As French classical author Francois de la Rochefoucauld said, “The only thing constant in life is change.” That statement, first coined in the 1600s, continues to ring true in 2008.
As I enjoy my 20th year of practicing law, I look back in amazement over the changes I have witnessed. Often, I wonder if the younger attorneys truly understand and appreciate the dramatic differences in our legal practice.
I spoke with seven seasoned attorneys to gain a sense of their perspectives. Although a book easily could be written on a multitude of changes, this article focuses on only three: technology, gender and style.
Just as I did, Michael Fancher of Seattle Divorce Services began practicing law in 1988. His experiences regarding technological changes closely mirror my own.
“I went through law school at the cusp of the time computers were beginning to be used,” Fancher said. “For quite a while after law school, I noticed that most attorneys who went to law school before me did not have a computer on their desks or know how to use one.”
Fancher did not have a computer either at his first law firm job. Instead, he dictated. “The Dictaphone drove me nuts,” Fancher said. “I would write out documents longhand so I could then read them into the Dictaphone.”
Other attorneys faced similar challenges. Stuart Heller, a Seattle business attorney with 40 years of experience, recalled, “When I first started, I would dictate to a cassette. Then the secretary would type it. I would get it back in a see-through plastic folder, with a red wax pen. I would make corrections to the document on the folder with the pen, and it would get re-typed.” Stan Bastian, a Wenatchee attorney and current WSBA president, who has practiced law for 25 years, recalled, “We would cut and paste documents using scissors and tape.”
For John Cary, a Seattle legislative attorney and former KCBA president, who began practicing law in 1973, the first upgrade to the typewriter was the “correcting Selectric.” Over time, the “Selectric” was upgraded to “mag cards.”
“The ‘Mag Card Typewriter’ was an early version of a word processor using thin, metal cards inserted into a typewriter,” said Sandra Perkins, a Seattle estate planning attorney, who began practicing law in 1980. “You could save a document on each ‘mag card.’ There was no screen; it just looked like a Selectric typewriter. If you wanted to edit the document, you inserted that document’s ‘mag card’ into the typewriter, hit ‘play’ until you got to the part you wanted to edit, and then you could make corrections and save the new text on the ‘mag card.’ Of course, my secretary did all of this for me; they did not trust attorneys with ‘high-tech’ devices like these!”
Since most attorneys now use Microsoft Word and tend to do their own word processing, the function of a “secretary” has dramatically changed. “In 1991, I got my first computer,” Heller said. “I began using the word processor to eliminate the need for a secretary. I haven’t had a secretary for the last 17 years.”
Other notable developments in technology also have changed the practice of law. The teletype machine, which communicated typed messages from point to point using a simple electric communications channel, has graduated into the fax machine. Cary recalled, “I remember sitting at a fax machine to fax documents, and it took six minutes a page. Five or six years later, it improved to three pages a minute.” Perkins, who worked at the former Seattle firm of Bogle & Gates, recalled that in 1986, “You only faxed something if it was really important. It was expensive to fax. If I got a fax, I thought, ‘Oh, a fax! I need to drop everything and look at it.’”
And then came email, which has profoundly affected how we work as lawyers. And then cell phones and the Blackberry, which have made us 24/7 lawyers. When I got my first cell phone in 1996, it was enormous and barely fit into my purse. One lawyer recalled that at CLEs, “everyone got up during the breaks and ran to the long line of pay phones so we could check our voice mail.” Now, we don’t even have to get out of our chairs.
Of course, we cannot forget the Internet, its predominance and the changes it has wrought in the practice of law, especially in the area of legal research. Cary recalled that in the mid-1980s, “The Legislature had a system which was called the FTP. You could connect in and get bills. It was painfully slow; you could watch the letters slowly appear.” Bastian recalled, “There was no computerized legal shepardizing or research. You’d go through it book by book.”
And, yet, the ponderous reporters survive and many of us still use them, although some law firms have stopped purchasing them.
We’ve come a long way, baby. Perkins recalled working at a Houston firm in 1980 where a senior partner instructed her to prepare clients’ wills so that male heirs would receive their trust remainders at age 30, while distributions for female heirs would remain in trust for life. “He was serious,” Perkins said. “He stated that this practice would protect females from their husbands who would take advantage of them. … (He) recommended this approach to all his clients.”
