for nuclear energy, all our energy comes from the sun in one form or another. Oil is one form. The supply is finite. Eventually, it’s going to run out. Whether it’s 50 years or 500, if we haven’t found an alternative means of using the sun’s energy by then, we are going to be living in the middle ages once again.

    Learning skills is a good thing – not easily discovered, not easily acquired, easily lost.
    If you’re in a speciality occupation, it may not be a bad idea to gather a small library of “how we used to do it” books. You never know…!