In January 1996, I anonymously authored my first Bar Bulletin article, “Your Résumé Looks Fine … Now Let’s Talk About Your Husband.” I revealed how, while interviewing at Seattle-area law firms, firm after firm had asked to meet my then-husband as part of the interview process. One interviewer told me, “The practice of law is demanding and we need to make sure an associate has adequate family support.” Although this practice was illegal in 1996, it happened.
One attorney, “Mary,” who wished to remain anonymous, recalled that during her first year of law school in 1984, a professor told one of her female classmates, who is now a judge, “NOW has conducted studies that have concluded women are not as analytical as men. I recommend that you pursue a different career.”
In a 1988 job interview, she said two men “talked to me about their wives being pregnant. They then asked me if I was going to have a family.” Her procreation goals seemed paramount to interviewing law firms, although — again — such questioning was illegal. Six years later, she was asked, in an interview with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, about her marital intentions and “family expectations.”
Later, as an associate in a Seattle firm in 1999, she said, “the managing partner invited every single male attorney into his office for beers,” but not the woman attorneys. All the men attended a Mariners game, to which the women were not invited. Further, “the work distributed to male attorneys was of a higher quality than the work projects given to women. The men were allowed to argue more motions.”
Cary and Heller recalled similar numerical and social disparities. Bastian noted that older attorneys were uncomfortable with their female counterparts. Today, women attorneys still battle to break through the glass ceiling, but we have indeed witnessed hard-fought and positive changes in women’s role in the legal profession.
Dress. I recall, distinctly and unpleasantly, being an associate in a Washington, D.C. law firm in the summer of 1991, with 100-degree heat and 99% humidity, taking the subway, and wearing a skirt, nylons, pumps, long-sleeved blouse and jacket. This “female uniform” needed to be worn at all times to be taken seriously. Today, unless I face a particularly challenging ex parte appearance, I would not dream of wearing such a restrictive and uncomfortable outfit.
The female uniform also reigned in Seattle. “Women could not wear pants in the early ’90s,” Mary said. “The dress was a skirt, jacket, nylons and heels — or maybe a tailored dress.”
The dress code has also loosened up for men. “Tom,” an Eastside intellectual property attorney, has joyously declared, “No more business suits,” although when he started practicing law 23 years ago it was “suit and tie” every day. “I used to have to iron my shirts. I wore wingtip shoes. It was horrible. Now, I wear khakis, a polo shirt and penny loafers. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, we all thought we would change the world. All we did was change the dress code.”
Approach to Cases. In 2008, the “bulldog” attorney tends to be less effective and revered. The practice style has changed to focus less on litigation and more on alternative dispute resolution (ADR) methods.
“When I first started practicing,” Fancher said, “you negotiated with opposing counsel and took it to court if that didn’t work. Now that the courts are imposing mediation prior to trial, it’s changed the whole picture. Mediation is now par for the course, not an unusual, weird thing.
“It changes how we approach each other and how we prepare our cases. … We’ve gotten more sophisticated, in all industries, on emphasizing how you talk to people and work with people. Clients are used to it, as opposed to a 1950s top down culture. … So ADR follows a larger societal trend.”
Civility. Although ADR has proven to be a positive development, several attorneys noted negative changes in terms of the style lawyers choose in interacting with each other. Cary recalls, “We would never schedule anything without consulting the other attorney first. We always called the other side and worked out times for depositions, etc.” Similarly, Bastian noticed the increased use in litigation of notices of unavailability, stating, “I’m stunned that people think they need that. It shows a change in the culture.”
Bastian noted, with disapproval, the current practice of attorneys “putting something on record, rather than calling opposing counsel to schedule.” On a positive note, he recalled one case in which an attorney was involved in a car accident and everyone waited to schedule motions until the attorney had recovered enough to proceed. “In my practice, most people are still willing to get along,” he said.
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As I said, I truly am enjoying my 20th year of practicing law. The changes in technology have enabled me to be more competitive as a solo practitioner. The legal community’s notable improvements in accepting and welcoming women have allowed me to hold positions in the bar, to be invited to speak at CLEs, to retain good clients and to have my Bar Bulletin articles published under my byline!
And, as I write, I am not wearing heels or nylons. So, I’ve enjoyed these changes immensely! In 2028, upon my 40th year of practicing law, I promise to revisit this article and we’ll take another look at 20 more years of progress.
Stacey L. Romberg, Attorney at Law, practices in the areas of small business law, estate planning and probate. www.staceyromberg.com.
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Reprinted from June 2008, King County Bar Association Bulletin, by Stacey Romberg